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Learning at its Best

An Ethic Of Excellence – Introduction

On David L’s recommendation, a number of us are reading or re-reading Ron Berger’s book, An Ethic of Excellence.  I hope many of you have read this text or will join us in doing so in the coming weeks.  I will volunteer to get the conversation started with my reflection on the book’s introduction, available here: 

First, a couple of key points: I completely resonate with the concept of craftsmanship in education.  In my study as a traditional hand-tool woodworker, I have also come to deeply value the inherent aesthetic of quality work, well done with honesty and integrity.  When we fully commit to our work, give ourselves to work towards the limits of what both the tools and materials can produce (what they want to become, if you will), and work well within these limits, as Berger says, the work itself is transformational as well as sustainable and the product is beautiful.  One of my late woodworking mentors, John Brown, wrote about this brilliantly in an article in Fine Woodworking magazine called Good Work, here:  (worth the free trial subscription you’ll need to sign up for in order to read it.)

I absolutely agree also with Berger’s emphasis on emphasizing quality of work and quality of experience over quantity.  In this educational culture the catch phrases of rigor and excellence, by the time they reach the students, are translated to quantity of homework and test scores.  A rigorous program is thought to be one where kids are busy and stressed and then score highly – but where is the craftsmanship?

I also appreciate Berger’s emphasis on practicality.  What is the use of years spent learning esoteric theoretical curricula unless there is a practical tie-in.  As he says, the architect’s design can at times run the risk of straying too far from the builder’s sense of what is practical.  To stay relevant and meaningful education must stay experiential, rooted in real experiences – as John Dewey famously stated.  Again John Brown wrote, tongue-in-cheek, “We have reached the age of the de-industrial revolution.  A time when it is more important to know how to grow asparagus than how to spell asparagus.”

Lastly I very much appreciate Berger’s emphasis on culture.  It is only through a whole culture that “excellence” is rightly nurtured.  Student performance does not occur in isolation; it is embedded in relationship, community and “culture.”  This emphasis on a relational foundation for “excellence” is an important insight.  Our society and educational systems are too attached to the American values of individualism, competition and heroism and need to be grounded in ideals of community, caring, partnership and culture.

Interestingly I am also participating in a study group that is exploring Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds in which the author also writes in his introduction about the critical nature of a cultural embrace to achieve his highlighted outcome, “creativity.”  Whatever the specifics of your target, clearly individual rewards and consequences to elicit individual behaviors and performance will not produce the kind of lasting and widespread transformation that many of us seek.

Speaking of creativity I do think that I would like to add a strong dose of creativity in any definition of “excellence.”  I think that this is implied in Berger’s introduction, as in his reference to “craftsmanship” and I trust that creativity will be explored by the author in more depth later in the book.

I guess the one issue I am struggling with in this opening essay by Berger came right in the first paragraph: “If you’re going to do something, I believe you should do it well.”  This is a challenge for me personally because it has very much been my own father’s life motto.  It has guided him towards a highly competitive, type-A lifestyle, fueled by a post –depression era thrift and Jew-in-European-war-time angst.  I have often argued with him over this steadfast statement that everything you do needs to be done with excellence and intensity.  My feeling is that this kind of pressure can extinguish one’s curiosity and need to explore.  It can lead to stagnation as it increases the challenge of overcoming inertia – the stakes become too high.  Particularly with young children isn’t it okay to try some things and do them poorly.  (Who evaluates this anyway?)  I hope my kids do some things just for the experience of it, for the pure joy, to satisfy their curiosity.  Some, perhaps many, things should be “done well.”  In fact I think an important part of moving towards wisdom may be developing the awareness and critical thinking capacity to evaluate and decide when something should be done well and when it’s okay just to explore.  When you choose a vocation let us hope that you can engage in it with the kind of authenticity and integrity that will lead to “excellence” and “good work” but is the expectation that everything is done with excellence a fair or desirable one to thrust upon kids?  I suppose it is wrapped up in one’s definition of excellence, of course.  But I am curious what others think about this question.


About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


2 thoughts on “An Ethic Of Excellence – Introduction

  1. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for getting this discussion going. The first sentence in the introduction also grabbed me because it’s an idea that I’ve come to somewhat late in life but that I have wholeheartedly embraced. I think of it, not in terms of whether or not it exerts too much pressure on kids or adults but, in terms of being proud of yourself because you did a good job. My husband and I have always talked to our children about the importance of this idea whether it involves a temporary or permanent job in an industry that you hope to make your life’s work. Pride in one’s work shows through in the care you take with something which includes the time you devote to a task, and how serious you are about what you’re doing. It’s about practicing habits that will later be second nature in whatever you do. I look forward to other comments in this thread.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | October 8, 2011, 4:27 pm
    • Hi Elisa,

      Yes, pride in one’s work as an example of caring! I love this, somehow it represents an important though subtle shift from “If you’re going to do something, I believe you should do it well.” What is that difference?

      Caring, to me is a very powerful concept and an extremely useful lens through which we can evaluate the quality of an experience, one’s presence or one’s work. I am deeply inspired by Nel Noddings work on Caring, in particular her book, The Challenge to Care in Schools. In this work she imagines reconceptualizing the somewhat arbitrary and rigid disciplines into which academia fragments wholes. Noddings suggests a model by which we might use “spheres of care” as an organizing tool and that we might understand all of education as learning to care for self, for intimate and distant others, for non-human life, for non-living things and most radically for ideas.

      What a notion, to actually care for ideas in school. We “do” algebra, but what would it mean to care for these ideas and what would students’ and teachers’ work look like if the primary focus was that of a caring being in relationship with others and with a living subject. Noddings also writes at length about defining the nature of a caring relationship and what it means to live with an ethic of care.

      I don’t know yet how close Noddings’ ideas might overlap with Berger’s. Perhaps it’s just a shift in vocabulary, or maybe there’s really something substantive here. What is the difference to you between an “ethic of care” and an “ethic of excellence?”


      Posted by Paul Freedman | October 8, 2011, 8:44 pm

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