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A quarrel with success

AS a black American, I watched intently the recent Jesse Jackson leap into the volatile quagmire of Middle Eastern politics. I savored witnessing one of my own playing in the big leagues of political diplomacy. As a mother, I rejoiced seeing parents reunited with their son.

Yet I was saddened by the reaction of our national leaders, particularly our President.

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It was not that President Reagan reversed himself to join the congratulatory chorus once success was assured. Such policy reversals are the basic stuff of political life. Politics has seen stranger bedfellows before. Far more troubling than the presidential flip-flop was the rationale for it; in his words, ''You don't quarrel with success.''

Is success, per se, such a laudable national value? As a university educator, I see something pernicious in overemphasizing winning. What about the entrants who don't cross finishing lines, but give a good try?

Under the President's rationale, losing is the ultimate social sin, the clarion call for well-deserved social opprobrium. Winning seems all that matters , no matter how or why one wins, the broader purposes served, the validity of the prize sought.

I feel pained by our national attraction to winning. Despite being an avid aficionado of competitive environments - a ''degree junkie'' as my friends say - I often grieve at the undervaluation of those who aren't front-runners.

To illustrate: Every fall for the past decade, I have met a wide variety of new students. Among them were graduates from urban high schools who were being thrust into stiff competition with peers who had enjoyed social privileges which the poor can only experience vicariously, if at all.

Even when their academic preparation sufficed, these students were often not psychologically equipped for the slights resulting from the pre-formed judgments about their possible achievements. What continually amazed me was their willingness to compete. It takes strong personal courage to jump into the fray with social odds so stacked against you.

Sure, some exhibited remarkable achievements. But all too many fell short of realizing their expectations. Given the way the objects of their arduous efforts are dispensed, it is not surprising that so few made dean's lists, Phi Beta Kappa, law school reviews - or even attained a job on graduation commensurate with their training, and co-equal to that of their more socially advantaged peers.

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Over the years, in their letters, phone calls, and chance meetings following graduation, often I would sense these college graduates' disappointment, a begrudging acceptance of their niche in the adult world. While I openly commiserated with them, I was always somewhat heartened by their new distancing of themselves from conventional values defining success.

Perhaps it is this willingness to continue to toil when objective evidence demonstrates that most people will not distinguish themselves, much less attain the fruits of their effort which keeps the human spirit alive.

For me, the Jackson affair highlighted the worst aspects of our national attraction to winning. In this instance, winning comprised a single, discrete act - the release of Lt. Robert Goodman. Conventional wisdom has long embraced this narrow conception of success. For example, we ''lost'' the Vietnam war because it was too prolonged, resulting in too many deaths. The Grenada invasion was a ''success'' because the Cuban presence was routed with quick aplomb and few casualties. And our Lebanese policy elicited serious questioning because it seemed too open-ended.

Often missing from our public policy assessments is concern for the overall values promoted. The quick-fix ethos contributes to this.

A democracy must be attentive to mass opinions. Yet it is difficult to cultivate enlightened discussion of public issues when overattentiveness to adverse popular sentiment makes winning have less to do with goals and effort than with the quick solution, undertaken with surgeonlike deftness - relatively painless, face-saving, and expeditious.

By focusing only on Jackson's success, the President avoided confronting any broader discussion of his Lebanese policy.

More importantly, he reinforced our collective obsession with winning rather than playing. Jackson's contribution, like that of my students, resided in his boldness in following through on an original idea with ominous career risks, his willingness to court failure, to expend the effort - the actual release of Goodman was merely icing on the cake.

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