Essay: Have We Abandoned Excellence?

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Excellence demands standards. It does not usually flourish in the midst of rapid, hectic change. This century's sheer velocity has subverted the principle of excellence; a culture must be able to catch its breath.

In America and elsewhere in the industrial world, the idea of excellence acquired in the past 20 years a sinister and even vaguely fascistic reputation. It was the Best and the Brightest, after all, who brought us Viet Nam. For a long time, many of the world's young fell into a dreamy, vacuous inertia, a canned wisdom of the East persuading them — destructively — that mere being would suffice, was even superior to action. "Let It Be," crooned Paul McCartney. Scientific excellence seemed apocalyptically suspect — the route to pollution and nuclear destruction. Striving became suspect. A leveling contempt for "elitism" helped to divert much of a generation from the ambition to be excellent.

The deepest American dilemma regarding excellence arises from the nation's very success. The U.S. has been an astonishing phenomenon— excellent among the nations of the world. But as the prophet Amos said, "Woe to them that are at ease in Zion." It is possible to have repose, or to have excellence, but only some decorative hereditary monarchs have managed to simulate both. Success has cost Americans something of their energetic desire.

And those Americans not yet successful (the struggling, the underclass) are apt to aim at ease, not excellence: the confusion contaminates character and disables ambition.

The manic overstimulation of American culture also makes excellence rarer. The great intellectual flowering of New England in the 19th century (Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, Longfellow, et al.) resulted in part from the very thinness of the New England atmosphere, an under-stimulation that made introspection a sort of cultural resource. America today is so chaotically hyped, its air so thick with kinetic information and alarming images and television and drugs, that the steady gaze required for excellence is nearly impossible. The trendier victims retreat to sealed isolation tanks to float on salt water and try to calm down.

Yet excellence remains. The U.S. has won 140 Nobel Prizes since World War II — although cuts in Government research grants will reduce the level of that particular excellence in the years the come. American medicine, biology and physics lead the world. American politicians (that least excellent breed) may be better educated, more honest and industrious — more excellent — than ever. Vermont maple syrup is excellent. American agriculture is excellent. Ted Hood's sails are excellent. American telephone service is excellent. American professional sports would be excellent if they were not so drenched in greed. Look abroad: the French language is excellent. Some would argue that the entire country of Switzerland is excellent (if somewhat savorless), from its unemployment rate (.3%) to its scenery to its national airline.

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