I have been hearing a great deal about “the elite” lately, mostly in connection with the forthcoming Olympic Games and the cuts to educational funding for Universities in Australia. There appears to be, for some people, an expectation that those who have potential to be part of an elite have a right to be assisted by society to realize this potential.

I ponder on Plato’s view of the elite and of democracy being the responsibility of these elite. I ask ask myself the question whether democracy, as we practise it today, can be compatible with this particular view of “elitism”.

This morning I heard of the death of Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, unarguably an “elite” singer. It was reported on the radio that he said, sometime before he died, words to the effect that he had “done too much and should have left more to have been done by others”. If so is this a conceit or is it a comment made by an undoubted master of language that we should think deeply about? I tend to this latter view having read some of his translations of songs.

So back to basics. What does “elite” really mean? I have a liking for the definitions provided by my old Shorter Oxford Dictionary. It offered me a very short definition. It means “the choice part or flower (of society,etc)” from the French and Latin words meaning “elect”.  The Australian Macquarie Dictionary adds to this etymology “from the French ‘choose'”.

Unfortunately, using either of these definitions, we are immediately left with more questions. Are the potential elite chosen early or do they just naturally flower? Do we manufacture the elite, as can be done to goods in a factory, or do they just rise to the top like cream when the milk is unshaken? And who chooses and how, particularly if extra help is to be given early? Is it to be a fair and equal process or is it just obvious, as are beautiful flowers or cream? And the decision as to what is the most beautiful or creamier also involves questions of personal taste.

One’s own experiences always exert a powerful influence on thinking and it was through experience that led me early in my life to the conclusion that I disagreed with Plato about democracy. It should not be totally the responsibility of an elite but should be open to us all to participate. As a child I was sent to an OC class (now erroneously named Gifted and Talented Classes) and then to a Selective High School, both of which I enjoyed. It was not until I attended a country Central School that I realized that precocious intellectual development was not by any manner or means all that was important. Elite comes in many packages and creamed brains may possibly be the least tasty. I would be uncomfortable with an electorate consisting of those who consider things primarily from an intellectual perspective. One has to feel as well. To feel as others do one has to, if not walk in their shoes, at least sometime walk beside them. The harm that early special education can do to those that may later rise to the top of the cream is that it does not provide them with any idea of the incredible value of milk. They cannot see the milk for the cream. There is no need to aim for homogenization but shaking milk and cream together never hurts either component. Education for this potential type of “elite” therefore is not helped by early special opportunities.

With this view entrenched, I turned to Google this morning (can Google be considered “elite”?) to enquire as to its elucidation of this problem. To its credit it came up with a number of quotes which initially appeared to add more questions than it answered. There are apparently self appointed elite in all manner of areas, keen to impress with their elitism. One particular quote appealed. It was a sportsperson addressing a critic and announcing that if the critic would meet him face to face the critic would soon learn not to say that the team he belonged to was other than elite. It was a thinly veiled threat that the sportperson would protect by force his right to be considered elite. This mirrored what I have seen in my time as a teacher. Talent is easy to foster, develop and encourage. It is not so easy, however, if the young talented person has been given the idea that they have an inalienable right to be spoon fed with what should be their passions and then applauded for what they can do. 

Far from the position held by Plato and his ilk that the elite would have a duty and responsibility to rule in a democratic way with the purpose of helping society to become as good as possible for all and so avoid injustices (such as the death of Socrates), we have developed a different idea of the elite. It is all about entitlement and adulation. Just look at the Olympic Games. This is no longer primarily a show case for finely honed sportsmen. It is a competition between nations, one never ever envisaged. It is not skill itself that is admired, it is winning and applause.

“Choosing” “the elite” is no longer a decision as to who is the flower or cream of those who have risen to the top primarily by their own efforts and skills and using opportunities which, in a democratic society, should be given equally to all. There is no general expectation that these skills will be used for the benefit of all. It seems to be a question of who has the right to be turned into an “elite x” for their own satisfaction at their own or their parents’ call.

But back to Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau. I personally consider him part of our elite. He was a wonderful singer, a magnificent linguist and a great thinker about human emotions. He both flowered and rose to the top. That he considered he may have occupied a little too much of that elite stage just proves to me even more definitively that, not only was he a choice and beautiful flower, but he fully embodied that essence of what it is to be truly “elite”.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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