The year 2018 will have often heard the trumpets of excellence. Already at the end of 2017, the new president of the Higher Council of Programs (CSP) had had her appointment to her taste “of excellence for all”. The reforms affecting the high school, or the hinge between high school and universities, “Parcoursup” – and which have been violently challenged by the high school movement in December – were initiated and conducted in the name of the pursuit of excellence.
According to Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Minister of National Education, the new curriculum was intended to “pull up” the entire school system. On the side of higher education, the decision taken in November 2018 to increase university fees for international students is “a bet on excellence,” said the academic Jean-Pascal Gayant in The World !
Bet on excellence, the idea is excellent, said Brassens. But is not this notion particularly ambiguous? The tension on this objective exposes at any rate the educational enterprise to dangerous lurching.
To give oneself excellence as an ideal leads quickly to settle in a summary opposition between two intellectual constructions, which correspond, in fact, to no concrete reality: excellence, and mediocrity. What is excel? According to the dictionary: to be superior, to shine. Or again: to be at a prominent degree “in its kind”. But according to which scale?
What defines the “top”, towards which one wishes to draw the system? And would there be a common “heaven” for all “genres” – schools, curricula, teachers, learners? Demand excellence without taking care to say what quality, constitutive of the “genre” considered, varies – and between which extremes – is to speak to say nothing!
If we fail to identify lines of progress and criteria for accomplishment, we will naturally tend to reduce the scale to two great cases: the excellent ones, and the others, the mediocre ones. In other words: the elite of those who are at the top of a ladder, badly, or not at all, defined. And the mass of others, stayed down: the “people of little”, as Pierre Sansot said .
The temptation is then to consider that the mediocre are unworthy to exist, and that we must eradicate mediocrity, perceived as a real disease, which is more, shameful! It is in this sense that Jean-Pascal Gayant dares to consider the need to “clean up” in master’s coursesthat would only subsist by accepting “a high proportion of foreigners of mediocre level”. The fight for excellence becomes a fight against mediocrity. We lose sight of the meaning of educational action.
The risk of social selection
When low tuition fees in a university become “a signal of low quality” , the bet on excellence leads to an elitism favoring money. We know that, for fear of delinquency, certain social categories tend to lock themselves in the inter-self of a condominium, enclosed space, and protector. It is towards a model of this type that leads, if we are not careful, the idea of excellence in education.
However, the works of Bourdieu and Passeron have shown that the school system excels in “the transformation of social privilege into gift or individual merit” ( The heirs ). Because it has “the capacity to put at the service of its external function of social conservation the internal logic of its operation” (the reproduction ). It would be better to avoid contributing to the fulfillment of its function of “sociodicea” (legitimization of a social hierarchy) by claiming a notion whose ambiguities can only serve this function!
To realize oneself
Excellence is subject to another unfortunate fetishization. The idea of excellence can contribute to the “perpetuation of privilege” by suggesting that excellence is a personal characteristic, which some might exhibit as a label. But nobody is excellent in itself.
Certainly, we can be, in specific areas, better than others. But none is, forever, the best. And the essential is for everyone to have the desire to improve, to progress in relation to itself. In other words, the standard of excellence, if that term retains meaning, is the fulfillment of its capabilities. It is excellent that has been achieved in his studies and learning, which is not reduced to the typical profile of the “good student”.
Thus, no more than it is a position or a status, excellence is not a state, to which one would accede or not. Should not we conclude that excellence is a hollow idea, which is better to do without? To give direction to an educational policy, it would be better to take a less mystifying concept as a compass. We would gladly suggest that of “promotion”.
Preaching success for all
Betting on excellence as an out-of-the-ordinary norm diverts from understanding that it’s up to each individual to become as good as he can. Excellence is not a promised land that only a few lucky ones could achieve while swimming, while all others would drown in mediocrity. It is proposed to each of the “swimmers”, as a possibility to go as far as possible in the development of its potentialities, whatever they are, from the moment this development makes it possible to be in harmony with oneself, and useful to the society.
We can therefore hope that the bet of excellence is replaced by the desire to promote: to want the best, but by turning to all. That is to say, to allow everyone to give the best of himself, by creating the conditions that will facilitate the development of his potentialities.
Let’s hope that in 2019 we are less concerned with the pursuit of excellence than with success for the greatest number. So, in fact, the idea of excellence for all would make sense! In order, as Guy Béart sings ( Le Messie, 1976 ), that everyone gives his light:
“Let everyone give his light / Light of day or night / Sweet candle of thatched cottages / Blast furnaces in soot / Children messengers of sparks / But if but if / Fire tongues of youngsters /”
“Every man here is the messiah”.
Author Bio: Charles Hadji is Honorary Professor (Education Sciences) at the University Grenoble Alpes