Essay: Have We Abandoned Excellence?

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A new biography of Admiral Hyman Rickover records a Navy captain's assessment: " 'Look around. Do you see excellence anywhere? In medicine? In law? Religion? Anywhere? We have abandoned excellence . . . But Rickover was a genius who gave a generation of naval officers the idea that excellence was the standard.' " Only the nuclear submarines ran on time."

"Abandoned" seems a little strong to describe what we have done to excellence. But of course a note of elegy always haunts discussions of excellence and quality. It is human nature to imagine that our present reality is squalid, diminished, an ignominious comedown from better days when household appliances lasted and workers worked, and manners were exquisite and marriages endured, and wars were just, and honor mattered, and you could buy a decent tomato. The lament for vanished standards is an old art form: besieged gentility cringes, indignant and vulnerable, full of memories, before a present that behaves like Stanley Kowalski: crude, loud, upstart and stupid as a fist.

Americans seem especially wistful about excellence now.

Standing waist-deep in a recession, after 20 years of change that hurled the cultural furniture around and turned much of it to junk, they are apt to think longingly of excellence. They may watch a film like Chariots of Fire, for example, with a nostalgic pang for the simplicity of its moral lines, its portrait of excellence unambiguously pursued.

Is the Navy captain correct? Has a quality called Excellence gone under like Atlantis in an inundation of the third-rate, a deluge of plastics, junk food, bad movies, cheap goods and trashy thought? The question has been asked since well before the decline of Athens; the answer is generally yes—but wait. There is an enduring ecology of excellence in the world. It is a good idea to remember Thomas Merton's question: "How did it ever happen that, when the dregs of the world had collected in Western Europe, when Goth and Frank and Norman and Lombard had mingled with the rot of old Rome to form a patchwork of hybrid races, all of them notable for ferocity, hatred, stupidity, craftiness, lust and brutality—how did it happen that, from all this, there should come the Gregorian chant, monasteries and cathedrals, the poems of Prudentius, the commentaries and histories of Bede... St. Augustine's City of God?"

A couple of rules may apply to generalizations about excellence: 1) all recollections of past excellence should be discounted by at least 50%; memory has its tricks of perspective; 2) what might be called the Walt Whitman Rule: exuberant democratic energy usually finds its own standards and creates its own excellence, even though the keepers of the old standards may not like the new. A Big Mac may sometimes surpass the concoctions of Julia Child.

Of course, much that was once excellent has fallen into disrepair, or worse. The dollar, for example, New York City, American public education, Cars from Detroit, Standards of civility (which may not have been as civil in the past as we imagine), Public safety. But who said that any excellence is permanent?

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