Excellence and Western Civilization

William H. Young

  • Article
  • October 13, 2011

Fifty years ago John W. Gardner wrote in Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1961): “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy; neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” In its choice of equality over excellence, postmodern multiculturalism has, figuratively, succeeded in producing neither good plumbers, from failed secondary education, nor good philosophers, from emasculated college education. We need to return education to the idea of excellence taught by Western civilization, beginning with the Greeks.

Since A Nation at Risk (1983) warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” much of the focus has been on the failure of high schools to graduate students with even the academic skills needed to become good plumbers. But in The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools (2003), Cheri Pierson Yecke describes how the educational establishment responded to A Nation at Risk:

Rather than strengthen their commitment to higher academic standards, activist reformers…soon made it clear that the middle school was not just a new educational organization, but a means to an end—that end being the implementation of massive changes meant to produce social egalitarianism. The middle school was to become the vehicle for implementing “social justice” by “making everyone equal.” The goal of producing mass equality is being pursued through policies and practices implemented in middle schools across the country. Ability grouping is discouraged as elitist and in many places has been replaced with “cooperative learning,” where a few students do all the work and everyone shares the grade. High ability students are often not allowed to work at their own pace but instead are…required to tutor others, resulting in a loss of their own educational growth…The entire middle school curriculum has been dumbed down.

All of these policies and practices have been working together in a systematic fashion, encouraging at many middle schools a culture of disdain and contempt for high academic achievement. This is nothing less than a declaration of war against academic excellence.

As Diane Ravitch has pointed out in The New York Times, about students moving from middle schools into high schools: “When American students arrive as freshmen, nearly 70 percent are reading below grade level. Equally large numbers are ill prepared in mathematics, science, and history.” Middle schools have succeeded in the postmodern multicultural educationist agenda of making all students equal—at the lowest common denominator of mediocrity—which high schools are unable to overcome and sometimes worsen.

For many years, NAS has fought against the turn of college education away from the standard of excellence venerated by Western civilization and towards the cultural relativism esteemed by postmodern multiculturalism in the name of equality and social justice. In Virginia Tech’s ‘Inclusive’ Rodomontade, Peter Wood tries to make sense of the term “inclusive excellence”:

“Inclusive excellence” is based on the idea that different social and cultural groups have their own standards for excellence that cannot be shared or in most cases even translated across group boundaries. The excellence pursued by white Americans is one thing; that pursued by African Americans is another. The excellence pursued by women is one thing; that pursued by men is another. Under the doctrine of “inclusive excellence,” a university makes it clear that it recognizes and values the distinctive excellences of each and every campus group…

Well, not really. In practice it means having separate (and lower) expectations for some groups than others. A simple translation of “inclusive excellence” is that it is affirmative action for ideas. Ideas that are too weak, too flawed, too unsupported to withstand critical inspection get a sharply discounted admission ticket under the reign of ‘inclusive excellence.’ The doctrine clearly owes something to several decades of postmodernism and various attempts to diminish respect for reason and rational inquiry.

In Making Excellence Inclusive, the Association of American Colleges and Universities “calls for higher education to address diversity, inclusion, and equity as critical to the wellbeing of democratic culture. Making excellence inclusive…requires that we uncover inequities in student success, identify effective educational practices, and build such practices organically for sustained institutional change.” Inclusion is “the active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity—in the curriculum…” The “Inclusive Excellence Toolkit” for the University of Denver establishes the key idea that “inclusiveness and excellence are conceptualized as one and the same—to practice inclusiveness is excellence.” The Western standard of academic excellence is replaced by multicultural inclusiveness and diversity.

Thomas Cahill proclaims in Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003), “If we could save but one word from Greek civilization, it would have to be arête, excellence.” The Greeks built the structure for our intellectual lives. They are responsible for our vocabulary, our logic, and our entire system of categorization. They provided the intellectual tools we bring to bear on problems in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, physics, and other sciences.

The Renaissance deplored ignorance and exalted the aspiration to personal excellence of humanism. Renaissance humanism provided the West not only with a comprehensive knowledge of classical literature and thought, but absorbed classical modes of thought and expression, and fostered an appreciation of the studies we know as the “humanities.” Greek excellence and Renaissance humanism constituted the foundation on which American education was initially constructed.

Referring to the first universities established in Bologna, Heidelberg, and Paris in the High Middle Ages, Peter Wood concludes:

The university as an enterprise that pursued excellence, unqualified by the social origins of its students, has been the guided ideal of the institution for most of its 1200 years….We are now, however, at the moment when Western thought is doubling back on itself and prefers in all too many cases to valorize the very distinctions it has spent centuries overcoming….The pursuit of truth and the idea of human excellence that transcends the accidents of race, nationality, sex, and so on, have been subordinated to the new pursuit of putting each identity group in its own sandbox.

Tragically, not only has it succeeded in instilling equality over excellence in schooling at all levels—instead of the high standards envisioned by John W. Gardner—postmodern multiculturalism continues to accelerate America’s race to the bottom. Ironically, as Adlai E. Stevenson II observed in a speech to the United Parents Association more than fifty years ago:

Respect for intellectual excellence, the restoration of vigor and discipline to our ideas of study, curricula which aim at strengthening intellectual fiber and stretching the power of young minds, personal commitment and responsibility—these are the preconditions of educational recovery in America today; and, I believe, they have always been preconditions of happiness and sanity for the human race.

Both Gardner and Stevenson are surely turning over in their graves.

President George W. Bush awarded the National Humanities Medal to former NAS president Steve Balch as “a leading champion of excellence and reform at our nation’s universities,” which included helping to establish new programs for the study of America and the West as “oases of excellence.” The academy, both broadly and particularly in its schools of education, urgently needs to heed the call to reform by NAS—and Gardner’s and Stevenson’s wisdom—to restore intellectual excellence as embodied in the knowledge provided by Western civilization.  The Renaissance humanists were able to liberate man from the dogma of their time. We can only hope that humanist reformers of our time can be as successful in overturning the narrow ideological fixation with equality and social justice that is leading to our demise.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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