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Does Bryn Mawr College Foster Elitism in its Students?

aaclh's picture
From a class discussion in Introduction to Critical Feminist Studies I, a student at Bryn Mawr College, became interested in the possibility of the attitude of elitism not only existing on campus among students but also being fostered by faculty, administration and other influential people at the college. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary gives as a definition of elitism: "noun 1 the belief that a society or system should be run by an elite. 2 the superior attitude or behaviour associated with an elite (elitism)." From this I gathered that I was more interested in the first definition and that I needed to know what 'an elite' was. The same dictionary defines elite as: "noun 1 a group of people regarded as the best in a particular society or organization. 2 a size of letter in typewriting, with 12 characters to the inch (about 4.7 to the centimetre) (elite)." This paper is concerned with only the former definition. So, in fact, the leading question of this paper is ill-defined. Elitism depends on which society or particular group one speaks and who is regarding whom with what measure of 'best.' For this paper, take the society or particular group to be the United States. Then the only type of elitism that seems just to me is the one where 'best' is measured by 'best in ruling a country' by people who can accurately judge this. To know if this type of elitism seems just, one needs to know what the goals of a country are in order to judge if a ruler is 'the best', as in 'the best in ruling a country.'

For guidance in this matter, I turn to John Dewey. In The Democratic Conception in Education he says "In seeking [a measure for the worth of any given mode of social life], we have to avoid two extremes. We cannot set up, out of our heads, something we regard as an ideal society. We must base our conception upon societies that actually exist, in order to have any assurance that our ideal is a practicable one. [T]he ideal cannot simply repeat the traits which are actually found [already; it must include change as will improve it]. The problem is to extract the desirable traits of forms of community life which actually exist,and employ them to criticize undesirable features and suggest improvement (47)." What he argues for in this passage is essentially gradual change through education to a better society. What is not clear in this passage is who defines what is and is not desirable. However, the previous quotation implies that he thinks each person should decide for herself the desirability of societal traits. In fact, once he makes clear his own measure of a good society, it is clear that this is what he thinks. To understand what he takes to be desirable, one must starts with his argument that 'in any social group [. . .] we find some interest held in common, and we find some amount of interaction and cooperative intercourse with other groups (47)." He takes as his measure of a better society one that maximizes common interests and interactions between groups of people in the society. So, he goes on to argue, it is important for education to instill in students a value in societal good, a value in community-mindedness. With this stipulation, that one must always value society, it is clear that he thinks that each should decide desirability of a trait in society for herself.

I think that a society needs to be able to adapt to improvement (probably because of the education I have had). To this end, Dewey notes that a "society which is mobile [. . .] must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise [. . .] the result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others. [Whereas,] a society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements (48)." It is this quotation that convinces me that for a society to not be elitist, in the form that does not make sense for the benefit of itself (using the measure of a better society as the ability to improve by direction of its members), it must educate all of its members in the manner proscribed above. Therefore the only way I see to measure whether a particular school fosters undesirable elitism is to measure whether it encourages people to disagree with this sentiment.

To measure whether Bryn Mawr College encourages its students to disagree with the idea that the US must educate everyone in the US in personal initiative and adaptability I examined its mission statement From this I hoped to gain an idea of the goals of the college to see if it aligns itself with Dewey's idea.

The Bryn Mawr College Mission Statement appears to exactly align itself with John Dewey. It says that one goal of the college is to "encourage the pursuit of knowledge [in an individual] as preparation for [the] life and work [of that individual]." This could be taken in two ways, one as fostering elitism and one as not. If one understands this quotation to encourage each student to use her education only for herself, then it surely is misaligned with Dewey's goal. However the rest of the mission statement clarifies this statement further in a way which makes this reading of it fall short of its intended meaning. The clarifying sentence is that a further goal of the college is to "encourage students to be responsible citizens who provide service to and leadership for an increasing interdependent world." These goals, taken together, mean that, assuming the goal of the college is actually fulfilled in each student, a Bryn Mawr student pursues knowledge to prepare herself for her life and work which includes leading and servicing the world. As seen in Dewey's writing, it is unclear from this statement to what end a Bryn Mawr student should lead or service the world. Thus, a priori, it still might be the case that the goal of Bryn Mawr College fosters elitism in its students. However, just as with Dewey, other parts of the text show that this is not the case. Consider, "each generation of students experiments with creating and sustaining a self-governing society within the College." This statement makes it clear that Bryn Mawr College values a self-governed society, so much so that it has as its goal to practice this at the college level. This is made even further clear in the statement "Bryn Mawr seeks to sustain a community diverse in nature and democratic in practice." At this point it is totally clear that, at least in goals, Bryn Mawr College is aligned with John Dewey's sentiments of a society that is governed by its members and educates in personal initiative and adaptability. 

At this point it is clear to me that to measure whether Bryn Mawr College fosters elitism would require a study of what actually goes on in classrooms; this is outside the scope of this paper. So, while the initiating question of whether or not the College fosters elitism is still unanswered, this paper at least dealt with more rigorously defining the question to a more answerable question by examining Dewey's work. To rephrase, the paper examined the definition of 'elitism' and 'elite' in order to rephrase the question "Does Bryn Mawr College foster elitism in its students?" to the more specific question "Does Bryn Mawr College foster an elitism in its students other than the (desirable) elitism based in the US on people - from the US - qualified in judging the ability of people - in the US - in ruling the US?" To examine this question, I used Dewey's work to hone in on the goals of a society and how education contributes to these goals. His work implies that the goals of a society need to be defined by members in the society and hence it needs to be adaptable because not only do members of a society change (when we take the society to be the US), but also each member's goals for the US can change. He argues that, therefore, an education needs to teach people personal initiative and adaptability. Thus, to measure the (potential) fostering of elitism in students at Bryn Mawr College, one needs to measure (potential) fostering, in students, the belief that (all) members in the US can define the direction of the US and (all) members of the US should be educated in personal initiative and adaptability. To conclude, at least in goals, Bryn Mawr College does not foster students in elitism.





Works Cited

"Bryn Mawr College Mission Statement." 5 Dec 2008. <>.

Dewey, John. "The Democratic Conception in Education." Philosophy of Education: An Anthology. Ed. Randall Curren. Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 47-54.

"Elite." Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2008. Oxford University Press. 7 Dec 2008 <>.

"Elitism." Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2008. Oxford University Press. 7 Dec 2008 <>.

"Bico, Tri-Co and Penn." 5 Dec 2008. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

Assessing Elitism


This is a careful, very deliberate walking-through of the stages of defining your terms, re-defining your question, and looking @ the College's public statements about its goals and principles in light of those terms. John Dewey is a great resource for you, both because so much of his work had to do with the making of immigrants into U.S. citizens, and because of his legacy in progressive education.

So, let's take a "leaf" (or @ least a line!) that you highlighted in his book--"We cannot set up, out of our heads, something we regard as an ideal society. We must base our conception upon societies that actually exist." Seems that the next step here is precisely the one you identify as being "outside the scope of this paper": a study of what actually goes on in classrooms. It is very interesting to see how the College describes itself in public documents, but the proof is in the pudding: what really happens in classrooms, perhaps in particular with regard to assessment practices? How much "personal initiative and adaptability" is actually being fostered?

The College is engaged right now in a Middle States re-assessment process, and as part of that project, each department has been asked to "demonstrate that we are achieving our goals for our students' learning," "deciding what we want our students to learn and making sure that they have learned it." Would you like to find out how the math (for example) or English depts. are approaching this task? Or analyze how assessment has been conducted in a variety of classes you've taken? As a way of thinking about the relationship between assessment and the construction (or not) of elitism?

Looking forward to seeing where you go with this--