Higher Education

intellectual elitism and Britannica blog

Michael Gorman proclaims his support for intellectual elitism and meritocracy on Britannica blog. The post meanders through a couple of points as near as I can figure out, each questionable.

1. Gorman begins with poorly formed potshots at literacy and intelligence that amount to nothing more than an ideological proclamation for cultural conservatism. Gorman then writes "Perhaps these are elitist ideas?  So be it.  Learning and education are
enterprises in which the academically gifted prosper and are justified
in prospering." I actually don’t think these are elitist ideas. They are instead rather simplistic, everyday notions. It’s actually fairly anti-intellectual to proclaim "I know what ‘literacy’ and ‘intelligence’ are." Furthermore, placing faith in the idea of an intellectual meritocracy seems hopelessly naive, and it would be just plain silly and stunningly ignorant to imagine that Wikipedia is the only thing standing between us and some utopian society goverened by the wise.

If only it were easy to determine who had intelligence. If only it were easy to define literacy. If only it were easy to create a system where those with merit were rewarded. I am totally stunned that a person like Gorman who has lived his professional life in academia could believe that education rewards the "academically gifted" in some unproblematic way that is not overdetermined by ideology and material contexts.

2. What communism was for McCarthy, Wikipedia is for Gorman. Here’s the
thing. Wikipedia is a website, albeit a big and popular website. It’s
inconsistent. It’s not a final authority, nor does it intend to be one.
Perhaps Britannica desires to be such an authority, though I can’t
imagine it is that foolish.  We continue to develop as a society with
greater and greater specialization and expertise. Wikipedia will not
change that. Conflating Wikipedia with the entirety of web culture is
hopelessly reductive. In fact, making blanket statements about the 5.3
million articles (according to Wikipedia) on the site is hopelessly

What might be interesting and a genuine intellectual activity would be
to study why some articles are good and some are not. However, what is
particularly unworthy in Gorman’s post is the cheap way he tries to
shore up his ultra-weak argument about literacy and intelligence by
pointing at Wikipedia. As in, "elitism is good because Wikipedia isn’t
elitist and it’s bad." Huh?

Is this the kind of reasoning one gets from an elitist education?

3. Gorman’s post ends with the following:

The central lesson of our current response to the changes that
digitization has wrought and is wreaking should be that it is not only
possible but also good to respond with changes in the ways in which we
do things as long as those changes are firmly rooted in an intellectual
meritocracy.  In turn, that meritocracy must be based on respect for
expertise and learning, respect for individual achievement, respect for
true research, respect for structures that confer authority and
credentials, and respect for the authenticity of the human record.

Digitization brings changes and
it is not only possible but good to respond by changing how we do
things.  I’m ok with that. Those changes should be rooted in intellectual meritocracy?
Hmm…well what is meant by meritocracy? Gorman tells us: respect. Like
the respect Gorman wants to offer the contributors to Wikipedia? Or
perhaps they haven’t earned his respect. I wonder who gets to determine
who is respectable?Are their efforts not an authentic part of "the
human record"? The human record sounds like a fairly broad category.
Perhaps the contributors to Wikipedia aren’t fully human; it’s the type
of argument one would not be surprised to hear, historically at least,
from a self-proclaimed elitist.

However, I’m fairly certain that’s not Gorman’s point. Instead, I think he’s trying to figure out a way to bring better knowledge to the public. And yes the term "better" might be ideologically loaded, but I can live with having that debate as part of the process.

So there’s your challenge. Get smart, accomplished people to offer their knowledge freely to the public on the web in a way that is accessible both rhetorically and technologically. Until you do, people will make use of the best information available to them in a cost-benefit analysis of information retrieval. But you can’t just wave a wand and change the rules. You have to succeed in the context of the culture in which we live, or perhaps its more satisfying to just complain about it.

But surely this elite intellectual meritocracy is brilliant enough to beat out the lightweights at Wikipedia, right?


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