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The Dangerous Assumptions of 'Excellence'


“Excellence” ranks right up there with terms like “professionalism” and “family values” as power terms, the vagueness of which is used to subject people to all manner of indignity and peonage.

“Excellent” we might lovingly associate with Wayne's World or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, in which it's a term of universal application to all things righteous, gnarly or dope. But that same universalism is exactly what makes “excellence” so dangerous.

After all, who could possibly be against excellence? You might as well say that you hate America while you're at it.

“Striving for excellence” stands in assumed opposition to “settling for mediocrity” or “promoting incompetence,” and those in power use this assumed opposition to create buy-in for what they want to do. This allows them to slap the word “excellence” onto any old thing, with little explanation of what makes the new plan excellent or, indeed, what the inevitable increase in workplace chaos is meant to excel.

I have seen the term “excellence” stamped on everything from fruitless attempts to improve retention of freshmen at a small college to truly alarming plans to freeze salaries and outsource jobs. I have seen “excellence” applied to genuine but misguided attempts for evaluation and assessment, and to programs to keep errant nuts and bolts out of the fuselages of brand new airplanes.

But what has been common to all of these forms of “excellence” has been a behind-the-scenes power play on the part of those trying to implement them.

Call me un-American if you wish, but if this is what “excellence” is, then I'll stick with the totally bogus, fer sure.