Dean Katharine Bartlett delivers Duke University convocation address

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Being the Best

Katharine T. Bartlett

Duke Law School Dean and
A. Kenneth Pye Professor of Law Katharine T. Bartlett

I join President Brodhead and the deans, officers, faculty, and staff of this University in welcoming you — graduate and professional students — to Duke. This university is a truly great place, and, from all accounts, you are amazing people. We are excited for you and look forward to seeing you thrive here.
As you have worked your way to this place, you have been rising within a steeply narrowing pyramid of educational achievers. For every 100 people who begin grade school in the U.S., only 18 achieve a 4-year bachelor’s degree, fewer than 7 get a master’s degree, 1.6 earns a professional degree, and 1.3 earns a doctorate.

As college graduates you are already a member of the educated elite; as you receive your graduate or professional education at Duke, you are becoming a part of the educated super-elite — one of less than 3% of our population. And only a tiny fraction of these will earn degrees at institutions as prestigious as Duke. You are extremely talented and have worked hard to get where you are — in a position to become the best.

This may be a good time to explore a certain ambivalence about membership in an elite. We are taught to be the best that we can be; but then, do we feel a little guilty to have achieved so much based on opportunities others did not have, and on the consumption of more than our fair share of educational resources? Are we defensive, because things really weren’t so easy for us to get to this place and we resent people thinking that we were handed everything on a silver platter? Do we feel put upon, because our special knowledge equips us to make things better for others, but these others don’t always seem to appreciate what we can do for them?

For insight, I sought help from Wikipedia — the free, democratic, non-elitist, on-line encyclopedia. Wikipedia defines an elite as “a selected group of persons whose personal abilities, wealth, specialised training or other attributes place them at the top of any field.”

Nothing to run away from, here, as long as one’s membership in an elite comes, as yours does, from ability and specialized training.

The problem with elites of course, even good elites, is the possibility of elitism. Wikipedia begins the definition of elitism with “the belief or attitude that elites are the people whose views on a matter are to be taken most seriously ...” Then the definition goes on:

Elitism may also be used to convey a less rational and more purely arrogant sense of entitlement or better treatment . . . Stemming from this usage, elitism . . . is often used pejoratively as conveying disregard for the public (non-elites). . . .

So, that’s it: the dark side of being the best — the possibility of assuming special authority or privilege on account of one’s qualifications; of setting oneself apart from others who do not “match up.”

What I have to say today relates to how we can negotiate being members of the highly educated “elite,” without being elitist in the pejorative sense of that term. I start with an account of privilege. Privilege relies on the elevation of one commodity or currency over others. People who possess a particular attribute or qualification, or think they see a way of acquiring it, tend to see as rational a society in which their qualification is the operative currency. For example, people from families with social standing usually find perfectly sensible a society in which the social register matters; people with money tend to think goods should be distributed in accordance with what people can pay for themselves; people who are tall, or fast, or strong, or beautiful, find it quite rational that these qualities matter and that benefits come to those who have them; people who test well on written, timed tests, tend to believe in “merit” as judged by performance on — well, on written, timed tests.

The academic specialty you are pursuing at Duke will be your currency. The more you invest in that specialty and the better you get at it, it will be your tendency to want to keep the value of that currency high, and the more sense it will make to you that attention and reward should follow excellence in the field.
Interestingly one of the beneficial singularities of 19th-century American democracy identified by de Tocqueville was that while Europe’s advanced civilization at that time was organized in skilled specialties, in America the same person might have to till his field, build his dwelling, fashion his tools, make his shoes and weave his cloth. “This is prejudicial to the excellence of the work,” de Tocqueville writes, “but it powerfully contributes to awakening the intelligence of the workman. Nothing tends to materialize man and to deprive his work of the faintest trace of mind more than the extreme division of labor.” In near vein, Abraham Lincoln, writing a little later, saw the integration of various skills and talents as part of the democratic ideal, as opposed to specialization which he thought implied hierarchy.

Today, we are measured increasingly not by how much we can do ourselves or by how well we bring together our hands and our minds, but by the depth of our specialization. This has undoubtedly meant “greater excellence in the work,” to use de Tocqueville’s phrase, but arguably at the expense of that kind of non-hierarchical intelligence, and modesty, that comes from sharing with others a broader and more accessible set of common skills.

At Duke, connections between specializations are highly valued because we believe that it is at these points of connections that problems can often best be solved. Still, even in a highly interdisciplinary context, specialization is the operative currency.

As you work to be the best in your speciality, or cross-specialty, it will pay to think about your own proclivities toward elitism. Some simple diagnostics: when you get caught in a long grocery store line, or a situation in which you might be bumped from an oversold flight — do you impatiently assume that your time is more valuable than the time of those ahead of you? At election time, do you assume that most people are easily manipulated (other people, that is, not you)? Do you think that rules are necessary for other people, but that if the rest of the world were like you, we wouldn’t need them? If so, in what other ways might you also exude arrogance — that know-it-when-you-see-it air of superiority?
There are three common strategies for anticipating, and dispelling, the possible presence or accusation of elitism, all of which I think are misguided. One is to distinguish ourselves from others of privilege. I tell my own story of growing up on a small family farm, where money was tight and rewards came more from the successful completion of chores than from doing well at school. I am not from the elite — how can I be guilty of elitism?

The problem is that pretending that one has risen above one’s circumstances is not a defense to elitism — in fact, it exhibits elitism, in the sense of believing that one deserves the privilege one has acquired — indeed, perhaps deserves it more than others.

A second misguided strategy (also tempting to those of us who grew up on farms) is to work really hard. In a recent column, David Brooks (who is teaching at Duke’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy this semester) describes brilliantly a change in the nature of elites, from aristocrats whose class yielded special privilege within a life of leisure and culture, to today’s elites who work long, hard hours, with little of what we could meaningfully call “free time.” When we work so hard to get where we are, something about us wants to say, how can we be faulted for expecting some extra recognition and respect?

This, again, misses, or maybe proves, the point, which is that elitism is an attitude problem — not a problem about talent, qualification, value of contribution, or deservedness. To this problem, distinguishing ourselves from others is not the answer; it is the problem.

A third approach is capitulation — that is, being so afraid of appearing to seem superior that we abandon standards, refusing to recognize quality or degrees of excellence. Surely this doesn’t work either. Why throw away good currency when it could be used to real purpose in the world?

In 1963 sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote that while “generations of British gentlemen had proudly, and sometimes smugly, assumed it their natural right and duty to rule the world,” the American promise was that everyone is equal to pursue their own dreams. The downside to this emphasis on equal opportunity, he notes, is that “Americans have been trained to succeed rather than to lead.”

Success is good, and you are all to be wildly congratulated for the individual honors and distinctions you have earned. But leadership, you all know, and as so many of your records reflect, requires other good things as well. It requires making things happen, for others as well as for ourselves. It requires an approach of non-condescending service that connects us to others, rather than sets us apart. It requires using our currency as wise stewards — not hoarding it, or squandering it, or pulling rank with it; and it requires appreciating the value of other currencies besides our own.

Duke offers you many models on which you can build your own commitment to leadership — persons educated at Duke or Duke faculty who represent the highest standards in their fields, who have directed their energies toward elevating some aspect of the condition of humanity — making a difference — without evidencing a trace of condescension, arrogance, or entitlement to special privilege:

Paul Farmer, who has invested his considerable talent, brilliance and training as a doctor into the delivery of health care to the world’s poorest populations;

John Hope Franklin, who defined the field of American black history and remains, at age 91, one of the most active contributors to public understanding of the role of race in this society;

John Adams, one of the founders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has litigated successfully some of the most significant environmental protection cases in this country’s history;

Reynolds Price, whose fiction has stirred the souls of millions;

Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and marine explorer, and a major voice for the preservation of the world’s marine ecosystems.

I urge you to find your role models. There are many Duke alumni and faculty to choose from — scientists and doctors helping to gain an edge on AIDS, cancer, and diabetes; lawyers and political scientists hammering out definitions of personal freedom and security in our post-9/11 world; engineers designing better prosthetic devices for victims of accidents and war; economists and finance experts creating better business models; and theologians, physicians and philosophers developing new standards for care at the end of life — to name just a few.

Your expertise will equip you to make a difference in the way these people are making a difference — especially if you can find your own version of the humility, and respect for others that characterize each of these individuals. You can be the best, at this elite institution, without being elitist.

Again, welcome to Duke. We are astounded by your brilliance, and thrilled to have you here.