Elite Anti-Elitists

Monday, April 20th, 2015

A modern textbook tries to “sell” students on physics as a source of “new technologies for leisure” and tries to humanize physicists as regular people, but, Matthew B. Crawford laments, it makes no effort to resuscitate the ideal of ancient science, learning for its own sake:

The pose of anti-elitism seems to be a cover for something far more disturbing, something that is perhaps typical of elite anti-elitists. The author writes, “Sometimes the results of the work of physicists are of interest only to other physicists. Other times, their work leads to devices…. that change everyone’s life.” Are these the only two possibilities? Physicists on their mountaintop, speaking only to one another, and the rest of us in the plains, waiting for them to descend bearing magical devices? Nothing in-between? Aren’t there intelligent, curious people who are not professional physicists, but who have the patience and desire to learn? I believe it is this dichotomization of humanity into two ideal types, professional scientists and ignorant consumers, that is responsible for this book’s cynicism. The author doesn’t seem to think his readers are really capable of being educated. This is the worst sort of elitism. Paradoxically, we have here the worst of both worlds: an anti-elitist rhetoric that discredits the higher human possibilities, the very possibilities by which the author orients his own life as a scientist, together with a more substantive elitism that views students from so far above that it can’t be bothered to cultivate in them those same human possibilities.

The author’s cynicism is ultimately rooted in a common confusion, a false conflict between democracy and elitism, one that forgets the ways in which these two human ideals actually depend on one another. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy,” made possible by the liberation of talents that comes with equality of opportunity. He suggests that democracy not only makes such a natural aristocracy possible, it is also peculiarly in need of cultivated human beings who can exert a leavening effect on society, giving our common freedom the character of liberty rather than license. That distinction seems to turn on the objects toward which freedom is directed. It is a distinction that allows us to speak of liberal pursuits, such as music, science, literature, mathematics, and so forth. If liberal democracy requires a critical mass of liberally educated citizens, it would seem to require a regime of education guided not only by the love of equality but also by the love of thinking. Happily, such a love is requited by those beautiful things that unveil themselves before a powerful and disciplined mind working at full song. Here is a logic that reconciles the private good of the student with public felicity. It is the logic of liberal education, classically understood.

A great teacher once said that precisely because we are friends of liberal democracy, we are not permitted to be its flatterers. With its confused anti-elitism, this book flatters the lowest elements of the democratic spirit. This is unfortunate because it is precisely the democratic spirit that, at its best, provides the most fertile home for the spirit of scientific inquiry. Glencoe Physics takes a very dim view of the educability of students, never venturing to lead them beyond the narrow concerns of comfort and entertainment. This is not so much meeting the students on their own terms as capitulating to the terms offered to students by mass commercial culture. Cowed by the times, our author lacks political courage on behalf of thinking, something that is incumbent on all teachers.


  1. David Foster says:

    See my 2005 post Skipping Science Class, written in response to some similar trends in the UK.

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