Open Thinkering


Tag: Plato

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:


  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

What I Talk About When I Talk About User Outcomes #5 – Productivity vs. Performativity

Ant Party

Productivity, to my mind, is about doing more of what of what you enjoy doing and doing less of that which you don’t. It’s highly context-dependent, although there are some things that work in most situations – as I outline in #uppingyourgame: a practical guide to personal productivity.

What I’m concerned about is a condition just shy of Digital Taylorism, that twisted notion of productivity that Jean-François Lyotard calls ‘performativity’. It’s a cancer in the knowledge economy:

According to Lyotard, postmodernity is characterised by the end of metanarratives. So what legitimates science now? Lyotard’s answer is – performativity. This is what Lyotard calls the “technological criterion” – the most efficient input/output ratio. The technical and technological changes over the last few decades – as well as the development of capitalism – have caused the production of knowledge to become increasingly influenced by a technological model. It was during the industrial revolution, Lyotard suggests, that knowledge entered into the economic equation and became a force for production, but it is in postmodernity that knowledge is becoming the central force for production. Lyotard believes that knowledge is becoming so important an economic factor, in fact, that he suggests that one day wars will be waged over the control of information.

Lyotard calls the change that has taken place in the status of knowledge due to the rise of the performativity criterion the mercantilization of knowledge. In postmodernity, knowledge has become primarily a saleable commodity. Knowledge is produced in order to be sold, and is consumed in order to fuel a new production. According to Lyotard knowledge in postmodernity has largely lost its truth-value, or rather, the production of knowledge is no longer an aspiration to produce truth. Today students no longer ask if something is true, but what use it is to them. (Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy)

The reason that performativity is dangerous is because it strips out all of the enjoyment and self-actualisation that work can bring and reduces it to a commodity. Instead, as Seth Godin often gets across in his books and his blog, work should be hard but a fundamentally creative endeavour. Talented people leave jobs if they’re overly- constrained:

Whoever says artists can’t deal with corporate pressures because they have frail minds, is missing out on the potential the artistic mind has to boost company morale and increase productivity. Most artists would just as soon quit once they become conscious of their exploitation and that is a sign of strength not weakness. (Martin Dansky)

Our working lives, even if we are self-employed, involve both physical contracts (I will do X amount of work for £Y) and unspoken, tacit contracts. The latter can sometimes be pre-judged on a visit to a potential future workplace, but certainly understood in the first few weeks on the job. It’s the old “that’s the way we do things around here” chestnut.

Whether you’re a manager or not, make sure you’re focusing on productivity rather than performativity. Sometimes the internalisation of such rhetoric ends up having more of an effect that external factors. Focus on truth. Focus on creativity. Focus on happiness. Our time here is short.

Image CC BY-NC tarotastic

If you’re looking for help improving user outcomes, head over to Synechism Ltd.