In his 1961 book, “Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?,” John W. Gardner, US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under Lyndon Johnson, cuts through the endlessly revisited pseudo-conflict between average and exceptional by insisting on the need to value all positive endeavors:
“We must learn to honor excellence in every socially accepted human activity, however humble the activity, and to scorn shoddiness, however exalted the activity. An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher.”
“The society that 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 hold water.”
What humble excellence can I honor?
- A mechanic who looks over my car before a long trip and says, “You’re good; everything’s fine. No charge.”
- A waitress who finds a way to serve what I want, even though it’s not on the menu.
- A store clerk who makes sure that what I’m asking for is what I really need, then walks me to it, instead of just pointing.
What exalted shoddiness can I scorn?
- An “elite” “religious” school known mostly for its football team.
- A politician who votes to spend only on programs that bring him votes.
- Parents who involve their kids in things that will raise themselves in the eyes of others.
Excellence is not demonstrated by the accumulation of money, power or privilege. It’s available to anyone because it can’t be bought or signed up for; it comes from within.