Academic Excellence is not Elitist

The president of Davidson College spoke at an event attended by a friend of mine who was impressed by their perspective and noted a similarity to what we talk about in the Affton School District. I was sent the link to the article quoting her in an interview format. Davidson is a high level institution with high values and expectations. I was very impressed after reading about their culture of excellence and accountability. The quote, an answer to a pointed question, struck a chord with me. Demanding the best of people is not elitist or arrogant. The way she ties high achievement to humility is both encouraging and challenging.

“Davidson is – not without reason – perceived as elitist and exclusive. What should the college do about that?

Davidson is small and it’s hard. It’s highly selective based on what’s required for students to be successful. I don’t believe that Davidson is elitist in the sense that you have to have a lot of money to go there. But I think it’s easy to confuse small and highly selective in terms of academics, and snobby.

Academic rigor does not mean arrogance. Academic rigor is founded on humility and a deep awareness of how much we don’t know. Our quest for knowledge is based on our sense of the limitations of our own ability to understand and a kind of awareness that no matter how sure we are, we always might be wrong. I think we can acknowledge that we seek really talented students. It would be stupid for us to pretend like we don’t. It is hard to get into Davidson and it’s a place for disciplined, dedicated, talented people. It’s not a place only for affluent people. And it’s certainly not a place for arrogant people, because arrogance gets in the way of the very pursuit of knowledge that we’re trying to exemplify.”1

It is encouraging to know that there are institutions out there that get the truth. They are actively preparing their students to participate in and build our society. Teaching the humility required for life long learning is something we should all aspire to. There are pockets of this bubbling around the country. I hear bits of it among educators and business leaders. I read snippets here and there in print. Every once in a while it bubbles to the attention of the sensational medium we call television. We need to spread the truth of excellence in all aspects of our lives. In order to do this we should begin with ourselves.

As adults we are all educators of the next generation. When we get comfortable and stuck in our current state we are becoming arrogant. The arrogance that destroys the desire to learn. Try to grasp the challenging definitions here. Complacency is the same thing as arrogance. It says we are good enough and do not need to work any harder to be better people, parents, leaders, or workers. True excellence equals humility. In order to push ourselves to be excellent we have to acknowledge our shortcomings. We need to challenge ourselves and each other to continue to strive for excellence throughout our entire lives. We should want to create a society of excellence and we should find those small flames with which to arm and motivate ourselves.

1Printed in the Charlotte Viewpoint on September 15, 2011

Article by Alex Gregor

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