Be Excellent to Each Other

Hugh MacLeod over at gapingvoid has set out the following rule for his life:

Seek out the exceptional minds, avoid everyone else… I am interested in the exceptional mind. I am utterly uninterested in the non-exceptional mind… I will spend the rest of my professional life working with visionaries. I know who they are, they know who they are.

Now, on the one hand, it seems like more of the typical CEO-worshipping, chest-thumping, neo-Social Darwinst, self-congratulatory BS we’ve come to expect in our economy. But!

On the other hand, my father’s told me the same thing, more or less: find the person in your field who is the best and bind yourself to that person. Seek out excellence at every turn, becuase it will rub off on you. Mediocrity will rub off on you too.

Of course, I never take my father’s advice.

The real reason I decided to write about this is because of the conversation that ensued. I was thinking that, as a teacher, I don’t really have the option of turning my back on the unexceptional — that would make me a total failure at my job, career, and vocation. There I am, thinking this, when I come across a comment (CTRL-F, “Nia”) saying:

I am/want to be a teacher. I’m going to be the one making exceptional minds, or at least directing minds towards the fields where they’ll be exceptional.

Yes, I thought to myself (as I generally do). But how?

I’m on the cusp of a new semester — classes start Monday. Every semester I imagine myself striding purposefully into class, setting down my bag, unpacking my books and syllabi and notes and water bottle and other crap with great deliberation, and proceeding to open young minds to the wonders and beauties — and horrors and brutalities, which are wondrous and awesome in their own right — of the world of culture within which they are all suspended. Then I get there. And… for the most part, excellence does not occur. Yes, I’m a newbie at this — this will be my second year, my fourth semester, teaching — and I actually think I’m pretty good at it, but by 3/4 through the semester I’m just pleased if I get papers that aren’t plagiarised, ecstatic if someone makes a comment or asks a question in class. At some point, it becomes “work” — often rewarding work, but work just the same.

I have excuses. I’m teaching community college, and the students are (for the most part) not the super-students who go on to prestigious universities but the “second rank”, the bright but not exceptional who have managed to satisfy the requirements of the system without breaking a mental sweat. They are poorly prepared for college-level work. My class (Anth 101, Intro to Cultural Anthropology) meets a social science requirement, so most of my students are there not because of any particular interest in anthropology, but because it sounds more interesting then Econ or easier than Soc. They’re young and undisciplined; they’re working adults and unmotivated.

My excuses are all lies.

The real issue is that, so far, I’ve not hit upon the way to induce excellence, to draw it forth and capture it in my classrooms. I’ve modeled myself after my own best professors — and judging by my evaluations and by the growth I see over the course of the class, to more or less good effect — but maybe their way is not my way?

So, I ask a question of whoever might be visiting this site and reading this post: how do we inspire excellence in others? How do we build that feedback loop, where the excellence around us draws forth our own best selves, which in turn pushes our intelocutors to even greater heights? I’m sure it can’t just be a matter of “be excellent all the time and those around you will be inspired”. We are not solitary creatures, but instead are enmeshed in networks of sociality, and are shaped by them at the same time we shape them back. Especially for teachers and other leaders, how do we urge our students towards excellence and away from mediocrity? Because ultimately, that’s my job — not to teach them who Franz Boas was or the difference between structuralism, functionalism, and structural functionalism, but to teach them to be excellent.

I’d really be interested in seeing how other people work through this problem, this challenge.

No comments yet to Be Excellent to Each Other

  • Anonymous

    I think “excellence” should be thought of in terms of capabilities rather than performance. If we assume that everyone is capable of excellence then we can look at why someone who didn’t have the same opportunities to attend elite institutions might not perform as well as someone who did. We can teach people not to be intimidated by excellence. We may not all be the next Boas, but we should all feel capable of being in dialog with Boas’ writings, rather than worshiping them as some unobtainable goal.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Kerim. So here’s my question: how do I instill this feeling of capability, of competence, into my students (or, indeed, into anyone I come into contact with)? One part of it — making the knowledge necessary to competence — I know I do, and do fairly well. But that’s just the “raw material”. I hand them a lump of clay and hope that they produce a tea kettle; how do I get them to *believe* they are capable of it?

    I’m thinking of a book I bought and started reading but never finished, ” Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, by Paulo Freire. Freire advocates pedagogy, particularly literacy training, as a central part of social change movements. Teach the oppressed to read, he argues, and they will begin to lead. (Note: vastly simplified mottoism based on jacket copy and introduction; your results may vary.) I guess what I’m asking is, how do we implement that, given that a) most of my students aren’t there to bring about social change, and b) I’m not dealing with the kind of education gap that characterized the South and Central American peasantries Freire worked with in the ’60s?

    Finally, how do we move the lessons of such a radical pedagogy out of the classroom and into our interactions with everyday people, with non-students? I guess I could follow that up (“finally” is never final here at One Man’s Opinion) by asking if the hubbub over social networking, blogging, and the Internet in general bears on this issue at all?

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