Saturday, June 14, 2014

The opposite of excellence

I'll harken once more to what is a standing premise of mine, that is that I don't know what I am talking about.  I don't believe I am ready to argue for a specific policy or reform just now. But it's graduation season, the time for caps and gowns and commencement speeches. The President was in the area last week attending such a ceremony. So it is that the ideas and actualities of education in this day and age got turning in my cranial rock tumbler and got stuck upon a word: excellence.

"Excellence in education" —words that combine neatly on the tongue. It's a banner sentiment that flies on just about everybody's flag pole. Who on earth could ever be against excellence in education? Even question the notion? But, as is my wont, when I hear that turn of phrase I unpack the meaning in each of the words and I find myself asking "well... excelling who?" When politicians talk about education these days, one of the values they claim to see in schooling is the equipment it offers the "average American" to "get ahead." I start thinking of the down side of grading on a curve.

I might be a little glib and, as I said, I am not sure how this speculation leads to practical policy, but to get serious for a moment I wonder if there is something of spiritual importance I might be scratching at here. I've seen a lot of opinion on the sky rocketing costs of education as of late. There was the recent failed attempt in Congress to offer student debt relief. Could it be that one of the contributing factors to the dollar values going haywire is that we've mistaken the actual value of education, of information, of knowledge and wisdom? This could be another of those problem instances, like healthcare and housing, where we tell ourselves we want for a freedom from want, but always needing just a little bit more than the next guy.

I remember a while back when the movie "Finding Superman" was all the rage for the reform minded. "Schools should be run like businesses" was the signature slogan coming out of that one, that banner sentiment of excellence. I recall how saddened I was by the case study families that were shown in that film, all of them so desperate for their children to have better educations, better worlds, better than they had. But the dream wasn't about bettering the world at hand, the communities they lived in; the dream was of escape from the life and the environment that they knew. Who or what did they want to excel or escape? Their own neighborhoods. Themselves.

I guess I question the wisdom of this model.

I'll close with this anecdote, I came across it years ago browsing in a bookstore. I don't recall the book or the author, only that I was scanning through the pages and I came upon this story of a Native American, the noted elder of some tribe in the Southwest as I recall, who had learned a great deal about the Gospel courtesy of proselytizing missionaries who had tried and tried to convert him, promising heaven and eternal salvation. On his death bed he'd been offered once more and his reply was that, although this Jesus they told him of seemed wise and good and the promise of this place heaven seemed nice, his ancestors who'd gone before him, the many without salvation, would be too lonely for him. Thanks, he said, really, but no thanks.

I think of that old dying man so politely declining the sweet offer of salvation as maybe the better model, or at least a sane voice of caution in our world of always excellence. Getting ahead shouldn't always be our goal. As individuals —as citizens, we must also have some sense of belonging, not of what we own, but what we are a part of that we must nurture and better as a whole.

The word "vocation" comes to mind —literally the notion of a calling. I wonder if that's what I am talking about, the idea that we, all of us, should think of our education and the work we do, the citizenship we bring and the society we make as our answer to a calling. There's that old project about ever forming "a more perfect union" —maybe that's the call. And it's in that sense that perfection is the opposite of excellence.

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