27 October 2020 11:51 AM

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MOHAN GURUSWAMY | 2 OCTOBER, 2020

The Elite Think They Are Smarter - Really?!

Exclusive elite clubs


In their rather rambunctious first debate for the US presidency, we saw Donald Trump try to belittle Joe Biden for his education. Biden grew up in the backwoods of Pennsylvania and Delaware, in a family down on circumstances and went to the University of Delaware, which is a very affordable university. Trump opined he was not smart because of that. He didn’t care if Biden went on to study law at the well regarded Syracuse University.

It was Biden's good upbringing that he didn't bring up the matter of Trump's SAT scores, which his sister wrote was taken by a stand in. Despite this, Donald Trump initially studied at a place called Fordham University and then transferred to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania where he took a bachelor’s degree.

Trump obviously thinks this chicanery makes him smart. Money paves the way to admission into the elite US schools like Yale and Brown, where it helps pay for the merit students who win scholarships. Even Harvard whose gigantic endowment somewhat insures it against check-book meritocracy, is not immune to blandishments.

People who study at elite institutions such as Doon School in India or Eton in UK or Exeter in the USA assume certain airs and generally look down on others without rich or well-connected parents. Rajiv Gandhi went to Doon School and liked to flaunt it, though he may not have needed that to qualify as a commercial pilot.

People who go to elite schools or even good English medium schools catering to the wealthy and well connected speak English with a different accent with the regional accent ironed out of it. They are fluent in it and look down at others with condescension.

I believe in that archetypal institution of elitism in India, Delhi’s St.Stephens College, they are called “vernacs”. This infantile elitism came to the fore when Mani Shankar Aiyar sneeringly referred to Narendra Modi as a chaiwalla who should be selling tea at the AICC office, turning it into a seminal moment in the 2014 elections.

Harvard economist Raj Chetty has shown that children whose parents are in the top 1 percent of earners are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than are the children of poorer parents — meaning that, in cases like this, admission is less about talent and more about coming from the right family.

In that way, privilege casts inherited advantages as “exceptional” qualities that justify special treatment. In other words, elitism tends to make the privileged selfish and self-serving.

Professor Shamus Khan, the chair of the sociology department at Columbia University, has elaborated it on this sense of privilege and elitism instilled in the institutions in his book “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.”

Khan should know what it means to be inside an elite institution having been educated at the St. Paul’s School at Concord, New Hampshire and then at the equally elite liberal arts institution, Haverford College. Incidentally Haverford is one of the most expensive colleges in the USA, making rich parents an added advantage.

Fortunately, the massification of education and the steep pyramid to climb to get into elite Indian institutions like the IIMs, IITs, NLSs and such results in a real meritocracy, very unlike the USA.

What makes these schools and colleges elite is that so few can attend them. In the mythologies they construct, only those who are truly exceptional are admitted — precisely because they are not like everyone else. Their deans typically welcome newcomers by telling them that they are “the very best students.” To attend these institutions is to be told constantly: You’re special, you’re a member of the select, you have been chosen because of your outstanding qualities and accomplishments”.

Khan writes schools often quite openly affirm the idea that, because you are better, you are not governed by the same dynamics as everyone else. They celebrate their astonishingly low acceptance rates and broadcast lists of notable alumni who have earned their places within the nation’s highest institutions, such as the Supreme Court. This sense of exclusiveness is fostered in the real world by alumni associations and social clubs where birds of a feather flock together.

When I returned from Harvard in 1983, I learned there was a Harvard Club in New Delhi, for alumni to periodically meet. I went a few times and then stopped as I found that there were few degree holders there and mostly “alumni” who took short and exorbitantly priced courses for the privilege of wearing a university or college tie.

Delhi also has an Oxbridge Society where the more snooty types who studied Shakespeare in college would meet, presumably to sip sherry. Even St.Stephens College has its alumni gatherings. I am told that at one such meeting Natwar Singh wrote in the visitors book “I owe everything I am to the College”. Writing next Mani Shankar Aiyar, never at a loss for words wrote “why blame the college?”

Khan might very well be writing about Trump when he opines: “Such selfish tendencies extend well beyond the way the privileged use untruths to their advantage. According to research by psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, elites’ sense of their own exceptionalism helps instil within them a tendency to be less compassionate. This may have its roots in the fact that there seem to be two different sets of consequences for the rich and the rest. Take drug use. While the poor are no more likely to use drugs (in fact, among young people, it’s the richer kids who are more likely to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana), they are far more likely to be imprisoned for it, and they experience vastly disproportionate imprisonment for all crimes compared with the wealthy. In the end, it is impossible to separate success from class”.

One time in the course of a discussion my political guru the late Chandrashekharji, who liked to flaunt his humble rural origins, exasperatedly asked me "what did you learn at Harvard that you couldn't have learned here?" I replied nothing, but one thing I know is that a degree from Harvard made important people like him think highly about me. He laughed and said "on that I agree with you!"
 

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