Odd: when she came to this school, the lady's father worked as a senior engineer in one of the country's oldest industrial houses. He had spent several years, family in tow, as an expat on a project in Iran. Later, she herself got a degree from one of the finest all-women liberal arts colleges in the USA. If she thought her family was "lower middle-class", she either had not the faintest idea what that term meant, or I'm the Queen of Gulbarga.
Why would this woman want to pass herself off as lower middle-class? Because being elite, going to an elite school, was somehow undesirable. A black mark.
What's wrong with being elite? I haven't a clue. But I'm always surprised by how many people fling that phrase as if it were an insult, and how many try to prove that they themselves are anything but elite. I shouldn't be surprised, because perhaps we grow up in this country suspicious of wealth, convinced that the rich are, by definition, immoral. "They must have got their money illegally," we think sneeringly, if enviously, to ourselves -- and who would willingly admit they belonged to that odorous club?
But consider: in India the very state of being educated, and able to study in the US, means you are likely in the upper reaches of society. Perhaps not in the stratospheric reaches, but some definite distance from the bottom, from even the lower middle-class. This certainly held when my schoolmate was getting herself educated. Things have changed since, but it is still broadly true. Why would someone like my schoolmate want not just to deny this truth, but even to deny that it applied to her?
And yet, this is not really about her impressions. In any society, some people rise to the top. Whether it's intelligence, or inherited wealth, or something else, is irrelevant. They rise. Sure, they must not abuse that position, nor harrass those below. But there's no shame, nor guilt, that comes simply from being at the top.
There's no reason for those who are up there to deny being up there.
Societies need elites. They drive change, or lead revolution, or dream new dreams, or carry out research. Those things don't come from the hoi-polloi, and I say that without meaning an iota of superciliousness. Societies need leaders, and they find them. And there's one more angle to this. The elite are also signposts of excellence, beacons for fellow citizens. Whether in entrepreneurship or teaching or something else, it is the elite who set the bar that everyone else yearns to leap over.
Yet that bar itself is a stick to thrash the elite. William Henry writes in his excellent In Defence of Elitism:
[President Bush Senior's] import was twofold: that Clinton was too smart to be President, a notion that gets weirder and more disturbing the longer one looks at it; and that the electorate ought to vote based on envy and resentment towards their betters, an appalling onslaught made surreal by Bush's own status as a senator's son, prep-school smoothie, Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, and "self-made" oil millionaire -- via a company he launched with money borrowed from his rich uncle.
So OK, these were politicians intent on winning an election. I was in an exchange recently, where someone had it that studying English Literature or pure sciences "only satisfies the intellectual idle curiosity" of a few, and "should not be supported with money extorted from the masses."
What a strange idea. Because an institution, a state, that scorns research and intellectual curiosity, that thinks elites deserve contempt and resentment merely for being elite, is one that's heading for destruction. One Pol Pot knows.