Egalitarianism is one of the defining characteristics of modern democracy, but spare a thought for elitism. It has been given a bad name in recent years – synonymous with snobbery – but it needn’t be so. It’s vital that people get a fair chance in life, but it is equally important that we don’t diminish or undermine the search for excellence in all walks of life. Defined correctly, elitism encourages excellence.
Take the example of American nun Sister Marion Irving. When she reached her fifties she decided to take up running. It was the early 1980s and the eager nun sought a good training regime. She discovered an “elite” programme, and thinking that elite meant “refined and well mannered” she plumped for that.
Following this regime and, presumably, with a bit of prayer and God on her side she ran the Californian International Marathon in 1983 at the age of 54 in a time of two hours, fifty-one minutes and one second – and promptly qualified for the Olympic trials. She became known as the Flying Nun.
Elitism need not be about exclusion. It can also be about extending the ladder to encourage people to climb higher.
Northern Ireland’s top grammar school – by A Level results – was revealed recently as St Dominic’s on the Falls Road in Belfast. It’s a school which has a relatively wide range of academic intake, yet by the time girls are leaving the school they’re more academically excellent than all others. The principal, Carol McCann, has fought political opposition from Sinn Fein and hostility from the Catholic Church over academic selection and has demonstrated that her vision of elite doesn’t exclude, but provides opportunity. It’s an achievement recognised by The Sunday Times which named it Secondary School of the Year for 2013 in its prestigious UK-wide survey.
A number of years ago I was fortunate to work on a series for BBC Northern Ireland entitled “Thinking Big” that showcased a number of remarkable individuals with global ambitions but local loyalties. We encountered the late Sir Allen McClay as he expanded his company Almac into the US. Even though Sir Allen is sadly gone, his legacy grows with Almac employing 3000 at home and abroad. One of his sayings was that he liked to ensure that everyone “got a lick of the gravy” – but that didn’t stop him having a elite vision for his company.
We also featured Professor Paddy Johnston, whose vision for cancer treatment revolutionised provision in Northern Ireland. Now the new Vice Chancellor at Queen’s University, he has announced ambitious plans to make the university a global powerhouse and build on the work of his predecessors Sir George Bain and Sir Peter Gregson. It’s a plan to build an elite university that will have huge benefits not just for students here but for the wider Northern Ireland economy.
Too often we allow the lowest common denominator to rule, rather than make the difficult decision to confront mediocrity. Our political system often elevates equality above excellence – but excellence can be achieved in everything we do. You don’t have to be a top athlete, entrepreneur or scientist to subscribe to elite principles.
Excellence must be encouraged and complacency constantly challenged – that’s the kind of elitism that brings success and benefits us all.
(This article appeared in the April edition of Ambition magazine in Northern Ireland)