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Excellence: Rhetoric and Reality

IN describing the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor proudly declares that ``the children are all above average.'' In the real world, of course, children sometimes turn out to be merely average. Which is why South Mecklenberg High School in Charlotte, N.C., has come up with a novel plan to rescue students from mediocrity. By placing 150 average or below-average sophomores and seniors in smaller classes and giving them more individual attention, teachers hope to motivate them to do better.

The program, now in its second year, is believed to be the first in the country to deal specifically with average students. No one is promising to make a silk purse out of the proverbial sow's ear. But students themselves give the innovative classes high marks. And parents report evidence of astonishing academic turnarounds as previously bored offspring forsake television for textbooks.

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From the classroom to the boardroom, mediocrity exacts a heavy toll. In the corporate world, a recent survey by an international executive search firm, Paul R. Ray and Co., found that a majority of executives believe the quality of service has declined markedly during the past decade.

And at a conference in New York this week, the American Society for Quality Control released a new Gallup poll of employee attitudes. A majority of those surveyed said their company talks convincingly about the importance of quality. But only about one-third said their bosses follow up on that commitment.

The perception that America may no longer be No. 1, that in fact we are losing our famed ``competitiveness,'' has brought a word like ``quality'' back in style, especially as an adjective applied to manufactured products and education. From talk of ``quality circles'' at work to ``quality time'' at home, Americans reveal a touching desire for excellence in all its forms.

But the fear of becoming second-rate is balanced by another and opposite fear. If ``mediocre'' is a shaming word, so is ``elite.'' To be superior at anything is to risk being undemocratic. The pursuit of excellence is tinged with social embarrassment. ``Self-esteem'' is now being taught in the schools, but who does not feel the defiance in the coded-for-success phrase, ``I'm good, I'm darn good.''

Even our leaders have to play what used to be known as ``the common man.'' The typical American is caught between a brag and an ``aw-shucks, 'tweren't nothing,'' starting at - excuse the expression - the top, where President Bush presents himself as a good old Texas boy who dotes on pork rinds and country music rather than as a multi-millionaire out of Yale.

``Be all that you can be'' is the recruiting cry for more than the Army - followed under the breath by ``Go for it!'' But somehow success, to be American, has to be a matter of drive and luck and shrewdness rather than wisdom and systematically nurtured talent. (President Carter lost more points for being thought ``smart'' than President Reagan did for being thought ``ignorant.'')

The quantity of a teacher's pay sends a terrible message about how the nation values a ``quality'' education. The relentless emphasis on the ``bottom line'' - short-term profit at any price - sends equally chilling signals about how companies value a ``quality'' product.

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The pursuit of excellence is, in fact, constantly bumping into the bottom line, as if the bottom line of quality education is to certify the graduate for jobs that pay more: the bottom line.

Having more money than others is the only form of elitism that does not seem to trouble most people. But if Americans are to escape mediocrity, they will have to do more than equate achievement with money.

The forefathers had it straight. As a farmer, as an architect, as an inventor, Thomas Jefferson produced ``quality'' goods. The Adams family, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and so many others had ``quality'' education to the point of being intellectuals - a term now frequently pejorative.

But something more distinguished our forefathers - our best models - than mere technical excellence. There was a ``quality'' of mind, of spirit - a heightened sense of purpose that had little to do with things. This finally is what America must recapture if all children - and all adults - are to be declared above average.

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