In Defense of Excellence


I've noticed a trend, particularly in paganism, toward "elite" becoming a derogatory term. "Elitist" has very unpleasant connotations. In the mad scramble toward equality and egalitarianism, perhaps the trend has gone too far.

I am all in favor of equality of opportunity. I believe in Martin Luther King's dream, "I have a dream that someday my children will be judged, not upon the color of their skin, but on the content of their character."

Yet, I am deeply disturbed by structures and titles meant to reward excellence downgraded and dismissed as being elitist and hierarchical.

It Wicca, this is most strongly epitomized by the continuing attempts to do away with degree systems on the basis of being elitists and hierarchical.

So I ask, what is wrong with elites? Elites exist as an informal (and often highly formal) network of persons who, by virtue of personal qualities, or power, or money, or birth status, are capable of shaping and changing the structure of society. Some elites are based on nothing more than bank balances or parentage. Others are firmly based on intelligence, wisdom, commitment and ethical stance of their members.

I have no problem with the concept of elites. Not everyone has the desire or capability to belong to every group. The problem lies with the qualification for membership, not with the concept.

Hierarchy has an even nastier reputation. Yet in all societies, regardless of size, structure of purpose, have a hierarchy. Leadership roles exists and will be filled by those who can fill them. Leaders are necessary to achieve the goals of the group, regardless of how that leadership manifests. It is only when a hierarchy becomes closed and fixed that the structure becomes abusive.

The concerns of those who dislike the concept of hierarchy due to experience of its abuses are valid. It is very easy to fall into a system where power rests, not on those who are qualified, but upon other, less desirable criteria, such as birth status, or wealth, or loudness of voice. However, doing away with the formal structure of hierarchy does not solve the problem. Non hierarchical groups often fall into leadership by peer pressure. Those that are thick skinned and dominant will lead de facto, especially if there is no dejure leader.

Hierarchies exist. They exist because, like physics, nature abhors a vacuum. A power vacuum will be filled regardless of the good intentions on all sides. The solution is to have structures where all persons have the opportunity to become leaders, to participate in the decision making process, based only upon ability and desire to do so. Equal opportunity, equal access.

The degree system within the Craft is not perfect. Like any other system, it has its abuses. However, if properly used, it has rewards far greater than having no such system.

First, there is the reward for excellence. Those who have personal qualities such as commitment, talent, study, intelligence and open mindedness, should be rewarded for their abilities. The reward is not just a fancy title, but a recognition of that excellence, and membership in an elite.

Second, there is a benchmark for others to judge by. If I know what degree a person holds, mundane or Craft, I have some idea of their abilities and can assume a certain level of understanding.

Third, there is the recognition of self. A standard of excellence is required and achieving a degree is a feedback upon the levels achieved.

There are other aspects dealing with the magic rite itself, but even if there were not, the hierarchy of degrees and the elite groups formed by having them are a mark of excellence for those who belong. Within my tradition and, according to my faith, within the Wicca itself, there are no barriers of opportunity to the system. Therefore, I see no reason to abandon it. I do not say that the system cannot be improved or that another system cannot provide the same benefits, but I haven't seen one that provides a reward for excellence while avoiding the pitfalls.

Without active encouragement of excellence, whether in Craft or in the mundane world, entropy says that we will end up with mediocrity and least common denominator. And a world where mediocrity rules is not a world I wish to live in.

This article previously appeared in "The Messenger"

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