Forget Excellence…we need wonder!

Paul Kleiman

(First published in the Higher Education Academy’s EXCHANGE MAGAZINE, Issue 7, 2008)

Excellence! Everyone is writing, talking, researching, obsessing about it. But what is it?

Some years ago PALATINE, the Subject Centre for Dance, Drama and Music, undertook an enquiry into the use of the full range of marks in assessing the performing arts in higher education. As well as provoking the centre’s biggest and most heated electronic postbag, a number of respondents described the distinct discomfort they experienced when considering the assessment of work at the very top of the range. One memorably wrote: “I feel the increasingly heavy pull of gravity on my pen as I get to 75%.”

The response supported research that found that the extremities of the percentage scale are perceived as insecure territory for the assessors of qualitative subject matter. There is a strong sense, in the arts and humanities, that nothing can be that good or, for that matter, that bad, and the research revealed that most marking in the arts and humanities ranged between c. 35% to 75% which, in the eccentric and esoteric honours grading system we use in the UK, still manages to cover everything from a Fail to a First!

Undoubtedly one of the assessment challenges we have set for ourselves in performing arts disciplines is requiring students to demonstrate achievement in a wide range of practical, scholarly and creative modes. High achievement in one is rarely sustained across the breadth of an assessment régime in our disciplines, and we have to work to ensure that ‘excellent’ achievement is reflected in the aggregated marks at module and degree level. This is a pedagogic challenge which is not shared by other, more traditional arts and humanities subjects.

So what does excellence mean in this context?

Going by the result of the debate on excellence at an academic conference, there is a clear majority who feel that the term has lost credibility and value. When all institutions are either ‘excellent’ or, at the very least, ‘striving for excellence’ then we are witnessing a lot of sound (but hopefully not fury) signifying nothing. Excellence has become ‘de-referentialised’. Turning to the dictionary provides little assistance. In the Concise Oxford ‘to excel’ is defined as to surpass or to be pre-eminent (i.e. to be better than the majority), whereas ‘excellence’ is defined as ‘very good’.

Whatever meaning ‘excellence’ once had has become lost in a blizzard of hyperbole. The fate of excellence follows in the tradition of other terms such as ‘community’ and, more recently, ‘creativity’, whose meaning has become devalued and decontextualised through over- and inappropriate use.

In the arts, the term excellence is rarely if ever used as a descriptor except – and this may be relevant in considering educational achievement – in relation to the application or demonstration of skill or craft. Academics, students and arts practitioners tend to avoid the ‘E’ word. The theatrical cliché has never been: “You were excellent, darling”. ‘Wonderful’ is truly a much better word than ‘excellent’ to describe high artistic achievement. Rather than excellent’s rather hard-edged, triumphalist implication of being better than others, ‘wonderful’, i.e. full of wonder, has a sense of the remarkable, the extraordinary, the truly successful that is the mark of the highest quality work.

Excellence, it must be said, is much favoured by arts politicians and bureaucrats who use it both aspirationally and as a justification for funding. Excellence attracts rewards and prizes. But the use of the term has more to do with product branding (as it has in higher education) than with a real concern with the subtle complexities of quality and value.

Here is a typical example: one of our leading UK arts funding bodies, in its mission statement, states: “We believe the arts to be the foundation of a confident and cultured society. They challenge and inspire us. They bring beauty, excitement and happiness into our lives. They help us to express our identity as individuals, as communities and as a nation”.

Wonderful! But then they go and ruin it by reverting to corporate-speak and saying they are going to “serve the people … by fostering arts of excellence through funding, development, research and advocacy”. An external examiner I knew, having seen what was – by general consensus – a remarkable, successful, extraordinary, inspiring … yes, wonderful piece of final-year practical work was dismayed to find that the two internal examiners, who also thought the work was remarkable, successful etc had agreed a mark of 75%. He asked them to start at 100%, and argue persuasively for marks to be deducted. With the assessment criteria in their hands they struggled to get below 95%. To describe that work as merely ‘excellent’ would have been insufficient. It was beyond excellence.

That is perhaps what we should be striving for and, in doing so, we need to look beyond our obsession with trying to define, achieve, assess and reward excellence.

As the old saying goes: education is, or ought to be, a wonderful thing.