Seeking excellence, without apology

What is remarkable and compelling about true excellence is that it brings with it the impulse for aspiration, a model for following, a standard that invites an urge for similar achievement. The notion of excellence provides an aspirational standard for those who struggle for great achievement and who see in that struggle a link to their better selves.

Last Friday night I listened to the New York Philharmonic orchestra play Beethoven in Ann Arbor’s jam-packed and enthusiastic Hill Auditorium. The next afternoon, I watched the University of Michigan Wolverines trounce Northwestern in an equally jam-packed and enthusiastic Michigan Stadium.

Two events. They couldn’t have been more unlike, except for this: They both represent a level of excellence that is significant, rare, inspiring ‒ and totally necessary for our society.

Under the baton of the boyish, yet compelling 48-year-old maestro Alan Gilbert, the New York Phil – one of the greatest orchestras in the world – brought forth the magnificence of power, precision and emotional exaltation of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Presenting the concert was the University Musical Society, which since 1879 has brought excellence to Michigan audiences through the very best of music and the performing arts. On Sept. 10, President Obama presented the society, through UMS President Kenneth Fischer, with a 2014 National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest public artistic honor.

The Northwestern game marked another stage in the “rise, fall and return” of Michigan football, as so movingly and astutely presented in John U. Bacon’s recent book, “Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football.” Describing the managerial errors behind the recent self-destruction of the U-M football program, author Bacon concludes, “After more than a century of sound stewardship, Michigan lost its way. It ignored established safeguards, and forgot the values that made it great. The resulting downfall was swift and stunning.”

Finally, a new football coach, Jim Harbaugh, was brought to Ann Arbor as the unquestioned “Michigan Man,” the inheritor of the values, grit and insistence on excellence that made Bo Schembechler a legend in his own time. In its first few games, Harbaugh’s team has more than fully responded.

Reflecting on these two events brings me to the notion of excellence and the often closely-linked but enormously different terms, “elitism” and “arrogance.”

Some people confuse focus on excellence as a sign of elitism. Nonsense; what’s elitist about starting your best athlete as quarterback?

Nor is excellence necessarily accompanied by arrogance, but all too often it is. Folks at Michigan State used to talk about the “arrogant asses from Ann Arbor” (maybe they still do) and the insult was ‒ from time to time ‒ much too close for comfort.

What is remarkable and compelling about true excellence is that it brings with it the impulse for aspiration, a model for following, a standard that invites an urge for similar achievement. The notion of excellence provides an aspirational standard for those who struggle for great achievement and who see in that struggle a link to their better selves.

Arrogance, on the other hand, repels. It captures the dark underside of achievement, poisoning effort by linking it to overweening pride, to the urge to put down others striving for achievement and the unwillingness to recognize that pride, indeed, goes before a fall.

This is not just idle philosophizing. In its cheating rush to be Number One, the German auto company, Volkswagen, succeeded in its arrogance in wounding itself grievously, maybe permanently, by deliberately cheating on emissions tests for the American market. And as author Bacon demonstrates in detail, the Michigan football program’s arrogant failure to cleave to well-established values lay at the core of its recent decline.

Societies, whether nations, states or small groups, need to experience excellence to inspire them to greater effort, to demonstrate that the shared concrete goal of aspiration is just as real as it is difficult to achieve. People who listened to the New York Philharmonic plumb the depths of Beethoven will never hear the Seventh Symphony in quite the same way.

U-M President Mark Schlissel speaks repeatedly of how important the football program is in pulling together a diverse and complicated university community; the collective joy in Michigan Stadium at the end of the game last Saturday conclusively proved the point.

Over the past decade, our state has endured a back-breaking period of turmoil and decline. That there are lots of places in Michigan – not just in Ann Arbor, but in the grit of Detroit, the energy of Grand Rapids, the fall glory of the Upper Peninsula ‒ that give us all a taste of excellence, make our lives together richer and much more meaningful and hopefully also give us all the energy and will to keep pushing ahead.

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Tue, 10/13/2015 - 9:46am
Thanks for celebrating excellence. We do not have enough of this type of celebration by all leaders and would be leaders in our government and community leaders. We just need to name and celebrate more when it happens. Doing so sets a bar for all.
Darryle Buchanan
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 9:55am
So because Michigan is winning some football games, the state is now perched for a turnaround? You guys...
Ned S. Curtis
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 11:03am
C'mon, Darryle! Drink deeply from the well....and Go Spartans!
Ned S. Curtis
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 11:01am
Excellence in journalism! Thank you!
Mike Staebler
Tue, 10/13/2015 - 11:50am
Well said, Phil!!
Sun, 10/18/2015 - 7:45am
No apologies from UM for failing to win the game. :)
Sun, 10/18/2015 - 10:19am
Thank you, Phil, for so beautifully stating the exhilaration so many Ann Arborites felt after the weekend residency of the New York Philharmonic, the thrilling victorious outcome of the game with the stunning half-time presentation of the combined efforts of University groups, alumni and professional artists. Your essay on excellence and aspiration presents that local pride in a more profound way that allows one further contemplation even in the aftermath of yesterday's surprise outcome of the MSU victory. The Bridge contributes to how we appreciate our good fortune of being a part of this community.
Martha Toth
Sun, 10/18/2015 - 12:47pm
You write of a classic American response: confusing a push for and celebration of excellence with arrogance and elitism. We tend to slap down those who use big words or express complicated ideas. We choose our leaders on the basis of how much we'd like to have a beer with them. And then we wonder why our "just folks" leaders fail us. We seem to believe that being "created equal" means not we are all entitled to the same rights and opportunities, but that we are all equally talented, capable, and accomplished.
Charles Richards
Sun, 10/18/2015 - 1:07pm
I hope Mr. Power realizes that not everyone considers "excellence" an unalloyed good. He may not have noticed, but the modern zeitgeist celebrates "equality." In some schools, those who excel, even those who are not arrogant about their achievement, are resented and envied. In such schools, the mere fact that some are known to be abler and more accomplished than others is criticized on grounds of "social justice." There is a movement in New York City to dumb down the entrance requirements for the three elite high schools, so that those who do not gain admittance will not feel stigmatized. It is, after all, dogma among liberals and progressives such as the head of the Skillman Foundation that "talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not." A few weeks ago, I heard Rachel Martin, the Sunday host of Weekend Edition, question whether it was proper to apply the adjective "bright" to some people. So, it is good to see Mr. Power celebrate excellence, but is he willing to sing its praises when it conflicts with equality?
Michael Kiella
Mon, 10/19/2015 - 2:15am
I particularly despise "participation awards"...and support recognition for excellence, for winning, for rising to the top, for identifying opportunity and seizing its particular benefit. Talent, opportunity, and accomplishment are not equally distributed; but if we pretend they are, then we violate the very definition of their constructs. Equality is not declaring parity, where none exists. #1 is simply not equal to matter how hard one tries to make it so. And then there's this: we should roundly celebrate perseverance...finishing the race last every time, but still strive to run another day. Thank you Phil, for reminding us that there is such a thing as excellence...and that we should strive to live in its perfection. To your opening paragraph: mirabile dictum.