Monday, February 11, 2013

Elitism and Arrogance

A few years ago, I was taking a small group of students on a ten day trip to Italy.  Fascinated by its rich history and archeological sites, the most inquisitive of my talented students were ready to try their language skills. Since our group was small, the tour organizer decided to merge us with another group in order to fill a large bus. It was simple economics; the cost would have been lower for everyone.

To my amazement and unpleasant surprise, the planned merger with a group from Boston was rejected by the school director who specifically asked in a lengthy letter that his students not be forced to ride across northern Italy with Mississippi students. The Bostonians were “elite students accompanied by highly trained and educated faculty and did not want their enlightening experience to be spoiled by country folk who were barely literate and did not wear shoes.” I was surprised that the tour operator actually shared the letter from the Boston school. Perhaps she was incensed by the tone as well. They were requesting a different bus, despite the additional $15,000 cost. In the end, we were paired with a nice group from Florida.

I was familiar with the arrogance of people from other parts of the country who felt superior and disdained Mississippians. I had encountered the self-importance numerous times at various conferences. As soon as pompous colleagues found out that we represented a Mississippi university, they automatically deducted IQ points from our intelligence and tried to avoid us at all costs. Rude remarks were made such as, “Oh, you’ve come a long way,” meant figuratively, to which I would respond, “Yes, we’ve flown a great distance to be here.”

Recently, a Virginia state Senator, to whom I offered help with education issues, said to me, “None of these people are going to take you seriously with 30 years of teaching experience in Mississippi!”

I’ve lived so long in the south, I consider myself a proud Mississippian, and it is my adopted state. Many outstanding scientists, innovators, artists, actors, musicians, writers, and famous TV personalities hailed from Mississippi. There is something about the soil, the simpler life, the down to earth goodness that breeds talent, kindness, generosity, and ingenuity. Southerners are hardy people who seldom complain – they roll up their sleeves when asked to rise to any occasion. They actually love their neighbors and help each other in times of dire need. Nobody feels so superior that they cannot share a ride with someone else.

The two groups stayed in the same hotels and followed the same tour with the same Italian guide. At some point, I knew that I would have the chance to speak to the director from Boston. I got my opportunity in Venice when we were boarding the water taxis for Piazza di San Marco.

I had explored the credentials of the school, the director, and the faculty member accompanying them and I was not particularly impressed. Our entire faculty in Mississippi held Ph.D. degrees in their respective fields. Our students, with ACT scores of 32-36 and a couple of perfect SAT scores, had consistently won national recognition in mathematics, science, and language competitions. But they were modest, happy, and salt of the earth children who adapted well in any situation.

The director introduced himself. We shook hands and I described our school. Before we parted, I informed him that we were better trained, educated, and did not mind riding with them on the bus, that his ignorance, prejudice, and superiority airs made him look foolish, petty, and wasteful. I don’t think I changed his opinion; he was the typical product of an expensive liberal elite education that makes them feel superior to the rest of the world.

I was so proud of my Mississippi students! They asked intelligent questions and gave good answers during the tour. The Bostonians avoided us like the plague and barely acknowledged our existence at breakfast time with a hello. It was painfully evident that northern elitism bred contempt for their fellow man although their rhetoric sounded so humanitarian and giving.

I’d like to tell those with prejudices about the south that we do wear nice shoes except on the beach or on a velvety field of grass, enjoying the sunshine. Although it was mid-March, I walked with my daughter and a few students to the beach in Lido and we took our shoes off – we wanted to feel the sand and the Adriatic Sea. It was still cold for sun-bathing but perfect for momentary feelings of joy to let the cold waves bathe our naked feet.

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