In Praise of Elitism

A recent news article declared that the Hebrew University is considering the firing of many humanities instructors due to low demand. Similarly, recently in Ynet, a series about “generation Y” gives the tales of young people who studied the humanities and now find themselves with few employment prospects.

This had caused much comment. Much of it was of the “decline and fall” variety, as if Israel is giving up on a life of the mind. Others of a more practical — or cynical — bent showed barely-disguised Schadenfreude that such useless people will finally have to get a real job.

Both sides in this debate seem to agree the humanists are elitists, who consider themselves superior to those who learn merely practical skills (a thought that has its origins in Plato). They merely disagree about whether humanists are in fact superior, and the market’s ignoring of their knowledge is a sign of decay, or if is this elitism is all a huge put-on by self-important but useless people.   

But there is another meaning to elitism. Matthew Arnold called the humanities ‘the best which has been thought and said’. In this sense studying them is certainly an elitist activity, which should be done for its own sake, regardless of practical considerations. Reading the classics gives us so many sorts of pleasure. Italo Calvino, in his essay ‘Why Read the Classics’, lists more than a dozen different ways surprise, delight, insight, retrospection, discovery, and so on are caused by reading the great works.

Here, however, we are concerned not so much with personal motivation to read the classics, but how those do so should be treated by society: are they merely egoists, considering their own intellectual pleasure as superior to the need to make a living? Or are they an elite that should show us the way?

Neither, I think. We should all be such humanists; we should all study the best that had been thought and said — Plato, Shakespeare, and so on — without thinking either that it is useless since it makes no money, or else that it is society’s duty to supply us with a living as a prize for having studied such subjects.

Studying the humanities is important for society, because an humanities-educated person, and a society made of such persons, would make better decisions in all field of life. If all knew and appreciated Rembrandt, our current art scene would be better; if everybody read Tolstoy, we would read — and write — better books; if we learn what Aristotle and Plato and Kant say about morality and politics, we might suffer less from political demagogues and charlatans. What’s more, getting into the habit of critical thinking is supremely important, in both private, public, and even (dare we say it?) business life.

As anybody with love for the humanities knows, he humanities do not need to be “made relevant”, as they say in the “ed biz” (to quote that great philosopher, Tom Lehrer). They are relevant, indeed, supremely relevant, to life, quite as they are — if only we study them seriously.

Elitism for everybody should be our goal — where everybody studies Rembrandt or Tolstoy or Aristotle, and struggles with the text or the painting or the poem and their reaction to it. It is the artificial distinction between the “professional” humanists and the “masses” — both agreeing, each for their own reasons, that since the classics give no immediately-digestible practical advice, they are worthless for all but a select (or self-important) group of scholars — that leads to dislike of the humanities, and to most people learning about them from worthless ‘self-help’ books of the Business Tips from the Great Philosophers or How Reading the Classics will Impvoe Your Love Life sort. 

But why read worthless second-hand popularizations when there is so much pleasure and utility, to oneself and society, from going to the source?

About the Author
Dr Avital Pilpel is a lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). As a hobby, he researches the history of Chess in Israel and the Yishuv