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Sabrina Stevens Shupe

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The Other Trouble With 'Elites'

Posted: 01/19/12 12:10 PM ET

Wednesday morning, Denver progressive radio host David Sirota had DPS Superintendent (and Boulder, Colo. resident) Tom Boasberg on his show. The segment picked up on a point from Sirota's recent opinion piece, "America's dangerously removed elite": the significance of a high-profile school superintendent who, as neither an educator or a DPS parent, has virtually no stakeholder ties to the school district he runs.

Listening to Boasberg's comments, I was annoyed (though by now, not surprised) at his refusal to veer away from the standard DPS talking points, and I was grateful that I and other callers had the chance to address at least some of the problems he brushed over. But I spent the rest of the day irked by the fact that he didn't have to hear what was said, or question himself and his track record.

Though I'm skeptical by nature, I don't usually question the intentions of most people involved in this or other issues. For the most part, I find it's not a particularly useful exercise. I'm definitely not naive enough to discount the role of profit, self-interest, etc., in others' motivations, but I believe that most people want what's best for others, even if we disagree on what it takes for that to happen. Likewise, if the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then I am more interested in the evidence for or against a set of proposals than what's in the hearts of those proposing them.

I do, however, have a big problem with our schools and other public institutions being ruled by a small group of people sharing more or less the same perspective. I have an even bigger problem when these people are powerful, "dangerously removed" elites.

For one thing, the "most people" I referenced above are for the most part those who haven't been corrupted by power. Clichés exist for a reason -- power does distort people's behavior, especially if they're not purposeful and diligent about resisting that tendency.

For another, personal perspective is incomplete, and needs to be balanced out by different perspectives. Related to this, and of special interest when talking about the rich and powerful, is the fact they often live and work by a totally different set of rules than the rest of us.

While ordinary people usually have to work our way to positions of leadership and power, elites don't necessarily do this. That's not to say that every single person who gets to leadership via this "social fast lane" doesn't deserve to be there; there are certainly people who prove exceptional in their ability to lead, problem-solve, and so on. But not everyone who gets this kind of advantage deserves it, or uses it responsibly.

Going back to the Boasberg example, what I find more offensive than his not being a Denver resident is the fact that he is not the best person for this position. As I said when I called into the radio show, he didn't earn this important post because he rose to the top of a competitive pool of strong contenders. There was no such competition. Boasberg won the role because his prep school buddy -- former Superintendent and current Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet -- had the job before him, and set him up for it when he (Bennet) was appointed to Congress. (For his part, Bennet didn't have much relevant experience when he ran the district either, nor was DPS especially successful under his leadership. Yet he is now regarded as an education leader in Washington.)

The world of education politics, like politics more generally, is disturbingly incestuous in this manner, with elites handing each other prestigious leadership positions and opportunities, which they go on to parlay into additional leadership positions using their previous (often unearned) roles as credentials. They then enjoy the privilege of being supported by think tanks, media outlets, government agencies and other organizations that typically promote their ideas and actions instead of meaningfully investigating them.

And because too many of us buy into the idea that people come from a certain background, or have a lot of money, or attended certain schools are inherently 'better' than everyone else, too few of us question whether or not the people running our schools, communities and society are truly fit to do so. In many cases, they're not. Then we're left to suffer the consequences of being led by people who possess stunningly little relevant knowledge of what they're doing (and in the case of ed policy, even less inclination to listen to those who do.) That they and theirs don't suffer along with us (yet) just compounds the sense of frustration.

I absolutely agree with the principle of self-governance, and believe that people in positions of leadership should come from the ranks of those they lead. I also believe that our leaders should have some "skin in the game"; they should live in our communities, and experience the consequences of their actions as the rest of us do.

But I think it's as important, if not more so, to be sure that whomever we trust with this kind of responsibility actually deserves that trust. Do they want what's best for everyone? Do they understand enough about their field to make good decisions, or ask useful questions when presented with new information? Are they intentional enough to appeal to different perspectives to counter their own blind spots, or even humble enough to know they should do this? Are they willing to be held accountable for their actions, as they demand of others?

In many areas of our elite-dominated society, I find that the answer to these questions is no.

 

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