Opinion Columnists 05 Oct 2021 Mohan Guruswamy | Wh ...
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy

Mohan Guruswamy | What makes elite think that they are smarter?

Published Oct 5, 2021, 7:42 am IST
Updated Oct 5, 2021, 10:52 am IST
The CJI’s observation comes against the backdrop of considerable difficulties being faced by litigants and many lawyers
A few days ago a Supreme Court bench gave expression to its ire during the mentioning hour in the morning when a senior advocate sought to mention the case of a corporate entity for an early hearing. (Photo: PTI/File)
 A few days ago a Supreme Court bench gave expression to its ire during the mentioning hour in the morning when a senior advocate sought to mention the case of a corporate entity for an early hearing. (Photo: PTI/File)

During the 2020 American presidential election campaign, Donald Trump tried to belittle challenger Joe Biden about his education. Mr Biden had gone to the University of Delaware, which is a very affordable state university. Mr Trump said he was not smart because of that. He began referring to him as “Dumb Joe”! It was Mr Biden’s good upbringing that he didn’t bring up the matter of Mr Trump’s SAT scores, which his sister had said was taken by a stand-in. Mr Trump obviously thinks his chicanery makes him smart, and the fact that he finally went to the elite Wharton School at the University of Pennsyl-vania, even though it was a mid-term transfer from Fordham University.

People who study at social elite institutions such as the Doon School in India or at Eton in England or Exeter in the United States assume certain airs and generally look down on others without rich or well-connected parents. Rajiv Gandhi went to Doon School and liked to flaunt it, though he may not have needed that to qualify as a commercial pilot. As Prime Minister he surrounded himself with fellow Doscos like Suman Dubey, Arun Singh, Vivek Bharat Ram, Romi Chopra, Aroon Purie and of course Mani Shankar Aiyar.

 

There were other well-placed Doscos also like Kamal Nath and Naveen Patnaik. Most of them do well in life, because of the perfumed network that is forged by schooling and rooming together.

Mani Shankar Aiyar gave Narendra Modi’s souped-up rags to high office story a lasting burnish by sneeringly referring him as a chaiwalla only fit to run a canteen at the AICC office at 24 Akbar Road. This only egged on Prime Minister Modi to further embellish his story by self servingly suggesting that his mother washed dishes in neighbouring households to support the family. These have as much credibility as his claims to higher education. But it took a lowbrow comment from a Doon School, St. Stephen’s College, Cambridge University and IFS alum to give it credence. What people can believe often depends on who says it!

 

What makes our social elite such a self-congratulatory lot? Shamus Khan, the chair of the sociology department at Columbia University, is the author of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, in which he writes: What makes schools (like Yale) elite is that so few can attend. In the mythologies they construct, only those who are truly exceptional are admitted — precisely because they are not like everyone else. Yale president Peter Salovey, for instance, has welcomed freshmen by telling them that they are “the very best students”. To attend these schools is to be told constantly: “You’re special, you’re a member of the elect, and you have been chosen because of your outstanding qualities and accomplishments.”

 

When I joined the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, dean Graham Allison, welcoming the incoming class, advised us to “choose your friends intelligently as they will be the ones who will climb the mountain with you”.

These institutions often quite openly affirm the idea that, because you are better, you are not governed by the same dynamics as everyone else. They celebrate their astonishingly low acceptance rates and broadcast lists of notable alumni who have earned their places within the nation’s highest institutions, such as the US Supreme Court.

 

This narrative of the exceptional student rests on a fiction with pathological consequences: Harvard economist Raj Chetty has shown that children whose parents are in the top one per cent of earners are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than are the children of poorer parents — meaning that, in cases like this, admission is less about talent and more about coming from the right family. In that way, privilege casts inherited advantages as “exceptional” qualities that justify special treatment.

No wonder that, when the poor lie, they’re more likely to do so to help others, according to research by Derek D. Rucker, Adam D. Galinsky and David Dubois, whereas when the rich lie, they’re more likely to do it to help themselves. According to Stanford Business School’s Prof. Jeffrey Pfeffer, the ability to lie can be very useful for getting ahead. Skill at manipulation, writes Pfeffer, “is a foundation of social power”. In fact, he says, there is a reciprocal relationship between power and lying: The powerful deceive more often, and the ability to deceive effectively creates social power.

 

Such selfish tendencies extend well beyond the way the privileged use untruths to their advantage. According to research by psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, the elites’ sense of their own exceptionalism helps instill within them a tendency to be less compassionate. This may have its roots in the fact that there seem to be two different sets of consequences for the rich and the rest.

This sense of exceptionalism makes itself felt in all walks of life, when the rich and well connected expect to be attended to first, before the people who are queued up. A few days ago a Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli gave expression to its ire during the mentioning hour in the morning when a senior advocate sought to mention the case of a corporate entity for an early hearing: “How can all these corporate people come and start mentioning their matters? There are pending criminal appeals and other cases, too. We have to give priority to other people, particularly the weaker sections.”

 

The CJI’s observation comes against the backdrop of considerable difficulties being faced by litigants and many lawyers because of the pandemic-induced freeze on physical hearings. Several lawyers are peeved that the Covid-19 pandemic crisis has turned out to be a boon for some select law firms and senior advocates, including those who have relocated themselves to London.

In the end, it is impossible to separate success from class. One time in the course of a discussion my political guru, the late Chandrashekharji, who liked to flaunt his humble rural origins, in an exasperated tone had asked me: “What did you learn at Harvard that you couldn’t have learned here?”

 

I replied nothing, but one thing I do know is that a degree from Harvard made important people like him think well about me. He laughed and said: “On that I agree with you!”

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