Excellence

Two events recently made me think about excellence, what it entails and how to cultivate it. Event one was Olympia High’s final orchestra concert of the school year. I’m always blown away by their individual and collective musicianship. Event two was Sunday’s Pre(fontaine) Classic track meet in Track Town, USA, Eugene, OR. In the mile, 12 people went sub 4, an American woman ran 3:59.9 in the 1500; a shot putter went over 71 feet; a long jumper 28’8″; the 100m winner, 9.94; and on and on. 

One thing musical and athletic excellence entail is beauty. There’s something mesmerizing about watching a gifted musician embrace and bring a piece alive just as there’s something almost mystical about watching an elite middle distance East African runner pull away in the last 400 meters.

Often there’s a knowledgeable, committed, demanding coach eliciting excellent performance. Chip Schooler, the Olympia High orchestra conductor is a case in point. I don’t want to put him on a pedestal even though he does stand on one, but those students are privileged to get to work with him day in and day out.

There also has to be an intrinsic love of the activity that translates into dedication to repetitive practice. Then there’s very careful preparation for the excellent performance. One of my favorite parts of the meet was watching the pole vaulters warm up an hour before their event started. Running drills, spraying the handle of their poles, taking practice runs and flopping into the mat, stretching, hydrating, narrowing their focus.

In excellence versus equity debates, I typically advocate for equity, but they don’t have to be mutually exclusive all the time. Maybe I’ve slighted excellence out of fear that it too often produces elitism.

Too Excellent?

It gained momentum during the Pennsylvania primary when Obama passed on beer shots and rolled a few gutter balls. Hillary’s peeps went on the attack saying he’s not a regular guy, he’s an elitist, out of touch with beer drinking bowlers who work factory jobs and hunt on the weekends.

The criticisms multiplied after Hockey Mom burst onto the national stage. Obama was too professorial, too intellectual, too eloquent, too damn skinny. He was a media darling, because like him, the media are arrogant out-of-touch east-coast intellectuals. On the other hand, Palin was celebrated for not being professorial, not being intellectual, not being particularly eloquent. She was regular folk. She hunted moose.

Obama was a man of ideas, she was a woman of action. Like ordinary folk, she hopped from anonymous college to anonymous college before graduating and reading the sports news for a living. In contrast, Obama attended the Punahou school, then Occidental, then Columbia, then the bastion of elitism, Harvard, where he became the first African-American to edit the Harvard Law Review.

Even though we tell ourselves that education is important, people are suspicious of those that attend elite institutions. Obama went from editing the Harvard Law Review to a community organizing gig in Chicago which cynics charge was simply a calculated plan to jumpstart his political career. There’s another strike against him, too ambitious.

I understand cynicism, but maybe there was something about growing up poor that combined with classroom and extracurricular experiences at Punaho, Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard that resulted in a genuine social conscience.

For awhile there, at the end of the Republican Convention, when McCain-Palin pulled even, I thought our national motto had become style over substance. Better not to be too poised. Better not to be too intelligent. Better not to be too fit. Better not to be too ambitious.

All of a sudden conservative Republicans who always advocate for excellence over equity were back-pedaling en masse.

Obama illustrated there was a tipping point, one can be too excellent. I can’t help but wonder if latent racism explains why many on the right felt compelled to portray Obama’s excellence as elitism.

Even last Wednesday night, McCain repeatedly referenced how eloquent Obama was, by which he meant, he’s just too smooth, he can’t be trusted. 

So Obama’s probable victory will restore my faith that what I’ve attempted to model and teach my children—pursue excellence in school, learn to communicate well, take care of your body, be ambitious about serving others—still resonate despite the best efforts of the Palin fanbase to retreat on excellence and dumb down the election.