Lowering the Bar
If there is one thing that seems almost impossible to escape these days, it is the notion of excellence. As a little demonstration of our contemporary obsession with excellence, try this as an experiment: go to the website of any university and type in the term ‘excellence’. Note down the number of search results. Now type in any particular virtue that you favour, ‘curiosity’, for example, or (don’t say it too loud) ‘wisdom’, and compare your results.
It is clear from little experiments such as this that universities are excessively concerned with being excellent. And this is not just a concern of universities. Everywhere—from the halls of power down to primary school classroom—we hear the language of excellence. Teaching, we are told by government ministers, must be excellent; writers the critics say, must be excellent; and I probably don’t need to remind anybody in the UK that the Olympics in full swing, and that the second of the three so-called ‘Olympic values’ is also ‘excellence’ (along with ‘friendship’ and ‘respect’, apparently).
It seems to me that the term ‘excellence’ is so widespread that it risks becoming entirely empty of meaning; and I can’t help but wonder about this hyper-inflation of rhetoric that demands excellence on all fronts. Thinking about the notion of ‘excellence’, I have to confess that, in the end, it is simply not something I aspire to. So when it comes to writing, I don’t aspire to ‘excellent’ writing; instead I aspire to writing stuff that is interesting (to me, of course, and—I hope—to however many readers eventually stumble across what it is I have written), writing that pursues a set of questions, ideas and images with a kind of sustained determination, writing that weaves intriguing stories and fables. When I write philosophy, I don’t aim to produce ‘excellent’ philosophy—what would that be, I wonder?—but instead I’m interested in opening up interesting questions and reflecting more deeply upon these questions. When I teach, I have no interest in excellence in teaching. I am interested, instead, in teaching that is friendly, and stimulating, and sometimes a bit mad and digressive; I’m interested in communicating, as a human being and as best I can, with the other human beings with whom I have the good fortune to be sharing a teaching room.
It could be argued that all these things are constitutive of ‘excellence’; but there are problems with this. Firstly, it is clear that these various aims and aspirations that I have are not always fulfilled: sometimes I write stuff that just doesn’t quite work; sometimes I put out philosophical arguments that are as full of holes as a Swiss cheese; sometimes I get to the end of a lecture and I think, ‘Well, that was really not my greatest performance.’ You can’t be excellent all the time: and anybody who thinks that you can is simply deluded. Human life is not like that. Nor can you be excellent in all domains simultaneously. People who think that they are, who have no sense of their own shortcomings, are at risk of becoming a dangerous liability.
But more than this, things like writing and teaching involve risk—any creative activity does—and there is thus always the possibility that things won’t work out. I sometimes tell my writing students that they should take risks with their work. Sometimes they say, ‘Will I get a better grade if I do?’ And I have to say, ‘Potentially, yes… although, then again, your final grade might also be worse. But who wants to spend their life playing it safe?’ Because that’s what risk means.
When I hear somebody say ‘excellence’, I not sure that any of the things that matter about what I do are really captured by the term. ‘Excellence’ is one of those terms that tends to level out what matters into bland sloganeering; and I find myself wondering about the sheer unkindness of all of this fretting over excellence. The standards to which we hold ourselves and others are often brutally high. It was the poet William Stafford, I think, who said somewhere (and I am quoting from my less-than-excellent memory) that as writers we must be able to write without feeling that we have to write like Shakespeare or Milton. It is, I have always thought, wise and liberating advice. I have long thought that this is the case not only in writing, but also elsewhere. When I go to the doctor, I don’t want excellence. I want the doctor to do a good enough job. When I encounter people in daily life, I don’t want them to behave excellently towards me, although I’d prefer it if we could more or less get by, in a stumbling, more-or-less good-natured ad hoc fashion.
What I’m saying, then, is this: I’m in favour of lowering the bar. I’m in favour of lowering the moral bar, the literary bar, the pedagogical bar—the whole lot, across the board. I’m in favour of giving up on the nonsense idea of the perpetual pursuit of comprehensive excellence, an idea that always strikes me as exceptionally harsh, for something more sensibly and practicably human—for the notion that good enough is perhaps good enough.