In the world of education, ‘excellence’ is thought of as synonymous with ‘success’. One of the consequences of this thinking is that school and college education is structured around competition and a need to categorize people by measurable ability. Moreover, ambition is instilled as the basic motive for growth in life. Ambition is encouraged, applauded and rewarded by the immediate family and society at large. Thus, the pursuit of success becomes the primary motive force in life. To me, this equivalence of success with excellence seems to be a grave error, leaving us with little time, energy or inclination to discover the deeper meaning of life.
Success is the construction of one’s self through the shaping of demonstrable ability. It lies in the gap between ‘what one is’ and ‘what one wishes to appear to be’. In this sense, it is the chasing of a mirage. And like all mirages, once you come close enough, it turns out to be not quite what one expected it to be, and so the eye casts further into the future for another mirage to chase. How can this be considered excellence?
Isn’t excellence an intrinsic quality recognizable not so much by what one does but by how one is? Excellence is perhaps that which emerges quite accidently, unsought, taking one by surprise at its emergence. The specific manifestation of excellence may not be preconceived and hence, sought after. Yet it is palpable and obvious when you come in contact with it. Perhaps the quality that makes it cognisable is the lack of gap between the being and appearance of the person at that moment. It might be felt during a music concert where the music emerges from a deeper place than the singer’s abilities, or perhaps it might be in the speaking of simple and authentic words. Always it is accompanied by the ‘loss of one’s self ’, if only momentarily. If excellence may not be pursued, then what is one’s motive force in life? I think it is the observation of the gap between one’s being and appearance—that ‘which is’ and that ‘which is thought’ and thereafter sought. Observation of the gap reduces the gap. From the absence of the gap, authenticity speaks.
Much of education is built around the shaping of one’s self around an ideal. The pursuit of success is an additive process, building more layers between one’s being and one’s appearance. The emergence of excellence, on the other hand, seems to be the product of a subtractive process, a stripping away, a paring down of the non-essentials. This enables one’s appearance to be as close to, if not identical with, one’s being, which is essentially quiet, not striving to become other than what it is.
How then might we conceive of an educational process where a human being is not sucked into this vortex of ‘becoming’? During the many years of growing up, it seems essential to understand the futility of constantly becoming someone in the eyes of the world. To help children be free of this corrosive urge without retreating from the challenges of life is thus an essential aspect of school education.