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Excellence in Higher Education: A Proud And Meaningless Tradition

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In these modern, consumer-savvy times hardly a day goes by without an inquisitive prospective student asking a college tour guide, "The facilities here are very impressive, especially the climbing wall, but is your college committed to Excellence?"

And hardly a day goes by without a college tour guide responding, "You bet your Ugg boots we're committed to Excellence! Just look at our brochure." And sure enough, hardly a day goes by without a college brochure proclaiming a deep and profound commitment to Academic Excellence, Excellence in Athletics, Excellence in Research, Excellence in Blah Blah.

Nobody knows for sure when colleges and universities realized the pursuit of Total Inadequacy was ill-advised and that Excellence was definitely the way forward, although most historians agree this surprising revelation precedes The Jersey Shore and 9/11, the two other important events in American history.

Needless to say, the decision to pursue Excellence was a magical moment for higher learning.

At Wheaton College -- the institution I attend -- we speak fondly of "Inclusive Excellence," which, as fate would have it, was also briefly used as Scott Brown's campaign slogan during his oddly successful Senate bid here in liberal Taxachusetts. (At the urging of his campaign staff, Brown quickly abandoned "Inclusive Excellence," opting instead for the slightly more nuanced, "Hello. I Like The Boston Red Sox, Too.")

Rest assured: Higher education will remain totally committed to Excellence in all its many forms because, as Bill Readings explains in The University in Ruins, "As an integrated principle, excellence has the singular advantage of being entirely meaningless."

Higher Education.

Cha cha cha.