“All that glitters is not gold.” – Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Words that are overused tend to lose their meaning. The word “awesome” for example, once reserved for truly extraordinary, awe-inspiring things, has been diminished by its broad application to good but normal, typical things. Perhaps something similar has happened with the word “excellence” (or its adjective “excellent”). When average, typical, merely acceptable accomplishments are praised as excellent, they become less distinguishable from those things that are truly praiseworthy and notable. Excellence has to do with qualities that distinguish something as “outstanding or extremely good” (Oxford Dictionary). Thus, the word should only be applied rightly to designate things that are especially good or beautiful.
Excellence also has to do with the substance of a thing, not its mere appearance. It is possible for something to be superficially attractive and seem to be of high value, but beneath the surface, it is mediocre and void of meaning. Hence, the saying “All that glitters is not gold.” At the same time, it is possible for something to appear very plain and ordinary, or even unattractive on the surface, but have an underlying substance of greatness that is hidden for a time. Hence, the inverse of that saying “All that is gold does not glitter.” Tolkien used this to describe the veiled glory of Strider/Aragorn as the future king led the hobbits through the wilderness. We need to find and celebrate the substance of excellence, and resist giving praise to the mere bewildering appearance of it.
There are at least two aspects of excellence that we advocate for in schools: academic excellence and moral excellence. Academic excellence concerns the highest level of knowledge and skill students can attain commensurate with their age or level of development (meaning what is excellent for a 5th grader is not for a 12th grader). Moral excellence refers to virtuous character. This concerns expecting and developing character traits that display moral beauty, such as honesty, trustworthiness, courage, humility, and love.
Our expectations for excellence in the public schools are not limited to students. We advocate for excellence among administrators and teachers as well. We need school staff to model both academic and moral excellence for students, so that it is “caught more than taught.” And in order for the school system to be truly just, putting students long-term well-being and the interests of the community first, we need virtuous administrators and teachers who are honest, truthful, humble, courageous, caring, and who are not self-seeking, vain-glorious, and so on.