Sunday, October 23, 2005

Column on Prestige versus Excellence

Prestige versus Excellence

Tibor R. Machan

Not unlike most of us, I tend to take it for granted that the prestigious
institutions in our world are also those with the best people in them, be
this in the arts, sciences, business, education, think tanks, whatever.
For example, just to focus on my own specialty, Harvard University,
Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge and the rest?surely those who
teach and do research and scholarship there are the best in their fields.
That?s where the Noble Prizes go; that?s where all the political stars get
their training; that?s where all the endowment money goes, and so forth.
So who could doubt that this is also where excellence will be found?

Over the years, as I have done my tenure at various academic institutions
and scholarly think tanks, I have not really questioned the above
assumption. I figured I am small potatoes compared to those giants?or if
not, I was just not lucky enough, or held the wrong ideas on everything,
so I didn?t manage to gain entrance there. (In any case, I don?t much fret
my own positioning so long as I got to do what I wanted, write the books,
articles, and papers I want, teach reasonably good students and lecture to
interested audiences.)

Over the last several years, however, as I have been invited to give
talks to various organizations?think tanks, universities, colleges and so
forth?I have noticed that some of what goes on at these is much better
than what comes out of those very prestigious places. The papers are often
clearer and make more significant points than those written by the stars;
the talks are more enthusiastic, better delivered and the questions from
the audience tend to be really super. The same happens with journals and
other publications?those from highly reputed places do not compare very
favorably with those with lesser reputations.

So, at one point it occurred to me that perhaps I?ve been looking at this
all wrong. I simply took it for granted that whatever the prestige, it
must be the direct result of excellence but now I think there is reason to
doubt this.

Consider that the overall quality of our culture is not all that
outstanding. To start with, the voting population appears to be made up of
a great many chumps?people who arrive at their political convictions with
little serious thought, elect politicians to office who are really quite
pathetic and totally inept, stand for utterly confusing and out and out
vile public policies, and, on the whole, tend to be a very unprincipled,
morally dubious lot. There are scandals left and right in places where
what is wanted is responsible, creative conduct. World affairs are not in
good shape, so the diplomats and bureaucrats who handle it all cannot be
said to be doing a commendable job. The economy is teeter tottering all
the time, with little sustained confidence from those who tend to
understand such matters.

There is the world of the arts, too, where very little truly magnificent
work is in the offing at the prominent museums and concert halls. Not that
everything is bad?indeed, there is good stuff but not, for example, on the
best seller lists, interestingly enough, nor among the works selected for
review in the prestigious publications. Museums aren?t exactly filled with
riveting works, either, and the serious music coming our way tends to be
more very bizarre than very good. Poetry, the novel, you name it?there?s
little to be awed by in our highfalutin forums.

Now if the culture in which we live is generally in rather lamentable,
faltering shape, maybe these prestigious institutions are not really where
excellence is going to be located. Maybe, just maybe, some of the best
work is done in universities, think tanks, and other institutions that are
not on the star lists and the impacts of which aren?t allowed to be very
significant. (Maybe even the best acting isn?t done by the most renown
stars in Hollywood and Broadway but, instead, by unheralded ones at out of
the way theaters and studios.)

To check all this out one would need to do a very rigorous, elaborate and
expensive study, but, of course, only the prestigious institutions can
afford to do that. So, for the time being, I merely raise the possibility:
things may in fact be quite topsy-turvy in our world and what is held in
awe is really not what deserves it most. So I urge you to check this out
in your own world, where you know things best, and see if there is
something to what has occurred to me.

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