From Democracy in the Streets to Democracy in Danger

6 December 2019


In April 2019, Arthur Goldhammer delivered the following speech to the University of Chicago Democracy Initiative and Social Sciences Collegiate Division. We are grateful for his permission to reprint his remarks as part of our joint forum on the Academy and Democracy with the Journal of the History of Ideas blog. 


 “Who am I and why am I here?” You’re all too young to remember the 1992 presidential campaign, in which a little-known retired admiral named James Stockdale introduced himself with those words at the beginning of the vice-presidential debate. Admiral Stockdale seemed more than a little unsure about how he had ended up on a public podium in a situation for which he appeared to be totally unprepared. I find myself in a similar predicament. But the short answer to the question of why I’m here is that your dean thought it might be useful for you to hear from someone whose life trajectory took him across the Berlin wall dividing the STEM fields from the humanities. I started out as a physicist and mathematician but finished as a translator, writer, and student of French and European politics.


Now, back in the day, the acronym STEM did not yet exist, but the Berlin Wall most certainly did. Today, by contrast, there is no Berlin Wall, but it takes a courageous border-crosser to flee the apparent security of STEM. My talk will attempt to weave my own history together with some of the larger forces that were transforming the American academic, intellectual, and cultural landscape half a century ago, and which I think may help us to understand the bitter polarization that threatens our democracy today. If you don’t immediately grasp the connection between the dilemmas of contemporary democracy and what the British scientist-turned-novelist C. P. Snow called “the two cultures”—i.e. the sciences and the rest—bear with me.


The title of this talk is “From Democracy in the Streets to Democracy in Danger.” I hope these words are not too melodramatic. They refer to two turbulent moments in recent American history. The first is the time I came of age, the mid-sixties, and the second moment is now, when you are coming of age. I want to explain how we got from one of these periods to the other by using my own life as an example.


In my professional life I’ve translated 120-some books from the French, of which the best known are the works of Alexis de Tocqueville and Thomas Piketty. So it won’t surprise you, perhaps, that I’m going to try to say something about equality and inequality in the United States. The remarkable thing about the pairing of these two writers is that they propose such diametrically opposed views of America. For Tocqueville everything stemmed from what he called “equality of conditions,” whose effects he saw everywhere. Whereas for Piketty, what stands out about the United States is the starkness of our inequalities of income and wealth, which over the past three decades have returned to levels not seen since the Gilded Age just prior to World War I. In reflecting on my life, I was struck by the way in which the themes of equality and inequality have been intimately intertwined with my winding course. So you will hear a lot about these things in what follows.


The United States is both an egalitarian society, perhaps the most egalitarian the world has ever known, and a deeply inegalitarian, racially-divided, and class-ridden society, in which income and wealth are very unevenly distributed, in which social mobility is more limited than many Americans believe, and in which hierarchical stratification is quite visible in society, culture, and education, despite periodic efforts to redress the balance. Furthermore, although education is often proposed as the best means of redressing inequality, our educational system has in fact become a powerful mechanism for reinforcing it.


I will also touch on the ways in which large historical events and currents—war, population movements, economic change, and popular protest—influence decisions we think of as intimate and personal but which can be analyzed as social facts. Yet these are the very decisions that make us who we are. We are free to choose our own course in life, in the sense that there are no legal restrictions on what we may become, as there were, say, in France before the Revolution, where the status of your parents at birth could bar entry to certain professions. The absence of such restrictions was what Tocqueville meant by “equality of conditions.” But we exercise our freedom within a web of social constraints of which we remain largely unaware until after we have proceeded a long way down the roads they silently map out for us. From the high altitude of advanced age, I look down on my life and see those ancient roads emerging, just as historical geographers can see the vestiges of old Roman roads in aerial photographs of twenty-first-century French farmland.


The roads I followed were not simply paths impressed upon the intellectual landscape by the accidental passage of many who preceded me. Up to the point where I eventually diverged from my prepared itinerary, my route was carefully engineered by elite planners, who laid out an efficient path through virgin territory. They paved the way from outside, where I was born, to inside, where I was eventually supposed to take my place in a new generation of the elite. An alternative title for what follows might therefore be a “tale of two elites.”


First came the elite that saw the United States through World War II and then shaped its development in the three decades that followed, through the end of the Vietnam War. This elite recognized that the narrowness of its own recruitment base posed a threat to progress and prosperity. It therefore devised ways to open wider the doors of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher educations.


The successor elite, which came of age in the 1960s, first clashed with its elders, then supplanted them. But despite the anti-establishment orientation of that generational rebellion, the rebels became the principal beneficiaries of the reforms instituted by their predecessors. The intention of those reforms had been not to eliminate inequality but to attenuate it; their effect, however, was to create a new form of inequality, namely, inequality of educational opportunity and privilege.


I offer my own history as a case in point. I grew up in Eisenhower’s America, an era that we look back upon from the present of intense partisan polarization as a time of tranquil consensus. This is a myth, but it is one of those Golden Age myths that retain a powerful hold on the imagination precisely because their falsification of reality expresses a deep subconscious wish. Many who responded to Donald Trump’s call to Make America Great Again were in fact dredging up that myth from the collective subconscious, in the mistaken belief that those were the best of times, which subsequent upheavals destroyed.


In a sense, though, they were the best of times—most myths derive their power from a kernel of truth. The postwar recovery gave us a period of exceptional economic growth and, hence, expanded opportunity. More Americans than ever before could afford to own their own homes, like the split-level in which I came of age, with its one-car garage on its standard 60×100’ lot.


As the modesty of my family homestead attests, I sprang from the very middle of that great middle class that the consensus ideology of the fifties liked to identify with society as such. At the time the economist Simon Kuznets theorized this burgeoning middle class as a necessary consequence of an increasingly complex economy, which required growing numbers of educated professionals and technicians to manage its ever more intricate operations. Between 1951 and 1961 the number of students in American colleges and universities doubled. In the new industrial state, as J. K. Galbraith called it, management would be separated from ownership and entrusted to a “technostructure” animated by the educationally qualified; power would thus be separated from wealth, depersonalized, bureaucratized, diffused, and thereby reassuringly defanged and domesticated. In theory.


To far-sighted men the forces that would transform the American economy and society in the postwar era were already apparent well before their consequences became visible to everyone else. One such man was James Bryant Conant, born in 1893. His birth, in other words, preceded mine by a little more than half a century, just as mine, in 1946, precedes yours by the same amount. His career, like mine, took a sharp swerve early in his professional life from science to non-science. But, unlike me, what he did with the second part of his life affected every person in the United States.


What made Conant far-sighted was that he was early to grasp how science and technology were transforming economy and society. By the time he graduated from Harvard in 1913, he had already detected, in the words of his biographer, “a tantalizing scent of the budding romance between U.S. chemistry and industry.” His subsequent work might have won him a Nobel Prize had he not given up chemistry to take charge of Harvard, whose president he became in 1933.


Why did the Harvard Corporation choose Conant, and why did Conant abandon science for management, first of Harvard and then of the vast American R&D effort in World War II? Science and technology did not dominate America’s top universities then as they do now. But Harvard’s governors believed that if the university complacently ignored changes in the ambient economy and society, as it had done under Conant’s predecessor A. Lawrence Lowell, it would lose its privileged place in the American power structure. Conant was tapped because he could see and articulate the virtue of expanding elite recruitment beyond the private schools and country clubs of the Protestant Brahmin elite.


 James Conant, chemist and president of Harvard.


The door needed to be opened. Not too far, mind you: quotas on Jews, for instance, were increased and encrypted rather than erased. The reformers, after all, were cautious, conservative men, not revolutionaries, even if Conant did subsequently write an article entitled “American Radical” in which he complained that pre-World War II America had become an ossified caste society dominated by inherited wealth—which needed to be transformed by a confiscatory estate tax.


That was a rather startling diagnosis of America’s ills to come from the president of Harvard, an institution that relied heavily on wealthy donors. Ned Lamont, a banker and member of the Harvard Corporation, was quick to remind Conant of this in a letter of rebuke precipitated by the publication of “American Radical.” In truth, Lamont needn’t have worried. Conant wasn’t altogether serious about confiscating wealth, which in any case he had no power to do. His real revolutionary proposal was rather to change the way America’s top universities selected their students—ultimately a far more radical though less frontal assault on the established order than taxing the rich. And that was a promise on which he could in fact deliver.


As radical as it was, Conant’s reform program took efficiency as its principle, not equality. Harvard’s president had no problem with elite dominance; his problem was with the existing elite, which he believed to be complacent, unimaginative, and ill-adapted to the needs of the new economy. In the history of American education there has always been tension between those who take the view that the preservation of democracy rests on extending education to the greatest possible number of people and those who believe that society can optimize the benefits accruing to its educational expenditure by lavishing the most resources on those best equipped to take advantage of them. Conant belonged to the latter camp. Eventually he would come to embrace extensive testing of all students as the best way to select the country’s future elite, which he envisioned, borrowing Thomas Jefferson’s words, as a “natural aristocracy”—natural as opposed to hereditary.


The elite needed to be expanded, Conant believed, in order to exploit the scientific and engineering talent lurking in previously excluded groups. This belief was reinforced by his role in World War II, during which, as chair of the National Defense Research Committee, he coordinated work on the atomic bomb. Native-born Jews like Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman had been crucial to equipping the United States with the ultimate weapon and thus the key to global dominance; immigrants like the German Hans Bethe and the Italian Enrico Fermi and the Hungarians Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller had joined them. How many others like them were studying in American public schools, far from Groton and Lawrenceville and therefore unlikely to find their way to Harvard or Princeton? To remedy this, Conant, who, as a Harvard president commanding enormous prestige by dint of his crucial wartime role, was in a position to reshape American education, turned to the SAT. With this and similar tests, the bright stars shrouded by the impenetrable haze of American public education could be detected and nurtured.


The wholesale sorting and selection of intellectual talent through mass-testing was still in its infancy when I started school as a kindergartener in 1951, and I became an early guinea pig and precocious beneficiary. In the first grade I was summoned to the principal’s office, where a one-on-one IQ test was administered by a psychologist, following which the school authorities informed my parents that they wished to move me to a higher grade. Afraid that I would be ostracized socially, my parents refused.


But the die was cast. In countless ways the educational establishment transmitted to me the message that I was among the chosen. Not only did I “test well.” More than that, I showed exceptional ability in areas that reformers like James Conant deemed particularly important to America’s economic and geopolitical future.


The war had invested physics with unprecedented prestige. When I was eight, Albert Einstein died. Life magazine, to which my parents subscribed, published a hagiographic portrait of this “pure intellect” who, with no tool other than mathematics, had changed the world. What budding scientist would not want to stand on the shoulders of such a giant? When I was ten, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite. The world saw that the Soviets not only had the bomb but had also outstripped us in the rocketry needed to deliver it. Training more scientists and engineers became a national imperative.


The following year, when I was eleven, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, pouring federal dollars into the effort. By then I was already building shortwave radio transmitters and receivers, and on the day I turned thirteen, the minimum age allowed, I became the youngest person in the US ever to earn a general class ham radio license. I was just the sort of diamond in the rough that Conant believed America needed: a precocious scientific talent whose parents had not graduated from college but who, by dint of novel psychometric tests, could be identified early and set on a path to higher achievement.


My high school, which separated the majority of students into three ability groupings cryptically labeled W, X, and Y, reserved a fourth track for a handful of students deemed to have demonstrated unusual promise. Unlike the others, this group was uncryptically labeled “special.”


Being “special” conferred considerable advantages. It was almost like being treated to a private school education at public expense. There were about twenty of us, out of a total cohort of just under 500. Those who selected us would have been pleased with the results. At least five PhDs came out of that group of twenty. Among us were future professors, scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, a Yale dean, a CEO, and a UN diplomat. Our town’s three principal minorities—Jewish, African-American, and Italian—were all represented, even though the mayor, city council, and leading businessmen were still predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In short, my cohort realized Conant’s dream: we replenished the ranks of the American elite, reinvigorating it with new blood. From below, it looked like upward mobility—not Conant’s dream but the American dream. From above, it was the minimal necessary response to evolving economic, military, and technological challenges.


Yet things did not turn out quite as Conant imagined, or as we newcomers perhaps dimly anticipated. We thought of our motives as pure, not pecuniary. And since we were answering the nation’s call, we did not expect to be denounced half a century later by President Trump, who described us in the following terms to a rally of his supporters in 2017: “Why are they [the] elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president, and they didn’t.”


The president—who, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, belongs to the same Baby Boom cohort I do—did not invent this anti-elitist sentiment, but with unerring instinct he recognized that it was abroad in the land and effectively weaponized it by painting his opponent Hillary Clinton as the very embodiment of elite privilege. This antipathy toward the educated elite was more than a mere episodic recurrence of “the anti-intellectualism” of American life that the historian Richard Hofstadter had already identified in the 1960s. “Egghead” and “brainiac” were common terms of abuse back then. But over the ensuing half-century, the privileges won by graduates of highly selective universities became the object not of mere derision but of corrosive, active hatred. The hostility spread from authentic eggheads to a broader class of individuals deemed to have derived unfair advantage from elite educational credentials. One sees this in the extraordinarily virulent attacks on Presidents Clinton and Obama. Both were charged with having risen to high office with thin resumés, distinguished by little more than Ivy League credentials.


Clinton and Obama were also resented for another reason: their marriages to women with similar distinctions. Both couples exemplify the phenomenon that economists call “positive assortative mating”: the growing tendency of the highly educated to multiply their advantages by marrying one another, increasing the gap not only in income but also in cultural resources between them and the less privileged. This was another product of the turbulent sixties: women moved from the streets into the workplace. The family, particularly the highly educated family, became less of a patriarchy and more of a partnership, bent on securing for its offspring the entry ticket to the new elite.


That the privileges bestowed by educational selection would come to be bitterly resented was anticipated by the English sociologist and writer Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy.” In 1958 he published a satirical essay in which he tried to imagine the type of society that Conant was even then creating, led by a consciously engineered class of high achievers. Conant’s meritocratic selection process was no doubt unfair in many ways that have subsequently been abundantly documented, but it was also doubtless fairer than what preceded it—at least at its inception. It has become increasingly less fair, however, because advantage inevitably begets advantage. As Anthony Appiah wrote recently in an article about Young, in a society with a meritocratic elite, “nearly all parents are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring.” Michael Young was right to predict that, no matter how strenuously one sought to rationalize the selection process, the privileges accruing to this new “meritocratic” elite would eventually be challenged as illegitimate.


History has made us familiar with revolts against privilege, and in this context President Trump’s crude expression of contempt for today’s elite can be read as just that. But the people he targeted include many who saw themselves as taking “democracy into the streets” in the sixties. They were themselves rebels against the prerogatives of the previous generation of the elite. I was among them, and so, perhaps, were your parents or grandparents.


This is not the place to attempt a history of the sixties. For my purposes, what is relevant is the clash that developed in that era within and between my two elites, the older generation, forged by the Second World War, and the younger, forged by Vietnam.


In 1965 James Conant, the single individual most responsible for expanding access to elite educational institutions to people like me, signed a statement urging support for increased American involvement in Vietnam. For the World War II generation, the complexities of international relations were subsumed in the stark simplicity of a global contest between freedom and unfreedom. Appeasement was the error to be avoided at all cost: this was the chief lesson they took from history. South Vietnam was the new Sudetenland, the prize the enemy coveted; it could not be ceded to unfreedom.


These intellectual warriors, steeled in the school of total war, prided themselves on their tough-mindedness. Consider, for example, Conant’s justification of his work on the first weapon of mass destruction, poison gas, in World War I: “I did not see in 1917, and do not see in 1968, why tearing a man’s guts out by a high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs or skin.” The atomic bomb gave him slightly greater pause, but he nevertheless signed off on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


In short, the moral consciousness of this older elite had been formed by total war and was obliged to abide thereafter with the thought of total annihilation. Ours, by contrast, had been formed by a struggle closer to home, the civil rights movement, which marched on Washington in the year I went off to college. To us fledgling members of the new elite, to whom previously closed doors had just been opened, it was only natural, if in retrospect altogether too self-serving, to see the civil rights movement as an extension of the progressive New Deal consciousness that we credited with our own good fortune (giving too much credit to Roosevelt and too little to Conant, while neglecting the conservative instrumental aspect of the latter’s thinking). For us, it was all part of one continuous, ostensibly irresistible push toward a better tomorrow, the New Deal merging seamlessly into the Great Society. Our horizon was therefore bright with hope rather than dark with the smoke of burning German and Japanese cities. When Martin Luther King spoke of bending the arc of the universe toward justice, we therefore basked in the illusion that our own ascension would be seen as one segment of that bent arc and therefore as incontestably just, continuous with the progress still to come. In short, we failed to reckon with the envy that privilege invariably arouses.


And frankly, there was much to envy in my cohort of privileged Baby Boomers. We were as adept with the hedonistic calculus as with Newton’s calculus. Although the novelist Saul Bellow belonged to the previous generation, his character Augie March spoke precociously for us: “I am an American, Chicago born…and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” Even though we were now through the door and expected to devote all our energy to making the best of our opportunity, our eyes had been opened to other things. Just as Conant had been dismayed by the unearned privilege he had discovered at Harvard, much of what we saw from our new, slightly-elevated vantage point disappointed us. We wanted more.


Which brings me to 1968. This was the hinge year in my life, when everything changed, although I was only dimly aware of it at the time. From 1946 until 1968 I had progressed smoothly, as if on rails. Such progress is possible when there is little friction between one’s own desires and what is expected by the institutions with which one interacts. The educational establishment, prodded by reformers like Conant, had set itself the task of training a generation of scientists and engineers to keep America militarily dominant and economically pre-eminent. By dint of meeting all the requisite criteria, I found myself rewarded at the age of twenty-one with a degree in mathematics from MIT, a year of MIT graduate school under my belt, and a bright future awaiting.


Then four things happened in rapid succession, two of general import and two others more personal. First, domestic tranquility was durably shattered by riots, assassinations, and generalized political turmoil. Any illusion of consensus was permanently dispelled by the war in Vietnam and the opposition to it at home. Second, a prodigiously variegated “counterculture” abruptly altered the climate in many countries at once, creating a cosmopolitan vortex. That vortex sucked me into Europe, where I landed for the first time in June. My ensuing discovery of the Old World would ultimately change my life’s calling from science and math to the humanities, history, and, more specifically, to things French. And finally, as an unintended consequence of that first foray into Europe, I was drafted in November into the US Army.


The Vietnam War, which occasioned both the change in the national mood and the sudden alteration of my trajectory, was a consequence of elite failure. This was quickly recognized. As early as 1972 David Halberstam published The Best and the Brightest, an examination of the mistaken assumptions that had led the stellar elite of top decision-makers into a disastrous quagmire.


Like James Conant, the new wizards of war had served in World War II, albeit as apprentices. Like Conant, they recognized the need for societies to adapt to the changes of the mid-twentieth century. McGeorge Bundy, who served first as John Kennedy’s and then as Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor, had risen, again like Conant, to a senior management position at Harvard at an early age. He had even earlier been exposed, through his work in both the overt and covert aspects of the Marshall Plan, to ambitious projects of social and political engineering in postwar Europe, extending the type of social engineering pioneered by Conant in the US. He and his fellow Vietnam War architects sought to apply lessons learned in Europe to Vietnam, where they proved to be inapplicable.


One byproduct of the elite selection process is self-confidence. When you’ve gotten so many answers right, you begin to think you can’t get anything wrong. And when you’re surrounded by people who have given the same right answers to the same set of questions, the danger of groupthink is obvious. To their credit, the best-and-the-brightest recognized this danger and appointed a devil’s advocate, George Ball, to walk them through worst-case scenarios. Ball, who was more of an historian than a social engineer, counseled caution, only to be ignored, because it would have taken a miracle for the devil’s advocate to carry the day against a choir of angels singing in unison.


Let me turn now from the elite’s decision concerning Vietnam to my own personal decision. A colleague who read an earlier draft of this talk remarked that “this essay is less about your trajectory than about the trajectory of western civilization.… I think you could dwell a little more on your thinking about the decisions that shaped your life without seeming too self-referential.  In my experience, it is exactly that which the young do not hear often enough: they hear plenty of lectures on western civilization.”


A fair point. I therefore beg your indulgence to talk about myself for a moment. There weren’t many people like me among the enlisted ranks in Vietnam. So why was I there, given that I opposed the war and had demonstrated against it? I had eagerly taken advantage of the various draft exemptions that had been available for the taking, as long as they didn’t violate my conscience. In other words, I was already exploiting my privilege as a member of the educated elite.


But when my draft board chose rather arbitrarily to declare that my summer trip to Europe between my first and second years of graduate school constituted an “interruption” to my educational status that allowed them to draft me, I faced a dilemma. My appeal for continued deferment was actually granted by the head of the Selective Service, but only as an advisory recommendation to my local board, which chose to ignore it.


My conscience prevented me from falsely asserting belief in God and objection to all wars in order to claim conscientious objector status, and I was similarly reluctant to resort to the usual subterfuge of faking some disqualifying medical condition. I don’t intend any criticism of those who did resort to such subterfuges: if I had it to do over, I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer lying to fighting in a war in which I did not believe. And to further darken the picture, I can’t honestly say I wasn’t also curious to step off the speeding train taking me toward the destination chosen for me by President Conant, just to explore, if only temporarily, what else life had to offer.


In any case, I found myself transported, literally overnight, from investigating the topology of differentiable manifolds in a classroom at MIT to pumping out pushups on a military parade ground in South Carolina. A year later, after learning to speak Vietnamese, I landed at Bien Hoa Airbase and thus came face-to-face with the military, political, and moral disaster that was Vietnam. It was only natural to wonder how the United States, whose then-president had professed himself unwilling to commit “American boys to a land war in Asia,” had perpetrated such a monumental error. If I was ever to understand this, I would need to look beyond the luminous logic of the sciences into the murkier mysteries of history and philosophy, politics and anthropology, fiction and poetry. In retrospect, therefore, I can say that the change in my life’s trajectory began at the Boston Army Base on November 12, 1968, when a military officer summoned a hundred or so of us draftees from the Boston area to take one step forward to signify our submission to the military chain of command. “If you do not step forward,” this officer added, “you will be arrested.”


So I found myself a private in the US Army. For my comrades in misery, I was an oddity, “the professor.” I puzzled them. “You’re supposed to be smart, so why are you here?” they asked. The question took me back. I had expected either to be resented as a member of the class of people who for the most part found ways to avoid military service, or else to win a grudging respect for having renounced that privilege, if only under duress. What I found instead would have pleased Tocqueville, who held that self-interest was the one immutable fixture of human character. To them there was no moral question as to whether one should obey one’s conscience or the law, or as to what the content of one’s conscience ought to be. It was all very simple. If you have an opportunity to avoid pain, you take it. If you don’t take it, you’re not very bright.


What I did not find among the men I served with in Vietnam was the “Why are they the elite?” sentiment that candidate Trump so effectively mobilized half a century later. Why do guys who accepted me as a fellow grunt back then despise me as a “liberal elitist” now? What changed in the interim? One answer that is often given is that the United States had become a much more inegalitarian country between 1970 and 2016, as Piketty and many others have demonstrated. This is no doubt part of the story. But I think there’s also a Tocquevillean aspect. Let me explain.


Tocqueville makes at least three points that are relevant to the increasingly bitter polarization of American society in recent years. First, he notes that privilege is more readily tolerated when it is thought to serve a useful purpose. When the old-regime aristocracy performed essential government functions, it was tolerated; when it forfeited its functions to the royal bureaucracy and allowed itself to be enticed into idle enjoyment of its privileges at Versailles, it ceased to be respected. I think Conant’s reforms were tolerated initially because the need they addressed was widely appreciated. As time went by, however, too many students coveted the elite ticket not for the knowledge it would enable them to acquire but merely as a required token of entry into a charmed circle, where professional advancement is relatively steady and predictable and one’s status is relatively immune to the vagaries of the global economy. Put simply, people who understood why rocket scientists were needed to match the Russians in 1958 are reluctant to grant similar indulgence to math wizards who enriched themselves by applying the stochastic calculus to the financial derivatives that precipitated the Great Recession of 2008.


Second, resentment is unleashed when expectations of imminent improvement are disappointed. Tocqueville put it this way: “It is not always going from bad to worse that leads to revolution. What happens most often is that a people that put up with the most oppressive laws without complaint, as if they did not feel them, reject those laws violently when the burden is alleviated.” Access to elite education expanded in the 1960s, stirring hopes that it would continue to expand in subsequent decades. Perversely, the extension of recruitment to broader segments of the population ultimately increased competition for places whose number did not increase as rapidly as the desire to occupy them.


And third, hope is patient, but not infinitely so. When Tocqueville spoke of self-interest, he liked to append the phrase “properly understood.” Proper understanding, for Tocqueville, meant learning to conceive of self-interest in the long rather than the short term. A person who competes for a prize and doesn’t get it may hope that her children will prove more fortunate, but if in the meantime the rules of the game change in a way to disadvantage her offspring, past disappointment may turn to bitterness, and to a refusal to continue playing the game, because it is perceived to be rigged.


But I still haven’t told you how I made the transition from math to the humanities. The truth is that I’ve exaggerated the degree to which I was James Conant’s ideal boy. I never stuck as closely to the carefully prepared track as I should have. I had always read widely and nursed a range of interests, among them French fiction, starting with Balzac, whom I read in high school, followed by Stendhal and above all Proust, among many others. Science was my public passion, as it were, but the French novel was one of my private passions. The Pentagon computers therefore contained the data point that I was a French-speaking private, and the army had decided that it needed more Vietnamese linguists. Computers in those days being rather simple-minded, they concluded that since French is a foreign language and so is Vietnamese, knowing one should facilitate knowing the other. In addition to which, I could play a musical instrument, and Vietnamese is a tonal language. I’m quite sure that the algorithm that assigned me to Military Occupational Specialty 94L, “linguist,” was written by a bright young mathematician very much like the one I had been until I was drafted.


So even as I submitted to military service, which I thought had stripped away my privilege and left me on a footing of strict equality with all the other new recruits, I was abruptly reminded that no matter where we go, we are constantly being sorted, classified, and selected by institutions and organizations with purposes of their own. Talents that I had thought quite peripheral to my main path in life turned out to be more important than I could have imagined. Inequality is inescapable chance even more so.


That algorithmic assignment began a long process of rethinking my choices. My brief stint in Europe just before being drafted had already whetted my appetite to live abroad. My shock at the irrational and heedless destructiveness of the war made me want to delve more deeply into history and politics. And my exposure in the service to a much broader range of humanity than I had encountered in my “special” high-school classes or at MIT suggested that if I truly wished to pursue another of my private passions, writing fiction, I would need to get out a bit more and learn about many things I had previously barely looked into, despite my studious bent.


Yet the sad fact is that, even as I worked myself free of the path that James Conant had envisioned for me, I nevertheless owed a great deal to the very credentialing system he had perfected. Without that elite doctorate, my reinvention of myself in my twenties and early thirties would have failed. The degree I finally received in 1975 certified my competence as an algebraic topologist, but since then it has more often been read as a sign meaning simply “smart guy”—and being taken for a smart guy, even on false pretenses, opens a lot of doors.


Early specialization, a common side-effect of the way we select and nurture intellectual talent, tends to narrow one’s outlook. Intense competition for places imposes a relentless, single-minded, “eyes on the prize” attitude. This never sat well with me. The French used to promote a rather different elitist ideal referred to as la culture générale, “general culture,” which has been defined as “knowing next to nothing about almost everything.” As my doctoral work forced me instead to dwell on almost everything there was to know about next to nothing, I felt myself increasingly recoiling toward that French ideal. I finished my doctorate, taught for two years to save up enough money, and then moved to France and sat down to write a novel instead of becoming what Alfred North Whitehead, who had opposed James Conant’s elevation to the presidency of Harvard, called a “myopic specialist.”


Of course, Whitehead’s judgment was unfair, both about Conant, who proved to be a leader of some intellectual breadth, and about specialists, whose myopia can lead to great things. Temperamentally, though, specialization didn’t suit me. I preferred to let a hundred flowers bloom—well, a half-dozen, perhaps—rather than tend to a single more impressive oak. I sometimes regret the choice. Once, in a downcast moment, I referred to myself as a superficial dilettante. A kindly colleague said, “But Arthur, you’re not a dilettante. You’re a polymath.” Maybe, but in the eyes of the mathematician I might have been, the best grade a polymath deserves is “could have done better.”


So much for me. Let me return, in closing, to the more general theme of democracy in danger. Why do so many people feel that danger today? Are we witnessing a revolt of the masses against the arrogance and indifference of the contemporary elite, which thrives at the expense of the many rather than in their service? Or have the sullen multitude been roused by demagogues to blame elites for their own slowness in adapting to a changing world? Even in the best of circumstances, elites cannot be expected to be infallible. Some blunders stem from refusing to learn the lessons of the past, others from learning them only too well, as intelligent people are wont to do, while failing to note that the past is no longer present.


I have no sympathy with anti-elitism. The elite will always be with us, I firmly believe, and what is more, we’re usually better off for it. We need people who can solve problems that others can’t, who take the long view rather than the short, who try to subdue emotion with reason.


Be we can’t allow mere cognitive skills, however impressive, to be transformed into unfair advantage in every aspect of life: better opportunities for one’s children, better access to health care for oneself, insulation from economic competition, exemption from public service. One thing I can say in favor of my zig-zag path through life is that it has given me a useful dual perspective. I can see the elite from both the inside and the outside. I can see the defects of its virtues, as the French say, but also the virtues of its defects. That dual vision emboldens me to warn you, who are about to join it, neither to comfort yourself with the belief that you deserve the privileges that will soon be yours, nor to succumb to the tempting thought all irksome hierarchy can simply be swept away.


Tocqueville thought that democracy required an enlightened elite, but an elite that lived among the people, not in isolation from it; an elite that shared the trials and tribulations of the masses, rather than seeking to withdraw into gated communities and manicured suburbs, posh private schools and isolated watering holes. Privilege has to be earned by sacrifice for the common good rather than claimed as a birthright. Otherwise it will be resented and resisted. The only trustworthy elite is one that is prepared to subject itself and its privileges to relentless criticism. And to that end it might be a good thing if a few of the best and the brightest took the risk of trying to rejoin the two cultures that modernity has split asunder. Mastery of a specialized body of knowledge encourages undue confidence, which needs to be tempered by the broader, albeit more tenuous, insights that the humanities bring. But to choose to stand aloof, to criticize from outside rather than accept the comforts offered within, is risky. Hence it is not a choice for everyone. Still, as those quintessential representatives of the contemporary elite, the quantitative financiers, would be quick to tell you, without risk there is no reward.



Photo Credit: Roger W, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Building 10 and Dome (1975), via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Photo Credit: HICOG, Dr. James B. Conant, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Photo Credit: David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (Penguin, 1982) [Cover], Fair Use.


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