Tuesday, September 09, 2008


I like both Mark Thoma and Megan McArdle's blogs very much, and recently both have posted on the issue of elitism. And I feel the need to chime in (and perhaps ramble on).

First, I am sure that my statement that I would not vote for a creationist comes across as elitist. But the fact is that when someone identifies herself as a creationist, she is revealing something to me about her decision process--that she makes decisions based on faith, rather than evidence. I am uncomfortable with this, and have reason to think that decisions based on evidence tend to turn our better than those based on faith, or or one's gut. It is true that sometimes there is not all the evidence that one would like to make a decision, and then one must take a leap, but evidence first strikes me as a good rule. The Red Sox won World Series after they started listening to Bill James (who explicitly rejects baseball mythology when it conflicts with data).

Second, I grew up in what was then red state America--a town of 50,000 in Western Wisconsin. The benefits were real--I came to appreciate hunting and especially fishing, and I could ride my bike anywhere at any age in safety. But the town was homogeneous in a way that was stifling--when I was growing up, my guess is that there were maybe 50 African-Americans and 50 Jewish people in the whole town. The town, moreover, did not at the time welcome those who were different, and I remember at 17 being engaged in a debate with fellow Democrats (!) about whether it was appropriate to use government funds to support a battered women's shelter. I am happy to say that the place has since changed considerably: it is far more heterogeneous and far more welcoming than it was when I was growing up there. Nevertheless, even though I liked my family (by that I mean I liked hanging out with my parents and brother), and even thought I had three close buddies who were staying in Wisconsin, I took as many classes as I could in high school to get out of town as soon as possible, and left for college after my junior year. My "lack of respect" for the place I grew up arose from the fact that its values were different from mine. Is this elitist? Perhaps.

So college was the ultimate elitist experience: the fanciest of fancy-pants Ivy League Schools. Intellectually, the place was at times truly thrilling: I still can remember specific sentences from lectures on Shakespeare, on moral reasoning, on international relations, on Japanese-US relations, on Public Finance (where Malcolm Gillis made me realize that I wanted to be an economist). It also was the place where I met my wife, one of the most remarkable people I have ever known, and for that I will always be grateful.

But for all that, it could be truly insufferable and provincial. Harry Lewis inadvertently underscored this phenomenon when he wrote in Excellence without a Soul, "if I hadn't been able to teach at a place like Harvard, I would have gone into the computer industry." So whatare students who don't go to "places like Harvard," chopped liver?

So when Harvard disdains the heartland, and when the heartland disdains Harvard, they both have some basis for doing so. Interestingly, both places have trouble dealing with the "other," but my sense is that both places are getting better at doing so.

FWIW, among the Universities where before this year I spent time (Harvard, Wisconsin, George Washington and Penn), my favorite by far has been Wisconsin (although after a month at USC, I think it likely that it will match Wisconsin--and the weather is a lot nicer here. The sushi is better here too--oops, that's elitist!). Wisconsin is also an intellectually thrilling place--it doesn't have as many superstars as Harvard, but it has plenty, and it was a treat to hear lectures from and talk with Harold Scheub, Dave Demets, Stanley Kutler, Arthur Goldberger and Buz Brock, among others. At the same time, because the students were predominantly Midwesterners, and generally quite good, there was little if any disdain for the heartland. Indeed, one of the striking things about the atmosphere in Madison is how modest very accomplished people there tend to be. It is almost is if Berkeley were crossed with Lake Wobegon.

Finally, I need to say something about the South (I have lived on both coasts and the Midwest, but never the South). Anyone who stereotypes Southerners as dumb should be ashamed. In the first place, such generalizations are always wrong, and in the second place, the region has produced Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, etc. and has many great universities, such as Chapel Hill, UVA, Duke, etc.

But two facts remain about the South that are truly problematic. The states with the lowest high school graduation rates in the country are in the South. This is not because the South is rural--the states with the best high school graduation rates are in the Midwest, and are generally rural. And if people are looking for respect, waving the Confederate flag is not the best way to do it. Southerners who do so will argue that they are celebrating a heritage, but it is a heritage in which a large group of people were deemed subhuman. African-Americans rightly feel disrespected when they see that flag, and people who want to wave that flag should understand that.

Just because one might not like NASCAR, or country-western music, or, heaven forbid, football doesn't mean he needs to look down on it. But that flag is something else.


Anonymous said...

Liberals protesting creationism are always sort of funny... Why? Because liberals are almost invariably fanatical creationists when it comes to their issues.

Don't believe me?

How many liberals are willing to even admit the possibility that evolution continued after the human race started? That human differences might be real?

See what I mean?

Anonymous said...

you've posted that before anonymous, and I responded.

Anonymous said...

I think 'elitist' is simply the adult version of the grade-school insults brain, nerd, egghead, etc. Insults aside, the rest of the world still needs a few good smart people to run it!