14 June 2009

Sic Semper Tyrannis!

It’s the motto of the State of Virginia. Comes from colonial times, and reeks of Patrick Henry of Harry Lee or Thomas Jefferson. Slave owners all, of course.

I just read a short essay called “The Tyranny of Excellence,” prepared for a conference of my colleagues and posted on the internet. You need to not read it as the subject is clergy preparation for Unitarian Universalists, which is a very select bunch. What struck me was the title, which set off bells in my head.

This morning, Sunday, as I prepare for worship, I am watching the news and listening to an interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who more than once speaks of how our children n must be able to compete in the world economy. Education is training, like an athlete, for a contest, a competition.

The economy itself is in competition with the other nations, even though we call it a global economy.

Politics is all about competition; we even call elections races and watch like race track touts as they ‘jockey’ for position and who is ahead in the ‘home stretch.’

Competition is the dominant word that describes reality now, and as the author of the essay I read notes, “Being committed to excellence doesn’t make excellence into tyranny, of course. But if these many different [religious] schools, with their very different capacities, visions of the world, and strategies for theological education, can all use “excellence” as the descriptor of their identity, then it must have a very plastic definition. That is the tyranny.”

We all talk about competition and excellence, and we all agree they are important, and yet only a few will ‘win,’ and only a few will ‘excel.’ Should we really adopt a world view that requires most people, institutions, nations, to lose?

I am not getting all ‘kum ba ya’ here, just asking whether we have been beguiled and even brainwashed by an idea, competition, so that we can see no other way? Has Spencerian thinking so pervaded us, that even those who loathe evolution are captivated by it?

I am off to church soon. Needless to say, I am standing in opposition to this dogmatic notion this morning, but when one is inside a world where one idea so shapes our many cultures and thoughts, creating a compelling alternative is hard. Wish me luck.

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