Posted by: gcarkner | February 9, 2016

Is Excellence Killing Us ?

 Is Excellence Killing Us?

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High performance, excellence, superior effort: Who would argue against that? Think of all those famous leadership books. But Matthew Crawford, senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s  Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, detects a flaw in the quest for excellence. He has some vital insights on a current dilemma facing students and faculty today. In his brilliant 2015 book, The World Outside Your Head: on becoming an individual in an age of distraction, he suggests that our quest for radical individualism and autonomy is leading us into a unhealthy moral autism. We are actually losing our agency, our moral skill. Matthew calls this the ‘cult of sincerity’, i.e., that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself–a radical responsibility for which we may not really be prepared. It offers too much self-sovereignty of the wrong kind. He notes that we actually need others (friends, family, colleagues) to check our own self-understanding–through triangulation–to tell us we are doing OK, that we are good or excellent (or sometimes not up to scratch). How else do we avoid the narcissistic assumption that we are the centre of the universe and can do no wrong.

One thing that sets us apart as humans is our desire to justify ourselves; we never act without moral implications, says Crawford. That might come as a shock to anyone caught up in the spirit of sterile scientism or objectivism. We all need a web of people that we respect and feel accountable towards, and a healthy set of norms to guide relationships and mutual expectations, build trust in an uncertain world. Charles Taylor agrees (Sources of the Self) that morality requires an understanding of how certain goods operate within our psyche and our community. See the posts on ‘Qualities of the Will’ in this blog. Matthew appreciates Iris Murdoch, who was a mentor to Taylor during his PhD work in Oxford. Murdoch believed in the recovery of the ancient language of the good, in certain ideals that transcend human desires and decisions. If we take time to reflect, we see that humans are social and moral animals all the way down.

Ah There’s the Rub: Matthew Crawford notes that in times of cultural flux, where it is unclear what the rules or norms are in the greater society, it is quite difficult for us to understand ourselves socially. We feel isolated, disempowered, uncertain, afraid to make moral judgments. This leads to an existential problem, an angst. As a result, we become victims of the values of the marketplace–productivity, performance, usefulness, cash-out value. The marketplace was never meant to set the standards of human relations or moral identity, but today our consumerism/capitalism ideology is quite strong; it is performance all the way down. Matthew’s friend, psychologist Alain Ehrenburg (Weariness of the Self), notes that this is leading to epidemic levels of depression in our current culture of performance. Enough is never enough; there is always more that we could do to pursue excellence. We are never good enough on these terms and conditions. What started out as an inspiring motivator (high quality work), has morphed into slavery. Alain writes:

Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself. In a culture of performance, the person reads the value and status of her soul in her worldly accomplishments.

We are suffering chronic stress about not doing enough, spending enough of ourselves, enough hours in the lab or library, not having a strong enough resumé. IT workers are constantly on the prowl of the internet in their off hours to keep up with the latest technology, so that new college grads don’t replace them in their jobs. The calculus of excellence often means for us that we feel that we have to hit a home run every time we bat. We are always faced with the raw issue of our capacity to make things happen, leading to this new pathology of weariness. We are taught in grad school either covertly or overtly, Be Exceptional! The weariness of having to become one’s fullest self is leading to new levels of depression, and personal breakdown. On top of this, it is difficult to mitigate this depression level of stress and anxiety in an age of high performance, because weariness comes to equal weakness.
Who wants to appear weak in a competitive marketplace of jobs and accomplishment? How do you tell your supervisor that you are weary? So we turn to self-medication quick fixes, stimulants like Prozac or Adderall (an amphetamine) to keep us high-performing. There is apparently an epidemic in the usage of such substances among university students and also young faculty seeking tenure in high-performance universities. Many students I have talked with strongly affirm this dilemma. Have we been sold a bill of goods? Is excellence really a code word for workaholism and inevitable exhaustion? Where is the wisdom in that kind of pursuit?
While we seek liberation through this glorious autonomy of the self, we are discovering a very serious kind of slavery. It is a Venus flytrap phenomenon. Modernity has, in effect, turned on us. Paul in the Book of Ephesians believes that Christ can give us some reprieve and perspective on this modern dilemma. But we will have to rethink reality, where we place our identity and our understanding of success and excellence. Ephesians 4 gives an alternative paradigm (see GCU Study Updates Page). The irony is that as we pursue excellence for the sake of love or appreciation (recognition), we often don’t get it. We get disappointment and despair, and even jealousy from our peers. Or more work from our professor along with the pat on the back for work well done.
 ~Gordon Carkner PhD, Philosophical Theology David Crowder, Come As You Are
Tough Questions:
1. How do we set boundaries on our work in such a cultural climate?
2. At what point does building our resumé become idolatry or enslavement?
3. Are we building significant, accountable relationships in grad school?
4. What are the virtues, character, values, principles, moral goods  that we consider worth fighting for? See David Brooks, The Road to Character.
5. How do we find spaces for reflection, deciding on big issues like calling and covenant?
6. Where is our community outside of work? When do we play? How do we escape self-absorption?
7. How does emotional intelligence apply to the current dilemma of workaholism and weariness?
8. We take time out to update our computer software. When do we take time out to update our soul?
9. How can we professors aim for something less than excellence when we see our students striving to keep up with the literature, the laboratory production, the peer-reviewed paper writing alongside their personal, church and family relationships?
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