Head of School Blog

The Pursuit of What?
John McWilliams Convocation 2019

"The pursuit of excellence" has been the guiding motto of our school throughout its history. The phrase has appeared in iterations of our school's mission, it appears on our school crest, it appears in many of our publications. I think about it every single day as I approach my work at the school. Students, we even talk about it in faculty meetings as I remind our faculty, staff and administration that "the pursuit applies to all of us."

This morning, though, I want to delve into these words a little more carefully to make sure that we all understand as a community what the "pursuit of excellence" means AND, perhaps even more poignantly, what it doesn't mean.

Let's begin by examining the word "excellence." The Oxford English Dictionary, the standard bearer for understanding word origins in the English language, defines "excellence" as "the state or fact of excelling; the possession chiefly of good qualities in an eminent or unusual degree; surpassing merit, skill, virtue, worth; dignity, eminence." The world's first citation of "excellence" in the English language dates all the way back to a series of Middle English translations of the Bible from the late 14th century that were overseen by the Oxford Professor and theologian John Wycliffe. Notice that imbedded in the notion of "excellence" is a focus on "good qualities." That means that excellence must be rooted in something that is virtuous. To me, that indicates that the way through which you achieve "excellence" is as important as the excellence itself. Just achieving a goal without considering the "goodness" that undergirds the moral choices that led to that achievement is not really "excellence" at all.

The concept of intertwining "virtue" in "excellence" dates back even earlier to the ancient Greeks. The Greeks used the word "arete" to capture this idea. Normally translated as "virtue," this word also included the Greek notion of "excellence." For the ancient Greeks, "arete" connotated not only merit, but goodness in merit. Furthermore, for many Greek philosophers, this notion of "arete" implied a teleological journey towards the fulfillment of potential or purpose. Therefore, being "excellent" means working to be the best version of yourself. While we might think of some common traits of excellence that apply to us all, this Greek sense of "arete" implied that we all might be striving for a different potential in order to fulfill our own unique purpose. In essence, as the late Classics Professor at Colgate University John Rexine once noted, the Greek concept of "arete" might be best translated as the "conscious pursuit of excellence" -- our very own motto.

Thinking about "arete" leads to some critical observations about our pursuit of excellence here at MA:

First of all, we have to recognize that excellence is NOT the same thing as perfection. The "pursuit of excellence" demands that we all strive towards our potential, but we are not seeking perfection. Seeking perfection -- an impossible task -- can only lead to disappointment. It can inhibit actual progress and it can lead to a constant feeling of not-living up to some unattainable standard. That type of striving can be dangerous for our health and well-being. Two professors from the United Kingdom, Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, concluded in a study released in January of this year that, unfortunately, the pursuit of perfection is increasing in the world around us by leaps and bounds -- with potentially devastating effects. They write, "the most important finding from this research is that more recent generations of college students are reporting higher levels of socially prescribed perfectionism than previous generations. This finding suggests that young people are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly, and that they are increasingly inclined to display perfection as a means of securing approval." These "displays of perfection" coupled with harsh judgements are having detrimental effects on young people with alarming increases in rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

Furthermore, the pursuit of perfection in education can actually stymie learning, creativity and the development of leadership skills. If you think that you need to get "perfect grades" all the time you may actually shy away from intellectual risks that could benefit our society in the future. In the pursuit of perfection, you might limit yourself to think that you have come to the "end of education" when in reality, as Professor Rexine claimed, "The beginning of real education is when one realizes that there is so much that he [or she] does not know." Thinking we have to be perfect prevents us from being vulnerable to what we don't know.

Last December, University of Pennsylvania professor and noted organizational psychologist Adam Grant highlighted the distinction between perfection and excellence in an article in the New York Times. Grant challenged those who constantly seek perfection by writing: "If your goal is to graduate without a blemish on your transcript, you end up taking easier classes and staying within your comfort zone. If you're willing to tolerate the occasional B, you can learn to program in Python while struggling to decipher [James Joyce's] Finnegans Wake. You gain experience coping with failures and setbacks, which builds resilience." He was even clearer when he tweeted about this article saying "don't strive for perfection. Strive for excellence."

Now, that's not an invitation to just stop working or wanting to succeed. Hard work and persistent effort are critical. The key is that we shouldn't want to succeed in order to achieve perfection (or to achieve some external standard of perfection), but we have to want to succeed to achieve our own potential and fulfill our purpose as a human.

Moving beyond the pursuit of personal perfection to the virtuous pursuit of excellence can lead to the joy of considering others before ourselves. When we focus on our relationship to a standard of perfection, we can end up being self-absorbed in thinking only of ourselves. Thankfully, we can emerge out of that hyper-individualism by becoming mindful of others as we seek to fulfill our purpose as humans. Commentator and author David Brooks addresses the search for a moral life in his latest book, The Second Mountain. He suggests that over the course of one's life we can climb two mountains. The first "mountain" is one defined by the pursuit of individual goals -- the search for my identity, my career, my life. Brooks points out that it's okay and natural to climb the first mountain, but, ultimately, we'll find it unfulfilling. Beyond the first mountain, though, is a second mountain on which we are able to achieve moral joy by shedding our focus on ourselves and seeking to serve others. Brooks writes, "That's the crucial way to tell whether you are on your first or second mountain. Where is your ultimate appeal? To self, or to something outside of self? If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution." According to Brooks, we don't have to reject the first mountain when we get to the second, but living for others on the second mountain can lead to a much more joyful life by satisfying our purpose as humans to serve others.

In order to transcend the challenges that we face, though, we need to remind ourselves that, in our life's pursuits, we sometimes fall short; we go through valleys. And that's OKAY. We shouldn't avoid doing something virtuous simply because we are afraid that we might fail. Over the course of this year, we all will make mistakes. I know that I have made and will continue to make mistakes. We will sometimes not make the grade that we were hoping for. Sometimes the lesson doesn't go as well as we would like. And that's OKAY. Not only is it OKAY, but it might be for the best in the long run.

Unfortunately, that does not mean that there aren't consequences for falling short. You will be disappointed when you lose the game, miss the shot, make mistakes, fail the test. But what's most important is how you will respond to those disappointments. How will you get back up -- and try again? How will you attempt to do your best and fulfill your potential? How will you find a new solution to the problem? Ultimately, how will you continue your "pursuit of excellence" even after those disappointments?

This summer, our faculty and administration read a book by two teacher-researchers in Maryland -- Doctors Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher -- who have embarked on a journey to understand the human brain and the future of education. Their book -- Neuroteach -- shares valuable information about brain science and teaching. In our discussions of the book, the most powerful word that our faculty noted from the book was the word "YET." In fact, the authors of Neuroteach dedicate an entire chapter to that word to explain how the brain is malleable if we approach the challenges we all face with a mindset of growth and improvement.

We all need to embrace the power of "YET." It's a strange word when you think about it. "YET." But that three letter word can be life-changing. If you ever find yourself saying, "I can't do this" or "I can't seem to get better" -- add the important word "YET" to the end of that sentence: "I can't do this YET" or "I can't seem to get better YET." "YET" changes the entire tone of the statement. "YET" implies hope for the future. "YET" inspires resilience and grit. "YET" recognizes that you are going to own your shortcomings and continue working...that your pursuit isn't over.

Here at MA, cultivating a "yet" sensibility is a concept that is embedded in the very motto that defines this school - "the pursuit of excellence." As a school, we aren't perfect, but we are guided by this powerful vision of consistent work towards productive and virtuous goals. We are seeking to be what David Brooks calls a "second-mountain institution" that will leave a transformative mark on everyone associated with it. In the years to come, as we pursue our strategic vision of focusing on academic support, health and wellness, and innovative teaching, we are seeking to grow the power of "yet" within all of us. That sensibility is going to make us healthier, happier and hopefully more fulfilled.

So...as we begin a new year today, let's all collectively embrace once gain the power of the true pursuit of excellence. Let's work to fulfill what the pursuit of excellence means for each one of us, and what it means for us as a school. Let's admit that our pursuit will not be perfect, but let's pursue our potential and purpose. Let's pursue excellence in academics, arts, and athletics, but not just in those areas. Let's pursue excellence in the way in which take intellectual risks, engage with the opportunities that we all have as members of this community and seek to solve problems creatively and ethically. Let's also pursue excellence in the way that we treat one another, include one another, in the way speak about one another, in the way that we respect one another, in the way that we serve one another, in the way that we serve others, and the way that we serve our community at large.

We may not be happy with every outcome ... YET. But at the end of the day, when we shift our attention to fulfilling our purpose and potential, we will know that our students will have the capacity to be "leaders committed to honor, scholarship, [and] service" and those leaders will have the power to shape the world in positive and productive ways.

Our pursuit continues...