Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The pursuit of excellence - false idol or legitimate goal? (2016 Term 3 Week 4)

I have been thinking a lot recently about the pursuit of excellence. Like motherhood and apple pie, it is hard to imagine a bad word about excellence. Surely we want our children to experience excellent education, we want them to achieve excellent standards and we want them to aspire to excellence in whatever tasks to which they may turn their hands. I can't think of a school that wouldn't affirm excellence in principle, and that wouldn't consider the pursuit of excellence a legitimate drive. However, like most aspects of life, it is no bad thing to examine some of our implicit assumptions and see whether they stand up to scrutiny.

Our School Mission statement says that Inaburra School exists to be a Christ-centred learning community, pursuing excellence in education, with every individual known and loved (emphasis added). At first glance, the merit of this mission seems self-evident. After all, who would want to pursue mediocrity in education? Who would want to attend an undistinguished school or to achieve unremarkable standards?

From time to time I have been known to exhort students to do the very best they can do. However, even that innocuous encouragement raises questions. The reality is that our resources are limited. The effort required to achieve excellence in one context limits the effort available to achieve excellence in another. On a very simple level, to give one's very best to Music would require a limitation of the time available to Maths. To give everything to one's career would leave very little to one's family. To do one's very best in one field must involve limiting one's capacity in another. Life entails trade-offs; we can't do it all.

Therefore, it follows that we all apportion our time and efforts according to our priorities. We make decisions about what is most important to us and act accordingly. Universal excellence, for an individual or an organisation, is a myth. Rather than excellence in all things, we would do well to prioritise our efforts around the things that matter most.

A second, and related, point about the pursuit of excellence is that it can be a false god. The Biblical language of idolatry is helpful for us here; idolatry involves treating something that is not God as though it is. Sometimes we can elevate excellence as though it could guarantee us security and significance, as though it can give our lives and efforts meaning, as though it can provide us with our hearts desire, be that success or popularity or wealth or happiness. Therefore, we make sacrifices, put other things aside, and make achieving excellence our top priority.

As is always the case, idolatry comes back to bite us. A focus on excellence can so easily become a drive to perfectionism, an inability to cope with failure and an unrealistic expectation about the nature of life. I recently read a frightening article about the impact of this drive in some American schools; some of the same pressures have been noted in the Australian context. We see these pressures also at our school. It is a heavy burden to believe that your worth is determined by the quality of your achievements.

However, lest the above comments lead you to think that I am not an advocate for excellence - or that I am an advocate for mediocrity - I do think that there are good reasons to pursue excellence. For me, these reasons arise from a Christian worldview.

One impetus to excellence understands excellence as a thankful response. We recognise the many good gifts that we receive from God, such as life, health, safety. Through no achievement of our own we have born into opportunities that are provided to us, whether by virtue of the point in time and space that we inhabit, or by virtue of the innate abilities and talents with which we have been endowed. In response to these gifts, we show our thankfulness by making the most of that which has been given. In this view, the pursuit of excellence is a moral obligation that is incumbent on us.

Another impetus to excellence understands excellence as an expression of love to others. From a Christian point of view, love for God is expressed through our loving service of our neighbour. As Martin Luther expressed it, the shoe-maker glorifies God by making excellent shoes, which are a blessing to those who will wear them. So too the doctor's excellence is a blessing to those who are sick, the musician's excellence is a blessing to those who listen, the teacher's excellence is a blessing to her students, and the student's excellence is a blessing both in the present to those around him and in the future to those whom he will serve. 

All of which is to say: excellence can be a great means of service, but it is a terrible master. The quality of our lives is measured less by what we do and where we do it, and more by how we do it and why we do it.


  1. Excellent blog Tim. It ties in well with what we have been doing at church recently on Faith and Work. I shared it on our church FB page. Thanks for your wisdom and insight. Stu Maze

  2. I always enjoy these but this one really struck a chord. So important to keep the balance and not to miss what (or who) really matters when striving to meet expectation and a world driven by KPIs, budgets and deadlines. Nicole and I both enjoyed this. Thanks, Murray Finch

  3. We were dealing with a issue at our church where "The Pursuit of Excellence" has become a euphemism for using Christ and Christian language to justify radical perfectionism which grinds up souls like a meat grinder. Like you, I am no advocate for mediocrity, however every biblical reference to excellence contextually describes it as a process and a attitude rather than a destination. It is the evidence OF rather than the prerequisite for the Christian life that comes not from a external source pulling but from the Spirit revealing the goodness of God in Christ Jesus.