Easy and Elegant Life

The Search for Everyday Elegance and the Art of Living Well.

Plain Speaking


I am often asked, by those who care about these things, where (or perhaps, when) we went wrong.

After watching the Dick Cavett show with guests John Cheever and John Updike, I am even more bewildered. I just don’t have a ready answer. Do talk shows this smart even exist today? I used to watch Charlie Rose and thought him very good, but don’t hear too much about him lately. Do we have models of erudition? Insightful interviewing? Dress and comportment?

I’m afraid that I can lump all the questions above into one: Do we have standards? There are those, like my friend in Madrid, who would argue that standards exist, they’re just set very low. Perhaps a better question would be: “Do we have ideals?”

I was pleased to read that the student body of The University of Virginia elected to uphold the single-sanction of expulsion for a violation of their honour code. As one op/ed writer opined (I’m paraphrasing) “in the ideal world, one student would say to another, I witnessed your cheating on that exam, and the other student would voluntarily withdraw from the University.” (At my alma mater, we were often told to inform the offender he had twenty-four hours to put his affairs in order and surrender to the honour court in order to spare us from having to perform the onerous task of turning him in.)

That’s setting the bar pretty high. But what about the rest of life?

Outside the hallowed grounds of academia, things have shifted. Actually, inside the hallowed grounds of academia things have shifted… few seem to attend to learn for learning sake, for example. To my eternal shame, I saw college as a stepping stone, a way station to getting into the working world with some sort of credential and direction. (It was also a really good way to meet girls.) What a monumental mistake. If I knew then what I know now… as the cliché goes.

The book pictured above is a difficult read. Not in terms of content, rather of philosophy. It may make you uncomfortable; it will certainly make you examine a few of your own thoughts.

Putting it plainly, it asks when did “elite” become a pejorative? And better still, what can you do about it, if you want to do anything at all?

Special thanks go to “Nick” who suggested I read it.

Used Copies Here

15 thoughts on “Plain Speaking

  1. What a wonderful post. It was as though you reached into my chest and held my heart for a long moment, so important is this subject to me. I’m happy to read the book, and will order it right away. My father, a senior ranking officer in the military, was such an elegant man, in his speech, manner and dress. He actually kept a worn copy of Plato at his bedside. He discussed those “ideals” regularly with our large, happy family. I really miss him. Thanks for reminding me how important it is to not forget.

  2. I went to college for the sake of learning. If only others of my generation did the same. At this point in the progress of American academia, I would say nine-tenths of undergraduates are using college exclusively as a stepping stone.

  3. Great post and what timing. I’ve just finishre re-reading Mr. Henry’s book and, earlier this evening I was having drinks with friends and discussing the changes we have seen over the years in the entry level employees we hire. Regarless of which university or graduate school they attend, the lack of critical thinking and communication skills is shocking.

  4. Do we have standards?….

    Unfortunately I believe that the rigor and commitment neccesary to exist, behave and relate in principled ways has simply vanished. I’m too young to be this pessimistic about it all but the absence of decorum and courtesy astound me. And these are just surface, superficial-collateral measures of the deeper schism between what I believe to be a higher standard of general conduct and the current reality.

    Somehow it became uncool to have codes of conduct and parameters of deportment that demonstrated a higher level of civility. Did it become derailed by some anti-elitist phenomenon? Some kind of “dumb it down” equalizing trend? That’s perverse to me given that there was a time when codes, principles, courtesies and deportment were part and parcel of all classes and socioeconomic groups…to a degree. It’s also about balance. Why can’t we maintain some level of conduct and erudtion and still have fun?

    I love blogging and don’t want to give up the Internet. But Facebook,Twitter,Ipod earphoned pedestrians disengaged…we are paying a high price for this new social milieu. I’m not an intellectual but I believe in erudition and standards of conduct…and it shouldn’t be indexed to a certain class.

    Sorry for the incoherent ramble. Off to bed.

  5. Sorry!

    I thought I was finished but just walked over to my bookshelf and found Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Thanks to your post, I’ll begin re-reading it tonight. Bloom pinpointed the erosion in University “erudition” when he wrote this book in 1987.

    Wow, this post has really impacted me…after I blogged about plaid seat covers on a Ford Pinto this week. Geez.

  6. Upon reading today’s post my thoughts travelled immediately to my grandparents, both the epitome of true Southern grace and elegance. While their modesty may have taken exception at being described as ‘elite’, in essence they were… the best of a class. As a father, I now fully appreciate their soft and subtle, yet indelible way of instilling standards within our family. Each day I pray I honor their memory and my daughter is learning the significance of comportment, not because I’ve told her, but because I’ve shown her. To this end, I know the world will be a better place for her as it has been for me. Putting it plainly, the torch has passed and we are now the custodians and models of standards and ideals. Unlike my grandparents, I am not too modest to embrace the term ‘elite’, for it means that I am in hot pursuit of what they so masterfully achieved!

  7. Wow, there are so many things to discuss here! First, on the question of education: One of our kids attends a college with a rigorous core curriculum which has been in place for decades, despite occasional efforts from some misguided college Presidents who feel the need to dismantle the whole thing and replace it with a more modern version of education, i.e., gender studies, race relations, and climate change courses, and community service. The Core, as it is affectionately called by students, consists of almost two years worth of required coursework, none of which translates to a job after college. It is a truly serious foundation of knowledge (good old Western civ, philosophy, literature, hard science, language, math, religion and even physical education requirement–the perfect opportunity to learn to dance properly)–employed or not, at least one is extremely well-educated and has been fed the great ideas of the great thinkers throughout human history. It was a perfect fit for our son and also for us, since paying for a bunch of blather doesn’t appeal to dear old Mom and Dad (not at these prices!). Classic education is out there, it just takes tremendous effort to find it. Too many schools have given up educating in favor of promoting ideology. So we end up with a very “dumbed down” class that “feels” rather than thinks. I also fell into the trap of viewing my college education as career training. Youth is truly wasted on the young.

    Regarding when did we lose standards: Like all messes, I think it started in the 60’s (I’m okay, your’re okay, we’re all okay–all things are equally okay). We have our K-12 schools to thank for dismantling rules of behavior, standards of speech, dress, and treatment of fellow students. For now, anything goes and passes for “individual freedom.” Imposing standards is viewed as oppressing one’s freedom or perhaps worse, being judgmental. There is rarely a right or wrong behavior–it is all relative to the situation (situational ethics), which eliminates any commonly accepted social standards of behavior (that would be considered snobbish or elitist).

    Dick Cavett was fantastic and extremely smart. He is a Nebraska native. I actually remember staying up late and watching Jack Parr with my mum and dad. There was a glamour to those late night shows–the hosts were smart, witty, and worldly, and so were the guests, and even the theme music was cool–not the tawdry tone of Leno and Letterman, both dismal and as dull witted as their “celebrity” guests. I think it comes back to education. All the guests have to offer are their looks, and we have become a generation of suckers for good looking people. Image is trumping content.

    Regarding the honor code: Our daughter’s high school recently implemented one. But it flies in the face of what the students witness in real life–high-profile decision makers in our own government admit to cheating on their taxes (didn’t people used to be arrested and go to prison for that sort of thing?) and there is seemingly no stigma attached to the behavior or consequence for such illegal and immoral behavior. It’s a poser!

    Perhaps the best we can do is to set high standards of behavior for ourselves in everyday life and insist our children do the same. Dust off the etiquette books and read them aloud with the little ones and force feed them to teenagers. Civility starts at home, and on some days ends at home. Thus my wonderful new evergreen hedge . . . 🙂 🙂 well, that’s a story for another day.

  8. Great post and great comments. I remember reading The Feminine Mystique last summer and having two thoughts. 1. Had I read the book in college I would’ve been a lot more succesful with girls. 2. The early boomers (b 1946 – 1950) are and always will be huge whiners.

    I dropped out of college (because I was an ungrateful terd) and enlisted in the army for four years then went back to college (where I was grateful terd) and enjoyed the heck outta of it. Sitting around and talking about Chaucer versus mowing the grass on a M60 range gives life a whole different perspective.

    Being grateful in a world where money has taken over everything…that’s a hard task but the beauty is in the moment. The vulgar and banal world out there can be turned into a place where the smallest things of quality slap me upside my head and I’m suddenly grateful for them. No sorrow without joy – – no joy without sorrow.

  9. Tin Tin, your comment reminds me of my father, who has been on my mind a good deal lately. When I was around three years old he read me Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Of course I understood it not at all, and remember little, but I do recall him waving his arms around a lot and the word “conquer” repeated over and over. I liked the sound of it. He was a logger, recently returned from Viet Nam, and read to me before falling asleep at dinner with his head on the table. He still works hard and reads widely. He dresses very plainly and is a true ascetic, but he has always been my ideal of an elegant and honorable man.

  10. I am enjoying the comments and insight in all of these posts. What a great conversation. I regret being too wordy at times–my verbal test scores were always better than my math, but still can’t always articulate concisely. I admire writers who can. Brevity is, of course, more elegant. Happy to report I don’t qualify as an early baby boomer.

  11. This certainly got a great deal of feedback, no? I read Power Elite in college – had the same effect. Were there more forces at work that just studying and being well rounded that landed us all in those chairs…? Still makes me wonder, and indeed, it was an interesting read. I will look this up as well.

  12. I just discovered your website and am really enjoying it. I read In Defense of Elitism a few years ago, and it is an excellent and thought provoking work. Elitism is not a dirty word (i.e. “elite” athlete does not carry any kind of negative connotation). Elitism is actually something we should all strive for. Elite is okay – exclusive is not. Somehow the two terms have become confused.
    Thanks SO much for trying to keep the bar high in your own small way.

  13. Sorry – one more post. I read your blurb Tintin and loved it. So true. I am so happy to have found this site with kindred spirits. Let’s keep the movement going!

  14. Much applauding to your blog and all the responses (most notably Paula who appears to be my vintage). I too had ( and thankfully still have), amazing parents from the generation she mentions. They are the tail end of a dying breed, where gentleness, courtliness, humility and work ethic combined with serious setbacks (WW 2 and the Depression), seem to have contributed to a very special generation of people. I strive to emulate them every day and find it very discouraging to continually abut up against this new “anti-elitism” which seems to want to put everyone on one level and that level is very low! Since when did elite become a dirty word? (elite athlete appears to be to use.). We should always be trying to be the very best. Whether that’s in the arts, business, manners, dress etc. etc. I too am rambling but I loved the book In Defense of Elitism and I am very excited that people have enjoyed it as much as I have.

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