in Education

On the important difference between ‘elite’ and ‘elitist’.

Toffs and Toughs

I had an interesting exchange via Twitter recently with Ian Yorston (Director of Digital Strategy at Radley College) about the difference between ‘élite’ and ‘élitist’. He argued that you don’t get élite performers without being élitist. He (and others, to be fair) used the example of élite performers in sport: they need to be treated well and compete against the best to be ‘élite’. He called this approach ‘élitism’. I argued, contrary to this, that the terms élite and élitist refer to very different concepts. You can read our conversation on Storify here. The 140-character limit soon became frustrating, so I decided to write about what I consider to be the difference here and how it applies to education.

Let’s just see what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has to say about the two terms under discussion:

élite: The choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of persons).

élitist: (derivation of ‘elitism’)

élitism: Advocacy of or reliance on the leadership and dominance of an élite (in a society, or in any body or class of persons).

You can strive to be élite (as an individual, organisation or country) without being élitist. Whilst I began by going to the OED I prefer the definitions given by Google’s ‘define’ function here:

e·lit·ist

  1. A person who believes that a system or society should be ruled or dominated by an elite
  2. A person who believes that they belong to an elite

Wikipedia defines élitism in the following way:

Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.

I’ve got no problem with supporting and developing talent. My beef is with the important difference between élite (which is a status) and élitism (which is an attitude). It’s simply unacceptable, for example, that private school pupils dominate entry into the best universities because of the cultural capital of their parents and teachers. It’s a scandal of epic proportions that privately-educated politicians harp on about the importance of narrowly-focused league tables for state schools whilst private schools are left (by and large) to carry on activities that perpetuate hegemonic power. It’s not just about the goalposts, it’s about how level the playing field is to begin with.

As far as I’m concerned, we’ve moved on in the last 2,500 years from Plato’s idea of ‘philosopher kings’. There is no particular race or class of people who are better or worse to govern and lead society than others: there are just people who are better or worse educated and or well-connected at any given time (the latter is never measured in any league tables I’ve ever seen). During my recent trips to the United Arab Emirates I’ve witnessed an extremely economically and socially stratified society held together by a benign dictatorship and oil dollars. How far is the UK away from massive social stratification?  

It’s easy to justify those things in which you’re deeply involved; it’s a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc.  I just wonder how many of those who work within institutions that perpetuate a stratified and unfair society have actually reflected upon the change they want to see in the world? Perhaps, as a start, they should read some John Rawls, and reflect on how much they recognise of themselves in the theory of Cognitive Dissonance and get involved with Purpos/ed.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Update: This post was mentioned in the Times Higher Education supplement

  • Tmb10

    Doug, thank you for this blog post. The institution I work for, University of Leicester, has as one of its mottos: Elite without being elitist.’ I’d have to say I think it lives up to this motto. But clearly your post is pointing at the larger idea. The actions of our current government clearly reveal their belief that the only way to cultivate the elite is by being elitist. I refer particularly to the privitisation of higher education and tripling its fees, and there are other examples. They are wrong. We need to keep saying so.
    Terese Bird

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Hi Terese, and thanks for the comment. I’m aware of Leicester’s motto, actually, as it was used by Prof. Stephanie Marshall of the Leadership Foundation in a recent keynote as an example of how to ‘position’ yourself as an institution. Great stuff. :-)

  • Foo

    http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ian-jack/5-boys story of that photo if you hadn’t read it. Not what it seems.

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Yes, I know, I know, but it’s a useful hypocrisy for a lazy blogger. ;-)

    • Dorothyccoe

      Interesting though Doug’s observations are, the link you provided here led to a fascinating and extensively researched piece about the photograph and the stories of the boys in it, which I greatly enjoyed reading . Many thanks for that.

  • Neil Winton

    Spot on with the differentiation. We strive to turn all our learners into an ‘elite’ in the sense that they are the best they can be within a given discipline. ‘Elitism’ has pejorative overtones that are at odds with being ‘elite’. In a sense, the ‘elitism’ of certain groups is based on the ability to pay rather than any meritocratic basis.

    As you point out, how much of state education (certainly in Engerland) is based on this notion that the traditional model of teaching (as opposed to learning) should be influenced by a group of elitists who have no more intention of allowing the truly elite into their own (Bullingdon) club, than flying to the moon. It is easy to sell to the aspirational the notion that ‘greatness’ can be learned and will be accepted, but the reality is that elitism (through connections and financial worth) is a canker on British society that the current models being handed out by the elitist ruling parties in England are well aware of. Hegemony, anyone?

    As an aside… are we in danger of creating our own elitist group because of our online connections? Do we look down on colleagues who have yet to be ‘assimilated’ into the online world of education… ;0)

  • Neil Winton

    Spot on with the differentiation. We strive to turn all our learners into an ‘elite’ in the sense that they are the best they can be within a given discipline. ‘Elitism’ has pejorative overtones that are at odds with being ‘elite’. In a sense, the ‘elitism’ of certain groups is based on the ability to pay rather than any meritocratic basis.

    As you point out, how much of state education (certainly in Engerland) is based on this notion that the traditional model of teaching (as opposed to learning) should be influenced by a group of elitists who have no more intention of allowing the truly elite into their own (Bullingdon) club, than flying to the moon. It is easy to sell to the aspirational the notion that ‘greatness’ can be learned and will be accepted, but the reality is that elitism (through connections and financial worth) is a canker on British society that the current models being handed out by the elitist ruling parties in England are well aware of. Hegemony, anyone?

    As an aside… are we in danger of creating our own elitist group because of our online connections? Do we look down on colleagues who have yet to be ‘assimilated’ into the online world of education… ;0)