THOUGH the generation of the rebellious '60s and '70s lies behind us, one of its ideas still prevails, as fallacious and as destructive as ever: It is the charge of elitism brought against any and all attempts to maintain standards. To begin with, those who make the charge never define the term. Is there a single elitism, an absolute? And does it stand in unvarying relationship to particular conditions? Elitism rests upon the demonstrable belief that the most capable should govern. Further, it is an article of faith that great leadership is one of the essentials of civilization. Flowing from this is an important corollary -- the good achieved by the gifted shall flow forth to become accessible to all.
The art in the great public squares of Europe, commissioned by a sociopolitical elite and sculptured by an artistic elite, is now enjoyed by everyone. Most of the art in museums was once a part of privately owned collections. Now ``elitist'' art is available to all.
In its most profound aspect elitism must be understood as stemming from classical humanism, in particular its credo that humanity should strive to achieve excellence. Elitism cannot be separated from the human quest for excellence. For millenniums both religious thinkers and philosophers have regarded the quest for the best as intrinsically moral.
Elitism has a distinctly religious form. It is clear, for example, in Maimonides' classic ``Guide for the Perplexed.'' The author asserts that instruction in the Talmud is a most arduous task, that the young are to be instructed by fine scholars for the long, demanding road to comprehend God's wisdom. Nor is such ``elitism'' absent from other religions.
True, elitism does have a pejorative connotation. An elite that is self-serving and anti-humanistic, fostering goals that are destructive of the common good, should be condemned. But the plain truth is that no society, since primitive times, has functioned without an elite; no society can function without one.
I turn now to a specific, current use of the term, the attack upon the maintenance of standards in special schools with high academic standards as ``elitist.'' New York, like other cities, has high schools for the artistically and intellectually gifted.
The good of society demands that no talent be wasted, particularly at present when our nation is so hard pressed to maintain its economic place in the world.
Can the Bronx High School of Science function as a typical high school? No, it cannot. The reasons are clear. But the anti-elitists argue that blacks and Hispanics are being discriminated against. Nonsense on two counts:
1. The achievement of the gifted graduates redounds to the good of all. The anti-elitists are, therefore, themselves being elitists by demanding special conditions for a minority to the detriment of the majority.
2. Blacks and Hispanics who possess scientific talent are being admitted. Indeed, another minority, Asians, are being admitted in increasing numbers. The solution for greater black and Hispanic numbers does not lie in the educational sphere; it lies in the social sphere.
Few would deny that we are living at a time of sharply declining standards in every sphere of life. Our nation is sorely beset with severe economic problems that threaten our standard of living as well as our posture in the world. We must all seek to upgrade the quality of life, to defend standards.
Finally, it is instructive to note that while in a single decade our exports have declined by an alarming 10 percent, few think to connect this phenomenon to the dominant fashions in thought.
Sidney Shanker is a retired professor of English at the City University of New York .