Snow’s world (2)

by Terence MacNamee

Snow’s world, the world of elites discussed last week, is based on the educational system. Elite secondary schools and the universities feed into it. They create the unity of outlook and the camaraderie that will sustain its members for a lifetime. But national systems of education differ: the German Gymnasium is not the French lycée, which is not the English “public school”. That, it seems to me, is why Snow’s World has always appeared in fairly distinct national varieties. England was one (Snow described it in his novels and essays), France was another, Germany, and the Soviet Union, were different again.

In recent years this has started to change. The élites are becoming more homogeneous, along with their educational systems. The urge to look beyond one’s borders and compare one’s situation with other élites is proving irresistible. The world of élites is now more and more an international world, rather than a locally rooted one, as Christopher Lasch has pointed out. In previous generations, national élites could live in splendid isolation from one another. Today, young members are encouraged to go abroad and study or get work experience. However, eventually they come home and take up the place that has been prepared for them, for that is where they belong. Only outsiders stay away for good. So the trend to international homogenization still has its limits.

On the other hand, these élites are also the place of what Snow called “the new men”, the modern managers, flexible, pragmatic and often ideologically neutral. To use Charles Handy’s terms, they tend to be Apollonian (dedicated organization men) or Athenian (members of élite teams, trading on their professional reputation with their “peers”). There is less and less room for the old-style Zeus (the paternal, intuitive “boss”) and for Dionysus (the individualist who wants to run his own show).

Whether it is caused by the trend to international comparison or the prevalence of management models, this increasing homogeneity of élites brings the risk of mediocrity, which seems inherent in bureaucracies but indeed all organizations. It’s good if everyone in the organizational leadership understands each other and subscribes to the same set of values and beliefs – it makes the place a lot easier to run – but a lack of mavericks and wilful eccentrics leads to a herd mentality and a loss of ability to innovate or even appreciate new situations for what they are.

This is where diversity comes in – a fashionable word, to be sure. Diversity means élites recruiting members from outside their own ranks, or at least entering into significant working relationships with such people. This is not just a nice thing to do for the sake of some supposed political correctness. It is the real answer to the problem of mediocrity in the élite ranks.