Qu: Pretension and Power

by Dorothy Qu | 5/11/16 5:30pm

I just subscribed to the online version of the New York Times. Since then, I have found that the time I spend reading has increased significantly. Interestingly enough, so have the instances of browsing the internet at 4 a.m.

At that ungodly hour I mostly read articles written by libertarians or conservatives. This, as well as reading angry people’s comments, are my guilty pleasures — pleasures, because I do genuinely enjoy reading opposing viewpoints, but guilty, because I know that some crudely crafted articles I end up reading merely make me feel frustrated, with no gain in knowledge or understanding whatsoever. The bottom line is that I try to stay as unbiased as possible by reading liberal and conservative works.

Although I remain loyal to The New York Times, I do branch out; I recently indulged in a New York Magazine article shared by a professor. After reading it, I automatically looked to see how the public reacted to the article — and I was not disappointed. One responder who caught my eye had commented with proud derision that no Southerner would read the piece because of the pretension dripping from the very first sentence: “As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic.” I had to scroll back and reread these first sentences a few times. Merriam-Webster defines pretentious as “having or showing the unpleasant quality of people who want to be regarded as more impressive, successful or important than they really are.” Pretentious? I genuinely did not think that statement was. Wordy? Yes, but what scholarly work is not? In fact, I had been thinking about Plato since I read the title “Democracies end when they are too democratic.” I stopped scrolling. Was I pretentious?

When I read Plato’s Republic, I bought into it. Specifically, I bought into Plato’s judgment that philosopher kings have the natural right to rule, because they are the wisest and can see the so-called “true Forms.” In other words, they have the know-how to put everyone in the role in society that best fits their abilities. However, when I read Plato’s work hierarchy of governments, sweat beaded at my neck when I saw that democracy placed second to last, right above tyranny. Did agreeing with Plato to some extent mean that I hated democracy?

No, I came to realize, it did not. But it did make me feel skeptical — and, yes, pretentious. But I’ll have to come back to this thought later.

Two years ago, the Pew Research Center found that Republicans and Democrats were “more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the previous two decades.” But this divide “is not confined to partisanship. There are also growing ideological divisions along educational and generational lines.” This year, the data they found confirmed this trend: the gaps continue to widen.

The left should not rejoice at this fact. It’s not comforting. Another Pew study from 2014 shows that, although millennials have become the most educated generation in America, with about a third of us having earned or are on the path toward earning a bachelor’s degree or higher, the income gap between those with a college education and those without has been widening. The result is that the majority of Americans, who have lower levels of education, are left in the dark.

As the political scientists and author Charles Murray puts it, a gap is forming. Although I disagree with many of Murray’s sentiments, I do acknowledge that he has a point with this statement. And, right now, schools like Dartmouth represent that educated elite. He states in his Feb. 12 article for the Wall Street Journal, “The new upper class consists of the people who shape the country’s economy, politics and culture. The new lower class consists of people who have dropped out of some of the most basic institutions of American civic culture, especially work and marriage.”

This brings me back to the topic I put on pause earlier: although we have higher levels of education, does this mean that we have the right to rule? One argument is that no one has that right — rather, as supported by a 2014 study at Princeton University, we live in an oligarchy. However, Donald Trump’s — and Bernie Sanders’, to a slightly smaller extent — success shows that power in number and volume may actually undermine this argument, much to the surprise and panic of those with established power. My personal grievances towards Trump aside, not even his most loyal supporter can find evidence to support the many factual errors that Trump has spewed over the year, as shown in an episode of “Late Night Tonight,” which has reached 25 million views since its release on YouTube on Feb. 28. Fact-checking sites such as Politifact show his perpetual lying, determining that 76 percent of what Trumps says is false — yet he has managed to become a major party’s nominee for president. Clearly, if left to the masses, the masses may choose to elect someone with no concrete platform or grasp on politics. Are we the future’s example of a failed democracy due to this ideological schism?

Unfortunately, I’m just a college freshman. I have no answers to this widening gap. But I do know two things. Firstly, many of us live in a “bubble” but don’t realize it. A large chunk of us Dartmouth students are on financial aid and are strikingly aware of how different life at Dartmouth is from life at home. But the majority of us have lived fairly comfortable lives and haven’t experienced how the “average” American lives, and we must recognize that. If we remain unaware of the growing educational and social divide, we will end up alienating a large population of Americans, namely the white working class. Realizing this is important, because the more “pretentious” we seem, the less they will want to compromise. Science, philosophy, ethics and anything else scholarly are useless if discussions remain impossible.

Secondly, education — and, by extension, the pretension that often comes with it — is important. There need to be people talking about climate change, about social progress, about government and so on. Working hard and having your ideologies refined and improved by higher education is not a negative thing: we’re coming closer to a more scientifically and socially advanced and accepting civilization. But we can’t leave a large part of America behind.