Weighing the Benefits Of an Unequal Society

THE artistic director of one of America's leading theater companies was once asked what he had gained from a lifetime of involvement in the arts. ``I think better thoughts,'' he replied.

Presumably, that meant he was a better director, mentor, friend, spouse, parent, and citizen, too. But those were beneficial side effects, not the reason he pursued the arts. His goal was to seek and express truth.

Perhaps this is the kind of elitist quest William A. Henry III intends to promote in ``In Defense of Elitism'': Society should encourage individuals to find and make maximum use of their talents.

Henry's book is likely to set most readers' heads nodding in agreement most of the time when he talks of meritocracy, the concept of guaranteeing something close to equal opportunities for all, but recognizing that by virtue of talent and hard work some will excel and some will not.

Yet some readers may find in Henry's work a troubling underlying sense that the masses should stand aside to give the truly gifted a chance to shine, since it is only they who will make meaningful contributions to humanity's advancement. And others may object to Henry's belief in formal academic achievement as the greatest good, with little recognition that moral and spiritual excellence is a gigantic need as well.

Henry, who until his recent death was an author and prize-winning journalist at Time magazine, argues a simple proposition in his book: Both egalitarianism (``all men are created equal'') and elitism (but people vary in their gifts, talents, and abilities) are embedded in American social and political thought. Society today is endangered by a radical swing toward egalitarianism. A strong dose of elitism is needed to adjust the balance.

Among examples of egalitarianism run amok that Henry cites are the political correctness movement on college campuses; the dropping of ``tracking'' by ability in public schools; and the growing belief of Americans in luck, rather than hard work, as exemplified in the popularity of gambling.

Much of the book adds to the critical chorus bemoaning public education. Among the solutions he proposes is reducing the number of high school graduates who go on to college to 33 percent from the current 60 percent (college should be reserved for the gifted elite; most high school graduates would benefit more from technical training that would lead to employment).

Individual responsibility for success in school is fast disappearing, he writes: ``America is in the grip of an egalitarianism so pervasive that low grades are automatically assumed to be the failure of the school and the teacher and perhaps the community at large - anyone but the student himself.''

Even today's popular message of ``family values'' has been distorted to serve mediocrity. Americans ``hear that their lives rank as rich and accomplished merely by virtue of their having survived and reproduced and put food on the table, and they ask no more of themselves,'' he argues.

Henry writes precisely and with erudition, but without pretension. His arguments are logical, classically so, one point building to the next, the outline buried just beneath prose used with telling effect. The result is a kind of meaty readability.

This slender volume deserves to be widely read, pondered, and discussed. Though Henry claims to approach his topic from a politically liberal perspective, he seems certain to win an especially sympathetic hearing from conservatives who preach individual responsibility and ``virtue.''

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