Educating for Excellence

September 01, 2012

Educating for Excellence

The ideas of ‘excellence’ and ‘education’ are not strangers. It would be difficult to find a school or university that did not claim some connection with ‘excellence’ on its website. It’s one of those words that gives prospective students (or their parents) a positive image of the institution: it is surely right that a school should pursue excellence, and if there is evidence that it succeeds in this pursuit as well, all the better. Often the association claimed is left vague though, and the word merely floats untethered across the top of the page with other positive image words like ‘leadership’, ‘innovation’ and ‘honour’.

But what does ‘excellence’ mean? What is the place of excellence in education? Does Christianity have anything to say about this, or is it something on which we would not expect the Christian and non-Christian worlds to differ? These are some of the questions this article attempts to answer.

Understanding  ‘excellence’


Should excellence be equated with success?  It might be tempting to think along these lines.  After all, if excellence is rooted in achieving a certain benchmark level of achievement, then it would seem that reaching that benchmark means someone has attained excellence. Surely we don’t need to know anything else about the pianist flawlessly playing Rachmaninoff in order to know they are an excellent musician. However, this measure of excellence can run into problems, because we can think of scenarios in which it possible to be either successful or excellent, but not both. To some extent, it depends on the starting point. The benchmark might be attained but excellence not displayed if what was tested was well beneath the capacities of the performer. Few people would think Cadell Evans was an excellent cyclist for winning a race against school children; similarly, one might begin a course of study with a robust grasp of the subject matter, and therefore achieve high marks, even if not much actual learning has taken place. We feel hesitant to attribute excellence to such an individual. Conversely, someone who is virtually ignorant of a particular subject, but significantly grows in his or her grasp of the material over the course of the semester, may not achieve the success of high grades, but may still have a claim to educational excellence.

Doing one’s best

Perhaps, then, it would make more sense to identify excellence with ‘doing one’s best’.  This appears a somewhat better characterization of excellence, because it overlaps more closely with the concept of realizing one’s full potential, which is surely an important principle. In a report commissioned in the early 80s by the US government on the state of education, excellence was defined as:

performing on the boundary of individual ability in ways that test and push back personal limits, in school and in the workplace.  Excellence characterizes a school or college that sets high expectations and goals for all learners, then tries in every way possible to help students reach them.  [1]

There is certainly something appealing in this definition, which taps into our intuition that inner personal characteristics such as effort and progress are important for someone to qualify as excellent, in a way that equating excellence with success doesn’t. It is surely laudable to promote ‘high expectations and goals for all learners’.  But such rhetoric inevitably raises the question: what is the appropriate standard for such expectations and goals? There still seems to be something wrong with attributing excellence equally to every singer who sings to the best of their ability; to every author who writes the best novel they can; to every student who does their best on the maths test, regardless of the mark they get. Indexing ‘excellence’ to personal goal-setting reduces it to a relative term, dependent only on the effort of the subject, and again, our intuition baulks at such a concept. We feel that there are objective standards which need to be reached or approximated for it to be reasonable to apply the label.

What can be excellent?

Perhaps the problem can be solved by thinking about what it is that can appropriately be called excellent. Perhaps it is as simple as separating excellence of effort or progress from excellence of skill or output. By doing this we can make sense of the appeal of attributing excellence to the student who learns a great deal of previously completely unknown geography but still doesn’t get high marks, while being able to account for our reticence in claiming that he is an excellent geographer. His skill is not (yet) excellent, but his effort and progress are.

This looks promising, but another problem remains: a high level of effort and progress, or skill in any domain does not seem to be enough for someone or something to qualify as excellent. Is a highly skilled embezzler who doesn’t get caught an excellent thief? Does someone who single-mindedly focuses on training for a marathon and performs above their personal best do something excellent if it comes at the cost of neglecting their family? Again, we hesitate, and want to restrict the kinds of things that can be called excellent. 

How, then, can someone who wishes to pursue excellence know where to put their effort or deploy their skill? Is there something even more fundamental than effort and skill that excellence can be attributed to, something that constrains its application to certain domains of effort and skill?

I contend that this is the case, and that excellence is more like a character trait than an activity, with the consequence being that a proper analysis of excellence falls directly under the umbrella of virtue theory.


Excellence as virtue

A more satisfactory account of excellence characterizes it as a habit or disposition which is conducive for enabling one to flourish as a human being. In other words, an excellence is virtually identical with a virtue.  As J.P. Moreland helpfully explains, ‘A virtue is a skill, a habit, an ingrained disposition to act, think, or feel in certain ways.  Virtues are those good parts of one’s character that make a person excellent at life in general.’[2]  A virtue is a kind of character trait, which ideally manifests itself in the context of one’s various activities.  Strictly speaking, the virtue or excellence is distinct from those activities, but the activities we can appropriately call ‘excellent’ will flow on from ‘excellences’ or virtues of character. 

At this point, it becomes clear that excellence is not something that floats freely, but is embedded in a particular idea of what it is to be human, what it is to flourish, and what character traits lead to that flourishing. This notion of flourishing is not merely the possession of material goods, but rather highlights the realization of what the ancients called ‘the good life’, or eudaimonia—the state of happiness which is the product of correctly ordering one’s life. Ancient philosophers gave various accounts of what constituted eudaimonia, but our concern here is a Christian account of excellence, and so it is a Christian anthropology that will inform our understanding.

Andreas Köstenberger, in his book Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue finds the significance of pursuing excellence in the fact that ‘God is the grounds of all true excellence’ (p33), and humans are made in his image.[3] To be sure, that image has been broken by sin, but it is in accurately coming to reflect God’s image again—as does Jesus, ‘the exact representation of God’s being’ (Heb 1)—that we find the end or telos of human nature. Activities involving sin fail to reflect God’s image, and so can never rightly be called excellent, regardless of how much effort or skill are expended in their pursuit.

It may seem odd to locate our vision of human flourishing in Jesus, whose life included opposition, rejection, self-sacrifice and crucifixion, but this is nonetheless the life Christians are called to. It is how living out the excellences of God’s character—love, justice, generosity, mercy, truthfulness, patience, faithfulness—looks in a world that is in many ways hostile to God. Ultimately, of course, Christians look forward to the time when God will transform their situation to life in a new creation which is not hostile to the image of God, but glories in it. For those who acknowledge this, God’s excellence provides the motivation to pursue such excellence.[4]

This account of excellence is preferable to those suggested above for several reasons.  Because it is not primarily about the activities in which one engages, but rather the dispositions that give rise to those activities, this ‘virtue account’ of excellence avoids the problems associated with the ‘success’ model of excellence discussed above. It also sidesteps the challenges facing the ‘doing one’s best’ account, in the sense that it highlights an appropriate context, or end, for which the excellences are employed.  Finally, it explains why we don’t want to attribute excellence to some activities that clearly display an extraordinary level of skill or effort. This account gets at the heart of excellence, in other words, because it affirms the notion that there is an appropriate way to approach life in general.  That is, there are objective standards for the so-called ‘good life’, and excellence of character disposes us to approximate those standards.

To be clear, these insights don’t imply that one must acknowledge God to pursue excellence in one’s activities—clearly there are many people who fail to do so and yet are capable of performing at high levels in a wide range of activities, even within the domain of activities that can properly be called ‘excellent’. All people are created in God’s image, however distorted, and it is not surprising that they are capable of excellences of character, effort, and skill. However the Christian has the advantage of recognising which excellences of character to develop by looking to Christ; and as a result which activities are most worth engaging our effort and skill in.

Educational implications

These insights suggest, among other things, that the pursuit of excellence in education should be conceptually tied to our fundamental nature as human beings, which in turn is ultimately informed by our identity as created beings, made in the image of God.  As such, what counts as excellence, and what domains we should pursue excellence in, ought to reflect these truths.    

This understanding of excellence, of course, stands in contrast to the existentialist philosophies of the twentieth century, in which it was argued that ‘existence precedes essence’[5] and that human beings are free to create their own identity and pursue their own paths of self-fulfillment.  On the contrary, according to the Christian view our fundamental nature is fixed by divine realities, which means that the activities we pursue, and the manner in which we pursue them, ought to align with these.  Insofar as we pursue our activities in a way that conflicts with our nature, it will be difficult for our efforts to achieve their full potential. 

The subsequent implications for education are profound. It stands to reason that if there’s an objective standard for the good life, then the fundamental purpose of an education should be to enable one to achieve that standard. As T.S. Eliot once famously quipped, ‘We must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of life.  The problem turns out to be a religious problem.’[6] Bloom agrees, ‘Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum.  It wants to produce a certain kind of human being.’[7]  

At the very least, it seems appropriate to call into question the de facto view of education in today’s cultural milieu. School education is often evaluated on the basis of, and geared toward, university entrance. But as Arthur Holmes, the Christian philosopher, observed many years ago, ‘too many young people attend college or university, and their parents encourage them, without any gripping sense of what college is all about beyond tentative vocational goals or questionable social aspirations’.[8] In the same vein, Dallas Willard has recently argued that ‘Education as now understood—the actual social practice—cannot come to grips with the realities of the human self… education has no adopted values, attitudes, and practices that make any rigorous understanding of the human self and life possible.’[9]  In recent years, a number of books have emerged, lamenting the current state of academia and suggesting bold changes for the future.[10]  Many of these critiques directly challenge the prevailing pragmatic approach to education, which tends to narrowly emphasize the vocational and economic benefits of a university degree.


We have seen above what kind of human being a Christian approach to excellence in education should produce: one who understands and reflects the character of God in all their pursuits and activities. The kind of person who will choose to expend their effort on the kinds of activities God approves, and who conducts themselves in those activities virtuously. Köstenberger gives an example of how this looks in the domain of scholarship: the Christian scholar will approach their activities with such characteristics as integrity, fidelity, diligence and humility, to the glory of God. Closely associated with a virtue theoretic account of excellence is 2 Peter 1:5-7,

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (ESV)

 In this passage, the Greek term for ‘virtue’ can also be translated as ‘excellence’.  But more importantly, the flow of the passage suggests there should be an intimate connection between one’s inner virtuous disposition, on the one hand, and the kind of lifestyle that is ultimately rooted in that disposition.  In other words, excellence is not fundamentally about behavior or action, but rather about character. Of course, this doesn’t imply that our behavior is irrelevant to achieving excellence.  On the contrary, it is the product of achieving excellence.

However the Christian should be acutely aware of the fact that these values differ markedly from the status quo, in the worlds of education and academia.  That is, one could achieve some measure of excellence without necessarily being ‘successful’ according to the standards of conventional wisdom.  This is precisely because, as has already been suggested, current approaches to education are typically not concerned with enabling students to live better lives as human beings, but rather with satisfying a set of performance-based criteria, with a view to securing one’s subsequent financial livelihood. Thus, non-Christians may display more obvious levels of skill and effort in some domains, because how they prioritise their time and effort and to what ends may be different. Christians may, for example, choose not to develop their skills to an elite level if to do so means neglecting other facets of life deemed important, such as church commitments. They may not be the most successful in their field because service in other areas means they cannot pursue their career as single-mindedly as might another person. However a disposition rooted in excellence will, all things being equal, often produce the kind of exemplary activity that is lauded in our contemporary landscape.

To some degree, the outworking of this understanding of excellence will vary from person to person, insofar as students are endowed with differing temperaments and have different callings to pursue.  In each case, special attention should be given to these factors, particularly by educators who are responsible for their growth and development.  As John Locke opined, ‘He, therefore, that is about children should well study their natures and aptitudes and see, by often trials, what turn they easily take and what becomes them, observe what their nature stock is, how it may be imposed, and what it is fit for.’[11]  To put it differently in the context of the present analysis: while the precise means for achieving these ends will often be manifested uniquely from person to person,  there are objective standards for the good life, and everyone is called to glorify God with his or her life. [12]

[1] A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education. The National Commission on Excellence in Education 

April 1983, p14.

[2] J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), p106. 

[3] Andreas Köstenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2011), pp33-34, 35. 

[4] Ibid., p36.

[5] See Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism, trans. Carol Macomber (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007). 

[6] T.S. Eliot, ‘Modern Education and the Classics’. Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950), p452. 

[7] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988) p26. 

[8] Arthur Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p13. 

[9] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), p47.

[10] See, for example, Harry Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007); Anthony Kronman, Education’s End (Binghamton: Caravan, 2007); Mark Taylor, Crisis on Campus (New York: Knopf Press, 2010); and Naomi Schaeffer Riley, The Faculty Lounges (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). 

[11] John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, eds. Ruth Grant and Nathan Tarcov (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), p41. 

[12] I wish to thank Dani Scarratt for her helpful suggestions for improving this article.  Her patience and insight proved invaluable to the completion of this project.

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