(based on Dr. More)
And now a word about our surely excellent children:
Since I always urge my students not to start their papers with such low-brow devices as referring to dictionary definitions, and since I despise following my own advice, I want to alert you to the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “excellent” as something “that excels in some respect (either good or bad).” In other words, “Celebration of Something Either Good or Bad,” could turn out to be risky business. Excellence, like leadership, can then signify being outstanding as good or bad. In other words, honors students are no less above suspicion than students of leadership. Both should be treated with skepticism, a habit that I have always tried to nurture.
In the 17th century, the Cambridge philosopher, Dr. Henry More, wrote an “Appeal to the Naturall Faculties of the Minde of Man” which included chapters such as “Of those that are as yet untamed” and “The excellent Usefulness of the Horse.”
One may reasonably ask whether the untamed faculties of our minds are capable of greater excellence than that of the usefulness of the horse (or the tamed spirit of honors students).
The same entry in the OED also refers to philosopher David Hume’s description of Queen Elisabeth I as “an excellent hypocrite.” Let’s look at that for a moment.
- Was the Queen first and foremost a member of the class “hypocrites,” with the distinction of being one of the few hypocrites who are also excellent in their life and profession?
- Or was she especially outstanding as a hypocrite and therefore deserving of Hume’s praise?
- Or are excellence and being hypocritical so intrinsically linked, that one cannot have excellence without hypocrisy and that true hypocrisy is always in pursuit of excelling, even in Presidential elections?
Does this mean that we may be celebrating the advance of excellent hypocrisy here today, that those of us who have learned the royal art of being a hypocrite should receive applause (and that they, perhaps, should advance to the modern equivalent of royal positions?)
We all know that at universities, honors students, as well as student leaders are in great demand not only in the University President’s Office, but also for such illustrious positions as serving the Chancellor, the Deans and as Laboratory Rats. Is it because of their tamed equine qualities or because of their willingness to suffer incoherence without qualms about possible hypocrisy?
Do we post-moderns actually still know what we mean by “Excellence”? Or is it another case of “I know it when I see it” (just like pornography)? If you know the most excellent of all languages, German, you would not have this problem, because the German translation of “excellent” is “ausgezeichnet,” which simply indicates that you have been given an award and have been recognized as what you are now declared to be. In other words, only by Celebrating Excellence will we ever know what or who is excellent, just as we obviously only know that someone has Presidential Qualities after they have been declared President.
I therefore suggest to you that we are gathered here today to recognize what is excellent (be it good or bad, as long as it is tamed and useful) by declaring first that it exists and then philosophizing about its essence afterwards. After all, is that not the very root of genuine hypocrisy, royal or academic?
No wonder that some honors students are wondering quietly, “so – you people think I am excellent”?
If we believe Dr. More, we should respond with “yes, we think you excellent because you may be useful.” Usefulness itself being a concept in transition, we can look at Karl Marx, who even here seems to have gotten things upside down.
At least in our times, we have begun to recognize that creating too many useful people results in too many useless things. Bureaucracies, technology companies, and global capitalism are run by ever increasing numbers of people who try to prove their usefulness by producing endless streams of useless things, from red tape, to gadgets, to power structures, to laws. And higher education is no exception. Our number of useful and therefore excellent Vice Chancellors, for example, has risen from two to ten, all outstanding, all with support staff, surrounded by innumerable gadgets and rules, and producing prodigiously…
May our excellent graduates soon become productive Vice Chancellors or multi-millionaires, as well? If they do, then we will know, finally with certainty, that they have always been excellent, deserving celebration of their productivity, even if with hypocrisy on our part.
It would seem that equating excellence with productivity is no more viable in the long-run, than relying on certificates, acclamation or fame. Those who produce may all too often destroy our environment and those who measure their worth by official awards (or financial incentives) may have lost touch with what being human can be about: as Kant put it, “to be human is to be of incomparable value.” – In other words, if you rely on comparing yourself, you may have lost your humanity. Simple, but in our world of carefully planned inequality, of often outrageous proportions, it is not an idea all that difficult to contemplate.