The Survival of Excellence

Nicholas M. Cripe, Butler University

When informed of the theme of this conference, "Survival of Excellence," my first reaction was to wonder if I would spend my time discussing an already extinct species, like the traveler pigeon. But second thought leads me to believe excellence is more closely analogous to the whooping crane: that while not extinct, it certainly is endangered.

For I would define excellence not only as does Webster's Third International Dictionary as superiority, pre-eminence, of the highest quality, but even more as does the philosopher, Ortega, as the qualities to be found in a man defined as excellent. Says Ortega, "The excellent man is constituted by an intimate need to appeal from himself to a standard above him, superior to him, to which service he freely puts himself . . . for excellence is synonymous with a life of exertion, always dedicated to outdoing oneself, to transcend what one already is."1

So my thesis is simply this: if excellence is to survive, man must be dedicated to being excellent. We must be dedicated as a society; we must be dedicated as individuals.

But we are not dedicated to excellence, either as a society, nor by and large, as individuals. And we are not because our colleges and universities are not turning out a sufficient number of students dedicated to a philosophy of excellence. I fear that John Gardner, while Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, described our society all too well when he said: "An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is 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 held water."2

I think it an apt description because ours is a society that  exalts the college degree with all too little attention as to its excellence. Never has such a large proportion of a population held a college degree as in the United States today, but tell me when excellence was so often the exception rather than the rule. It seems rather obvious, at least to me, that too many of our graduates could not be defined as excellent by either a dictionary or a philosophical definition.

Sometime during the past few decades, college faculties, administrations, and students seem to have lost sight of the fact that the job of the college is to educate the student, to give him [her] a sense of dedication to learning. Today the emphasis seems to be on the number seeking the degree, not the excellence of the education for which the degree should stand.

Let us take an objective look at higher education. What we see is that all too many schools of advanced learning are caught up in the numbers game. The predominant emphasis is on schooling the masses, not educating for excellence. We all know of schools where departments with low enrollments have been abolished, no matter their excellence, of courses with low enrollment that are no longer offered. In most universities the criterion for promotion and tenure is not excellence in teaching, but the number of articles published by the professor. The ironic comment "publish or perish" has literally become an academic way of life.

In the 1960's when students rebelled and demanded more meaningful courses, many faculties voted to drop the foreign-language requirement, substituted "comic book literature" for Faulkner and nonverbal communication for Greek and Roman orators. and for many of our students "relevant" became the key word. To others it became the letter "A" as it dawned upon them that they would be accepted into graduate school primarily on their Graduate Record Examination score and grade-point average, not on the breadth and depth of courses they had taken. The result is that today the mark of excellence for the many is the college degree; for the select few, high grades that lead to a higher degree.

Excellence as designated by a grade-point average has survived and is flourishing. But if excellence is as Ortega says, "outdoing oneself to transcend what one already is," then I believe that the evidence is overwhelming; our colleges and universities are not preparing our students, the average ones or the superior ones, for a life dedicated to excellence. The emphasis is on the symbol of measurement, not the content supposedly measured.

To summarize then, allow me to paraphrase the eminent American philosopher, Pogo: "The problem has been defined, and it is us." Having discussed the problem, now let us look for a solution. Frankly I am not certain that there is any one solution. Excellence cannot be mass-produced. Excellence is very much an individual thing, a product of the mind and heart, an inner urge to excel that does not let the person who possesses it ever stop striving to do better; as Ortega says, "a life dedicated to outdoing oneself."

If we agree, then, that excellence is an individual attribute, an inner urge fed by mind and heart, then there is something each of us can do to increase its chances of survival. And we can start dong it immediately. We can start demanding from each and every one of our students excellence in the use of the written and spoken word. I would contend that the measure of a man's excellence may be lessened or lengthened by the degree of excellence he [she] has achieved with oral and written expression. How well we comprehend that which is communicated to us by others depends to a large extent upon our comprehension of language. How well we communicate our thoughts to others depends to a large extent upon our command of the written and spoken word. For as George Orwell so aptly put it in his essay, Politics and the English Language, "sloppy language makes for sloppy thought."3

Is Orwell correct? Is de Maistre correct? Is it a mere coincidence that when we need excellence of thought and leadership as much as we ever have in our history, there should be such a dearth of excellence with the written and spoken word among those who lead? Where are the Jeffersons and the Hamiltons with the written word; the Lincolns, the Roosevelts, the Stevensons with the spoken word? Where are the Learned Hands in the law, the Clarence Randalls in business, the Martin Luther Kings? Excellence of language among those who lead does indeed seem to be an endangered species.

And what of the language used by the non-leaders, that vast majority of this society that spends billions annually to educate its children in schools manned by the graduates of our colleges and universities?

In a 1969 national survey involving uniform writing exercises given to some 86,000 children aged 9, 13, and 17 in 2500 schools in every section of the United States, some interesting findings emerged:

Nine-year-old Americans showed almost no command of the basic writing mechanics of grammar, vocabulary, spelling, sentence structure, and punctuation.

Even the best of the 17-year-olds seldom displayed any flair or facility in moving beyond commonplace language.

The results of a follow-up national study released in December 1975 are much the same, only the 9-yr-olds are not any better and the 13- and 17-year-olds are worse.5

The conclusion I draw from this is that our educational system from first grade to high school diploma is not educating students for excellence in the use of the language. Could it be because our colleges and universities did not instill in the teachers in the public schools, when we had them as undergraduates, a dedication to excellence in language? 

What of our colleges and universities? How are they educating students in the use of language?

Addressing the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Rudyard Kipling said, "I am by calling a dealer in words, and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain . . . ."

As a teacher of speech communication, I, too, am a dealer in words. And I am convinced that words are one drug with which today's students are not experimenting. I am also convinced that today's faculties are not guilty of pushing this drug.  Every student body has a few addicts who are hooked on words, and it was usually some faculty pusher who got them addicted. But the majority of our students are not language-conscious; they show it every time they speak and in every paper they write. I am all too frequently reminded of what Dr. Ernest Fremont Tittle said some years ago at a commencement speech at Northwestern University: "If you cannot gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles, neither can you gather golden sentences from an empty mind."6 The reason why most of us do not say more is just because we have nothing more to say." I would carry this statement one step farther: one of the biggest problems facing our students is that even when they have something to say, they do not know how to say it. 

Somewhere along the way too many of our students have not learned to use the English language. They have not learned to speak and write because they have not had to do so. I have long since ceased to be surprised when a student with junior standing complains about writing a term paper because it is his first one and he is not happy about the assignment. I am well aware of the fact that with large classes multiple-guess quizzes are much more easily and more quickly graded than bulging bluebooks and that term papers take inordinate amount of time to read and correct. But if we do not insist on our students' learning to use the language correctly and well in college, when will they learn? Is this not the obligation of every faculty member, no matter what his discipline? Surely you do not honestly believe the job can be done by the speech professor and/or the English professor in the one or two classes you allow us to have the students?

I believe another cause for the problem is the example we professors set for our students in our use of the spoken and written word. What of our excellence in the use of language?

A joke getting laughs in Washington concerns the public speaking of Senator "Scoop" Jackson. The story is that when Senator Jackson made a fireside chat, the fire went to sleep. Could the same be said about your students when you lecture? Do you sit slouched behind a desk droning from yellowed, dog-eared notes or stand mumbling to a blackboard? After 7 years as a college student and 25 years as a college teacher, I am firmly convinced that some of the worst public speaking in America takes place in the college classroom.

Nor do we set a much better example with the written word as exemplified in a goodly amount of our so-called scholarly writing. Melvin Maddocks in his essay "The Limitations of Language" calls the problem "semantic aphasia" and defines it as "numbness of . . . mind and heart . . . which results from the habitual and prolonged abuse of words." 7

Orwell says it results from staleness of imagery and a lack of precision brought on by the use of dying metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. Orwell illustrates well both his and Maddock's contentions with a parody which he believes is not a very gross one. First he gives us a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

He then translates the verse into modern English:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.8

This is not an exaggerated example; it is only too typical of much of the writing we all find in the journals we and our students must read. I fear all too many of us are not excellent examples of how to use the spoken and written word.

So I would like to conclude these remarks much as did LeRoy Collins, former governor of Florida, in a speech given here in Indianapolis at the First National Conference of the combined forensic honor societies Delta Sigma Rho-Tau Kappa Alpha.9 The speech challenged the several hundred college students in attendance to take a stand for their convictions. He concluded with a story from his boyhood in Tallahassee, Florida. Native Floridians have long been proud of the fact that Tallahassee was the only state capitol east of the Mississippi not to be occupied by Yankee troops. Nor was this an oversight on the part of the North. Late in the war, a contingent of troops was landed at St. Marks, a tiny Gulf Coast port about 25 miles southwest of Tallahassee, with the mission to take the capitol. There was no Confederate force available for a defense, but when word of the landing reached the town, a small group formed of disabled soldiers, grandfathers, and some 13- and 14-year-old boys who were attending a local seminary. They had no arms except a few squirrel rifles, some rusty pistols, and an assortment of agricultural tools. But this group bravely set forth to engage the enemy. The ensuing battle took place at a little spot call Natural Bridge, the only place the Union soldiers could cross the St. Marks River. The engagement lasted only a few hours. There was a great deal more noise than casualties, and when it was over, the Northern troops retreated to St. Marks, and sailed away.

Years later, to commemorate this glorious victory, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument at the site of the Battle of Natural Bridge, and on Confederate Memorial Day each year an all-day celebration would be held with bands, political speeches, and dinner on the grounds. As a boy, LeRoy Collins always loved to attend this event.

Another person who always attended was a very old man. He had a beard trimmed as nearly like Robert E. Lee's as possible. He would go over to a particular spot, plant his walking stick firmly in the ground, and then dance around and around saying over and over, "This where I stood! This is where I stood!"

Collins said that he and other children would gather around to watch and snicker and tell each other the old man was "crazy as a bed bug." The older people would say not to pay any attention to the old fellow, that he was "old and senile." But, continued Collins, he had come to realize that that old man was not crazy at all. He had been one of those apple-cheeked youngsters from the seminary who had participated in the battle. The spot he was pointing out was where he had stood in that battle so many years before. Collins concluded his speech by saying he hoped that when he was an old man, he too could look back, point as proudly to incidents in this life, and say, "Here is where I stood." His challenge to members of his audience that evening was that they too would live and speak and serve; that in the years ahead they too would feel like dancing around their stick and proclaim, "This is where I stood."

And that is my challenge to you, that when your teaching days are over, you can proudly say, "I stood for excellence." 


1. Ortega y Gasset, J (1957). The revolt of the masses. New York: W. W. Norton.

2. Monroe, A. H., & Elminger, D. (1969). Principles of speech communication, 6th ed. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman. 

3. Scott, R. L. (1969). The speaker's reader: Concept in communication. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

4. Maynes, M. (1972, April 2). Style: The decline of, Time, p. 9.

5. Why Johnny can't write. (1975, December 8). Newsweek, p. 58.

6. Monroe, A. H. (1955). Principles and types of speech, 4th ed. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman. 

7. Time. (1971, March 8). pp. 36-37.

8. Scott, R. L., p. 163.

9. Speaker and Gavel. (1964, May). Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 130-131.