Do you agree that those in positions of authority, shaping our nation’s history, destiny and character, should be able to prove they can read and write above a sixth-grade level?
Should elected officials be able to form and understand complex sentences? In a perfect world, should they be able to pass the test given to those who are currently applying for U.S. citizenship?
The test for citizenship includes questions on the nation’s history, a section on the implications of the separation of branches of the government and questions on the rights of individuals under the law.
Would you agree, to choose a random example, that a president of these United States should be able to construct, articulate and comprehend a document of more than three pages?
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And be able to read that document aloud while demonstrating, through appropriate intonation, emphasis and facial expressions that he grasps the implication of what the document says?
I do. Apparently this marks me as an “elitist” when it comes to education. But, to those who accuse me of elitism, I want to borrow the words of Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
If I’m an elitist when it comes to education, then so were my parents, neither of whom graduated from high school. They both left school after the eighth-grade to help support their large families.
But they were self-educated people who understood the value and significance of learning. They wanted always to know everything about the world around them, meaning there were always books in the house and that they each read two newspapers a day.
As a family, we went to museums; we all used the library; we watched the evening news together and – this is the important part – we talked about it.
Because English was not their first language, they taught themselves mastery over two worlds of words and two cultures.
Believing in the significance of education does not mean you have to get a piece of paper saying you’ve graduated from anywhere. Instead it means showing evidence, in conversation, of why you should be allowed to sit at the grown-ups’ table.
The grown-ups’ table is where people who are widely informed can express their opinions and be treated with respect. It should not be based on the company they keep or how much money they make. Money and wisdom do not always keep company.
Surrounding yourself with people who know what you don’t know can be helpful, but it’s only useful if you want to learn from them. Just having them stand next to you doesn’t necessarily make you smart, just as standing next to people who are rich won’t suddenly make you rich.
Think of it this way: People who are informed and intelligent can make the buffoons in their midst seem even more limited. Do you really want to be the most ignorant person in the “Jeopardy!” lineup?
You can’t subcontract erudition. Yes, you can surround yourself with those who are more competent than you. But competency, unlike cold sores, is not catching.
And why does it seem as if the only people throwing around the term “populism” are elites, from both sides of the aisle? Ordinary folks at iHop and KFC aren’t arguing over who is a more profoundly committed populist.
Have I missed the aisle where colorful “Get That Populism Done!” T-shirts are available at Walmart? And I have yet to see a bumper sticker saying “You’ll have to pry my populism out of my cold, dead hands.”
Here’s my other question: Why has “elite” become a sneer in some contexts when it is still used as high praise in others?
As author Jim Carpenter puts it, “Populists speak almost reverently of ‘elite’ military units, respectfully of ‘elite’ athletes, but disparagingly of ‘elite’ political, financial, cultural and academic figures.”
America was founded on the concept of a nation with citizens sufficiently informed to want to sit at the grown-ups’ table. There’s room enough for everybody. But you should read something about it about it before you take your seat.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of nine books. She wrote this for the Hartford Courant. Reach her by email at www.ginabarreca.com.