In Defense of Elitism

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Sterling Memorial Library, Yale

Since the US Justice Department’s recent finding that Yale University discriminates against Asian American and white applicants in admissions, many of my fellow Yalies have lined up to condemn this conclusion and to declare support for the university’s affirmative action policies, citing the usual bromides about the importance of inclusion, diversity, and “standing in solidarity with people of color.”


These responses might give the impression that Yale’s supposed to be an inclusive institution, as if anywhere with a 6.3% undergraduate admissions rate can credibly claim to be inclusive, as if Yale, and Yale students and alumni, don’t constantly boast about how low that figure is. The same goes for other elite colleges and universities, including Harvard, which has also been accused of discriminating against Asian American applicants. No, these places are some of the most exclusive institutions in the world – and therein lies their cachet. They’re meant to take only the best students, professors, and administrators, and it’s this tradition of meritocracy that made them great.

Memorial Gate of Branford College, Yale

Unfortunately, America’s elite schools are straying from this tradition. Through affirmative action in admissions, they discriminate against more accomplished Asian and white applicants in favor of Hispanic and black applicants (an Asian applicant has to score 140 points higher than a comparable white applicant to have the same chance of admission; Hispanic and black applicants can afford to score 130 and 310 points lower than a comparable white applicant, respectively) in the name of diversity. This racial discrimination isn’t limited to admissions: many schools are officially giving preference to certain races in hiring faculty, and are employing a slew of administrators whose job it is to “promote equity” and so perpetuate this discrimination. There have even been calls for colleges to do away with standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT (which are socio-economic levelers) because Hispanic and black students don’t do as well on them, as if the failure of some students to score well is the fault of the test, and the solution to their inability to meet certain standards is to scrap standards.


To see where this road leads, you only need look at my native country of Malaysia. Public universities there have notoriously low academic standards. Most of them have a quota system that reserves 90% of spots for members of the majority Malay ethnic group (who make up 63% of the population) at the expense of the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, and some even reserve all their spots for Malay students. Malays are favored in the public sector and in government-linked companies, and it’s a common business practice for companies to appoint underqualified Malays to high positions for no better reason than having a Malay serve as the face of the company makes it more likely that it’ll be awarded government contracts. (This is what real institutionalized racism looks like.) The justification for these policies is that the Malays would otherwise be outcompeted by people of other races. Of course, these discriminatory policies favor the majority ethnic group far beyond its share of the population, unlike affirmative action in US schools, which favors some minorities to try to reflect the racial composition of the country, but the principle is the same: giving precedence to skin color over ability to achieve some supposedly equitable result.

Malays in Kuala Lumpur protest against plans to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 2018, for fear that the removal of discriminatory barriers would allow minorities to outcompete them (Picture Credit: Imranharithazmy)

The results are stark. Attending a Malaysian university carries little prestige either nationally or internationally. Malaysian universities are not highly ranked even by the relatively low standards of Asian universities, and almost anyone who can afford it goes abroad to study. With the possible exception of AirAsia, Malaysia has yet to produce any internationally competitive or respected brands, and it leads the world in nothing. It faces a brain-drain crisis, with many of its most talented people choosing to emigrate to pursue better opportunities. Worst of all, even after 50 years of these preferential policies, Malays largely still have difficulty competing with members of other ethnic groups, and many have instead come to depend on these special privileges like a crutch. Malaysia’s experience illustrates the dangers of subordinating meritocracy to a misguided idea of social justice.

Malaysia’s experience illustrates the dangers of subordinating meritocracy to a misguided idea of social justice.

Much of America’s greatness stems from its embrace of meritocracy, its ability to attract the best talents from around the world and give them enough opportunity to succeed on their merits. Perhaps nowhere was this better exemplified than in its elite schools. When I arrived at Yale as a student in 2010, it sure seemed that way, that this was truly a place dedicated to the pursuit of truth and wisdom, that the people there were some of the smartest people in the world. (This is no exaggeration. At all other times in my life, wherever in the world I was, I often felt myself surrounded by idiots. During my two years at Yale, I counted only three idiots.) Like in every school worthy of the name, there were differences of opinion, sometimes very passionate ones, playing out in classrooms and dining halls and the pages of campus publications, yet all seemed to recognize that the way to resolve them was through rational debate and that hearing and considering different sides helped us get closer to the truth. It is this commitment to a meritocracy of ideas, to allowing the clash of opposing arguments to reveal which ideas are robust and which are flimsy, that lies at the heart of an education.


The years since have seen a marked deterioration. Caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the radical left, and encouraged by the appeasement of gutless administrators, Yale students now seem increasingly fragile, increasingly brutish, increasingly intolerant of different opinions – in a particularly shameful episode in 2015, student gangs rounded on a college master and his wife (both also professors), and demanded their resignations for the crime of saying that students should dress as they please for Halloween. Amongst many of my fellow alumni, I’ve observed a disturbing fanaticism, marked by the uncritical regurgitation of leftist slogans, the inability to logically defend their professed ideas or discuss differing ones, and an intolerance towards dissenting voices, usually culminating in calls for those voices to be silenced. (Turns out some of the smartest people in the world are actually no smarter than anyone else when leftist ideology comes into play.) Sadly, this trend isn’t unique to Yale, but is spreading across campuses in America, with student mobs demanding the inclusion of more substandard students, faculty, and authors on the basis of skin color and, conversely, the removal or cancellation of faculty, authors, or speakers whose ideas don’t fit with their ideology. Thus do they clamor for the most meaningless kind of diversity (racial diversity) whilst treating the most meaningful kind of diversity to a university, ideological diversity, like a heresy that must be rooted-out. Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, calls this movement “the assault on American excellence.”


Nor is this trend restricted to the academy. At Google, some of the supposedly smartest people in tech forced the firing of software engineer James Damore in 2017 rather than try to engage with his thoughtful critique of the company’s attempts to achieve a 50/50 male-to-female ratio among its employees. Since the backlash over Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed in June, the New York Times, the paper of the intelligentsia, has worked to restrict the diversity of views in its opinion section, to keep its readers from encountering ideas that might offend their delicate sensibilities. Instead of challenging its readers, the Times now panders to them, and apparently exempts articles espousing leftist views from its usual standards of quality control (one example is this piece that begins with the melodramatic statement: “My book is coming out in a few months, and I don’t know if I’m going to be alive to see it, because I’m a black man,” and ends with a call to readers to excommunicate relatives and loved ones who aren’t sufficiently supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement.) The Sokal Hoax of 1996 and the Sokal Squared Hoax of 2018 showed the extent to which some publications were willing to drop standards in the name of ideology. These hoaxes involved writing deliberately nonsensical articles (which nonetheless fit with leftist ideology), and getting them accepted by those left-leaning social science journals. One of the articles in the latter hoax involved “canine rape culture at a Portland dog park,” another suggested binding “privileged” students to the floor with chains.

The radical leftism that has hijacked much of liberal discourse in America is fundamentally anti-intellectual: it’s the dogmatic refusal to consider any sex, racial, or even cultural differences and their effects, it’s the smearing of genetics as “race science,” it’s the denial of the distinction between reality and what you wish it was, it’s the substitution of ad hominem accusations of sexism, racism, or transphobia and calls to “check privilege” in place of reasoned debate, it’s the subordination of facts and logic to irrational, and often rather stupid, sensibilities. It’s anti-elitist, with the contest of ideas reduced to a kind of Oppression Olympics, in which weakness is not seen as something to be overcome but is instead made out to be a virtue, with the demand for “safe-spaces” against the “violence” of discomfiting ideas, with victory in an argument going to whoever can claim to be more oppressed or more offended, to whoever can fall to pieces at any upset or fly into a hysterical tantrum at any perceived slight. It is the death of the mind.

The radical leftism that has hijacked much of liberal discourse in America is fundamentally anti-intellectual: it is the death of the mind.

And then, of course, there’s the right in America, much of which is in thrall to a capering clown-president, who calls his incompetence “winning,” his stupidity “genius,” and his incoherence “having the best words.” Trump and his supporters are the antithesis to the American republican experiment, and are as anti-elite as can be. There’s their naked populism and their habitual use of the term “elite” as an insult. There’s their preference for mindless slogans over substantive policies. There’s their protectionism and xenophobia, driven by fear that Americans will be unable to compete with immigrants and foreigners, culminating in Trump’s suspension of the H-1B visa (which has been called America’s secret weapon for bringing in foreign talent). There’s their distrust and disdain for facts, science, and expertise, even in the face of a pandemic. And we’ve all seen the results, as the Trump administration lurches from one folly to another, and the country pays the price.

Picture Credit: Gage Skidmore

Perhaps the cure for the collective madness on both the left and the right is for us to reclaim the term “elitism,” to recognize that it’s not a pejorative but an expression of our highest aspirations, that it sets standards for people to strive to reach, and that, whilst not everyone will be able to reach them, all of human progress depends on that effort. That spirit of elitism was the spark that animated America’s greatest creators and visionaries, its greatest schools, and its greatest companies (recall how Steve Jobs attributed much of his success to his practice of only hiring A players, who only like working with other A players). This doesn’t mean that society should be social Darwinian, red in tooth and claw, that it shouldn’t show compassion for human frailty or provide for those who fall short. But the price of excellence is elitism, and the cost of abandoning it is mediocrity. And a society that suppresses distinctions in ability, that fails to celebrate and encourage merit, is one that cannot become or remain great.