When I first heard the expression, "aristocracy of talent," I didn't know it was from Thomas Jefferson or that he was referring to politics. I took it as referring to the life I knew: family, school, church, workplace, extracurricular activities, and hobbies. It had a ring of truth because my life and education had confirmed it. Winners lead the way, creating an aristocracy of talent as they go.
Not always and everywhere, of course, but often enough for us to count on it. Sometime we are fooled by bluffers, and sometimes we get away with bluffing; but if we have an eye or ear for quality, we are disappointed by the outcome.
Usually our leaders lead because they can, our better actors play the major roles, our better athletes dominate the varsity teams, our better students get the scholarships. Raw talent rarely triumphs, but talent driven by passionate commitment and polished by grueling work under the direction of teachers and coaches is at least in the running.
In high school and college, I knew that if I were given a major assignment, it was because my teachers or my peers thought I could do it. It took me a while to catch on that I had better work my tail off if I wanted the privilege of new assignments.
That is how an aristocracy of talent is formed and nourished. If you want to see happy teenagers, watch them at work doing things for no other reward than that they are worth doing.
I got going on this train of thought the other evening, when the Symphonic Band of Northwestern College came to perform in our village. It was a busy spring Saturday, with several scheduled events preoccupying our scant population. I think we were honored by a visit from the band because one of it members is from here, and we are located on the way to and from the cities on their tour. It was convenient to that degree. Not otherwise, though, because it is quite a job for sixty performers to unpack and repack a symphonic band for the sake of a single performance in front of a tiny audience. A symphonic band is not a marching band sitting down. Some of their instruments are humongous.
We assumed they would be good. They were on their 47th annual tour, after all, and their conductor was head of the music department, with an earned doctorate in Wind Conducting from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. On the other hand, this was not Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, or the Twin Cities school that Billy Graham was president of sixty years ago; this was Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, with about 1300 students total, and but one of dozens upon dozens of four-year liberal-arts colleges within a radius of two hundred miles from Orange City.
The band proved to be very good indeed, demonstrating once again that quality does not relate to population size. I can imagine those whizzing through on I-90 and I-80, as they flee from one center of urban decay to another, referring to the countryside here as "the sticks" or "the boondocks." Hearing the band reminded me that there may be more high culture in these here hills, on a per capita basis, than anywhere in the country.
My point is not that the concert was unique. Remember those dozens upon dozens of colleges, with faculty trained at world-class universities? Add to them many local high schools, with teachers and students who love excellence.
The symphonic band was an aristocracy of talent. You probably have one not far from where you live.
How do you know it when you see it? Here are some markers.
They do more than try to be good. They succeed at it.
Whether they make money or not, money is not the reason for doing what they do. They may not be paid at all. They are more likely paying for the privilege, in the form of tuition or membership fees.
They may or may not draw much of an audience. When I was in college I heard a professor say that if you could get 2% of a local population to attend a serious cultural event, you were doing okay.
I am not suggesting that people should attend events they do not enjoy and have no interest in. I am suggesting that an aristocracy of talent performs anyway, simply because it is worth doing.