“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” – Aristotle
If excellence is valuable and desirable, and if we all want our children to attain it in some sphere in life, why is there a need to advocate for it in the school system?
Excellence is always harder than the alternatives
Our natural bent is toward ease and comfort – the path of least resistance. Achieving excellence requires sustained effort over time, whereas mediocrity is attained with relative ease. This is the case for individuals, as well as for organizations. Since striving for excellence is no one’s default mode, the pursuit of it has to be supported by external and collective influences.
Excellence is especially counter-cultural in our day and age
While it has always been the case that excellence is harder to attain, perhaps it is even more the case in our times due to cultural forces that push us toward mediocrity. In a culture that values immediate gratification of our sensual appetites above else and constantly distracts us with trivial information, such virtues as patience, perseverance, and faithfulness to ideals are diminishing.
The school system increasingly reflects these cultural tendencies (while also contributing to them), rather than serving as an agent to change them. Expectations are lowered to match normal student behavior patterns (rather than raising expectations to change these patterns). Students expect to get high grades without having put forth “high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution” to achieve levels of excellence that warrant such grades. And the school system accommodates such expectations by rewarding high grades chiefly to keep students (and parents) from not complaining, and so as not to offend students’ self-esteem.
Excellence is opposed by narrow short-term interests
Most children resist excellence because the rigor needed to attain it runs contrary to their interests of having fun and pursing the next thrill on social media or in a video game. But the school system also resists excellence because many of its short-term interests run contrary to it. Today’s educational system rewards looking good over actually being good. The metrics by which schools are evaluated, and thus administrators promoted, encourage short-term decision-making aimed to create numbers that give the appearance of success.
For instance, the Douglas County School System has received a number of prestigious AP awards, based solely on the amount of courses offered and the number of students taking them that make the leadership look good, even though the large majority of students are failing AP exams, and only a tiny percentage attain the highest score of a 5. More students would achieve an excellent level on the exams if the courses were more rigorous, but increased rigor would result in lower course grades and thus decrease enrollment (at least that is the fear), which is contrary to said interests.
Furthermore, AP programs are recognized for the percentage of students in the school scoring a 3 or higher on the AP exam (even though a 3 would not earn credit at many colleges). To increase the odds of more students getting at least one 3 on the exam, more students are being enrolled in more AP classes so that they take more exams. In other words, mediocrity and not excellence on AP exams is what is rewarded.
Similar dynamics are seen in graduation rates. Graduation rates are a major indicator of school system success, yet high rates can be attained simply by lowering the standards required to graduate, as is likely happening in our system. Raising and maintain high standards are, sadly, seen as a threat to high graduation rates, an achievement which surely benefits peoples’ careers.
In summary, excellence is not the natural tendency of humans, and it is resisted even more so in a culture that prizes short-term gratification above all else, and by an educational system that rewards the appearance of achievement by metrics that conceal an underlying mediocrity. For these reasons, advocacy for excellence from outside the system by the local community is vital if our schools and therefore our children are to be elevated.