Science in Christian Perspective



On The Pursuit Of Excellence: 
Pitfalls in the Effort to Become No. 1


Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

Although the general desire to produce and promote "excellence" is one that everyone in some way supports, the exact meaning of such an endeavor is by no means self-evident. Since consideration of "achieving excellence" is receiving renewed attention, not only in the sphere of industrial management but also in the academic world, it is worthwhile to reflect on the meanings of excellence and the possibly contradictory directions that are indicated by adopting different meanings as goals for action. We are particularly concerned here with the details of the "pursuit of excellence" in the fields of science and engineering in the university. We choose these fields as specific examples of a movement that is being pursued with increasing vigor in many different academic career areas. One of the forms that such a "pursuit of excellence" often takes is the desire to be or to become "No. 1 " in a particular field, i.e., to be or become superior to all other competitors, which may give rise to some Of the more serious problems associated with this perspective. In this paper we reflect on both the general implications of striving for excellence and the pitfalls that may arise through an indiscriminate desire to translate this pursuit into "becoming No. 1"


Recently there has been a growing discussion of the achievement of "excellence," particularly in relation to management of activities related to business, science and engineering." Philosophical perspectives growing out of this discussion appear to be playing an increasingly dominant role in what is expected, whether in an industrial or an academic context. It is necessary to evaluate all such paradigmatic developments in the organization of human affairs from a Christian perspective, so that Christians involved in science, engineering and business may have guidelines rooted in a Biblical perspective rather than simply being carried along by contemporary social trends.

It is the purpose of this paper to consider the implications of different definitions of excellence, and to point out some of the pitfalls that strew the path in the effort to "become No. 1. "'

An examination of a dictionarY5 indicates immediately some rather different choices available in choosiDg a perspective on excellence, what it is, and what is requires. Consider the following three definitions of closely related words:

excel: -tr. To be better than; surpass, outdo; intr. To surpass others; be better or do better than others.

excellence: The state, quality, or condition of excelling; superiority; pre-eminence.

excellent: Being of the highest or finest quality; exceptionally good; superb.

Both "excel" and "excellence" are assumed to involve a "better than" or "superiority" quality, explicitly in the case of "excel," of being or doing better than others. In the case of "excellent," however, such a notion of .. superiority" is relegated only to the Archaic category and instead we are given a definition that points, not to competition, but to the quality of a particular person or thing, the standard of measurement being left unspecified. These two perspectives on the concept of excellence open the way for two quite different approaches: 1) to be excellent is to be better than others, i.e., the judgment is made by comparison between people or things according to some external standard, or 2) to be excellent is to be of the highest quality, i.e., the judgment is made by comparison with an external standard only. This distinction, of course, still leaves open the question of excellence in what, the nature or origin of the external standard, and whether or not available resources ought to be factored into the decision concerning excellence.

To apply these thoughts specifically to education, we have a choice between regarding a particular university as excellent only if it is somehow better than all others, or regarding a university as excellent if it satisfies the criteria of highest quality. The former concept naturally leads to the drive to be or become No. 1, since to be No. I is the guarantee that the university is indeed better than all others, and hence excellent. The latter concept leads to the evaluation of the university against standards of quality without the intrinsic need to push to be No. 1. For example, many universities might be regarded as excellent without considering any one superior to all others.

Several questions are raised as we continue to investigate this subject.

1. How do we work out the implications of each of the above definitions?

2. What standards of excellence should be used, either in deciding whether one is "better" than another or whether one is "of the highest quality"?

3. What role do available resources play? How do we resolve between "doing the best one can with what one has", "doing better than others with what one has", or "living up to an external standard independent of available resources"?

4. Is it sufficient to focus only on "vocational excellence" or excellence in some limited area of life, or should the ultimate goal of life be excellence "in all of life"?

It is essential to point out at the outset that there can be no question about the Christian basis of a dedication to high quality in service and performance, according to the criteria normally used for such evaluations. Nothing in this paper should be construed in the slightest sense as contradicting this fundamental assertion. If it is concluded that the perspective that I share here means capitulation to mediocrity, I have failed in my effort to communicate. Professional faithfulness, commitment to the task, willingness to make temporary sacrifices for the common good, flexibility toward debatable job requirements that others regard as important (as long as they do not violate basic Christian principles), and dedication to high quality work are necessary consequences of the commitment of the Christian to serve God to His glory in all things.

One of the most valuable inputs that a faculty member can make to a student's development is a sense

Richard H. Bube received the Ph.D. degree in Physics from Princeton University. From 1948-1962 he was on the technical staff of the RCA Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey, and since 1962 he has been on the faculty of Stanford University as Professor of Materials Science and Electrical Engineering. From 1975-1986 he served as Chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Dr. Bube is the author of books both on photoelectronic materials and devices, and on the interaction between science and Christian faith. From 1969-1983 he served as Editor of the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. He has been a speaker on science and Christianity on many college and university campuses.

of commitment to the highest quality work of which the student is capable. Here the quality of the work is judged by such common standards as performance on examinations, attention to details, attempts to see the larger picture, seeing a task through to the end, recognition of the important in the midst of the unimportant, and striving to come up with authentic answers to scientific and engineering questions. There can never be a continuing excuse for slipshod work, for lack of caring about the nature of the problems, or for anything resembling laziness in any form.

Nor can the Christian faculty member substitute "Christian activities" as an excuse for failure to meet his or her obligations with respect to professional activities. The faculty member who seeks to excuse unprepared teaching or low-quality research on the grounds that he is involved in faithful Christian witnessing, has missed the point of serving God faithfully in all things.

Having hopefully made this point clear, however, it is necessary now to turn to an analysis of misunderstandings of "excellence"-which would effectively overemphasize one kind of activity at the expense of other equally legitimate activities, or one aspect of life at the expense of others, with the net effect of dehumanizing those involved.

Meaning of Excellence

Any consideration of excellence must start with the realization that excellence is determined according to the criteria of a particular standard or set of standards. As we have seen above, the meaning of excellence is not derived uniquely from the concept itself, but is given to it according to a choice of standards made quite independently, as these standards are interpreted and judged by those regarded or regarding themselves as authorities. There are two principal sets of standards in this matter, as in many others: 1) the standards of the world, or secular standards, and 2) the standards of God, or Biblical standards. These two need not disagree in every circumstance, but they do disagree frequently in critical points.

Excellence for a Christian, like all other major concepts guiding life, must be related to one's relationship to God, and hence must be ultimately defined in terms of faithfulness, obedience, and commitment to God and His purposes in the world. Such a concept strips excellence of self-pride and considers the potential of the person involved. It also recognizes that excellence is something to be considered in all of the areas of life simultaneously, not simply in one area of life regardless of the others. Such a definition is more like the dictionary definition of "excellence": being of the highest or finest quality, exceptional, superb. It is a matter that rests ultimately on the relationship between a person and God. One's peers may, and indeed will, have their own judgments that may be indicative of the achievement of such excellence, but such peer judgments cannot be taken as the only or last word.

It is a prominent attribute of a Christian perpective on excellence, that Christians can ... define excellence in terms of a standard that transcends competition with others.

Excellence in a secular sense, on the other hand, most often takes on the dictionary definition of "excel" or -excellent": to do or be better than others. We act within this mode in academic life every time we give grades to students, and particularly when we "grade on the curve," so that the definition of an "A" is to have done better than three-quarters of the others in the class, We act within this mode when the motive of competition is the foremost driving force; sports are a paradigmatic situation. Many people grow up with the deeply ingrained conviction given to them at an early age that if they are not the "best" in the world, i.e., if they are not the "boss," or the "president," or "the champion," or the "Nobel Prize winner," or any other such indication of being better than all others in a field, they are essentially failures. It is a prominent attribute of a Christian perspective on excellence, that Christians can (and I believe, should) define excellence in terms of a standard that transcends competition with others, whereas a secular definition of excellence finds its natural expression in terms of a quest for superiority over others. This is a profound and far reaching difference, the effects of which are felt in all of life.

Furthermore, our understanding of the meaning of excellence depends critically on whether we perceive excellence to be describable in the abstract, or whether we recognize that excellence can be evaluated only within a total context of commitments and relationships. Since excellence by itself is essentially openended (i.e., no one ever arrives at such a state of excellence, such a high and fine quality, that still further diligence, effort, and devotion would be incapable of achieving an even higher degree of excellence commensurate with one's resources), it is evident that devotion to excellence in the abstract in any particular area of endeavor excludes the achievement of the same level of excellence in other areas of endeavor, simply due to the limitations of time, strength, and natural ability. Paradoxically, this dilemma might be even worse for the "Christian excellence" proposed above than for "secular excellence." There is no limit to the quest for higher and finer quality, whereas if a person once achieves the rank of being better than everyone else in the world, he can then feel that he is as 11 excellent as possible"! This may not particularly matter if, for example, achieving excellence in playing the piano were to exclude achieving excellence in playing tennis. But the desire to achieve an integrated excellence in all of life, including a variety of nonpersonal and personal relationships, is quite likely to make the pursuit of "highest quality" in any one aspect of life exceedingly difficult.

We may pause here to note the tension of this realization. On the one hand, the Christian is committed to high quality in his/her professional field, and at the same time to faithfulness in other areas of life, including a whole constellation of personal relationships. Not only is the Christian faculty member a researcher and a teacher, but the same person also acts in a number of family roles such as son, mother, brother, wife, and a variety of community roles, related to both Christian and non-Christian organizations. If I argue that commitment to high quality does not excuse neglect of personal relationships, I also argue that commitment to personal relationships does not excuse neglect of professional commitments. Staying on the job to complete an experiment does not excuse my absence when my child is rushed to the hospital in an emergency; planning for my wife's birthday party does not excuse my submission of sloppy and incomplete research reports. But since the pursuit of absolute excellence in either professional or personal commitments might each take up one's entire strength and time, how is one to resolve the issue? It is clearly a dilemma calling for creative solutions.

Here we encounter a kind of "Excellence Indeterminacy Principle," by which we realize that we cannot simultaneously achieve the highest levels of excellence in all aspects of life. If a person presses very hard to achieve excellence in the pursuit of a scientific or engineering career, so that he devotes essentially all of his quality waking time to this pursuit, be quickly finds that his relationships with friends and family, for example, rapidly deteriorate. This fact is testified to by the ever growing number of broken homes, divorces, and one-parent families in the midst of an environment where technical excellence receives the greatest loyalty. If, on the other hand, a person strives to achieve some degree of excellence in his scientific or engineering profession, as well as in personal relationships with friends, family, and church community, he quickly finds that he does not achieve that degree of excellence in his profession that he might have if it had been his sole concern. This is presumably, after all, why some individuals feel the call of God to remain single, thus freeing themselves for a more focused pursuit of excellence in a limited sphere of activity.

These points are illustrated by Figure 1. Figure I(a) illustrates the case where a major portion of an individual's time, concerns and resources are spent in one particular field of endeavor. Not only is the ability to exhibit excellence in other fields decreased, but in several fields the net consequence is to produce what we may colloquially call "negative excellence," which is a term we might use for fields where major failure has been encountered with damage both to the person and to others dependent upon him. A more balanced approach is pictured in Figure 1(b) where it has been recognized that some sacrifice of excellence is necessary in the field of major involvement in order to avoid failures and tragedies in other aspects of life.

If I argue that commitment to high quality does not excuse neglect of personal relationships, I also argue that commitment to personal relationships does not excuse neglect of professional commitments.

We may push the illustrations of Figure 1 a little further. The total area under all of the bars represents the total ability and time available to a specific person; let us call that his "available effort." A particular person must choose bow to distribute that "available effort" across the various areas of concern to him. Devoting effort to one activity inevitably takes effort away from another. By increasing his efficiency and by practicing good habits and disciplines he can increase his "available effort," thus giving a measure of freedom beyond that indicated if one regards the areas of Figure 1 as fixed. However, this contributes at most a variable scale factor and does not remove the basic necessity for choices between areas of concern.

Secular criteria of excellence advise that the preferred course of action with respect to Figure 1 is to maximize the effort devoted to any particular field until one is assured that he is better than anyone else. If the cost of this is creating fields of "negative excellence," that is unfortunate, but is not directly figured into the evaluation. Christian criteria of excellence, on the other hand, call for a minimization of negative excellence." If this cannot be accomplished by the reduction of the effort devoted to the pursuit of excellence in other fields.

This approach might come under criticism as one that would lead to a leveling of all effort to that of mediocrity. If followed, the geniuses who contributed knowledge, inspiration and insight at the expense of tragic personal lives and broken relationships would not have dedicated their lives to their own field regardless of the cost. So it might be argued that the world would be much the poorer rather than richer. Let me respond only that this approach does not call for mediocrity, but rather for diligence and creativity in achieving excellence in all of life instead of in just some isolated areas; excellence, that is, in terms of a life of highest quality, not necessarily in terms of being better than anyone else.

Sometimes the argument is made that the Christian should "do his best." We should recognize, however, that in the form stated, this proposal does not really help us. If we take it literally, then there are no limits to how much time and effort "doing one's best" can require. If a person is at a certain level of achievement, could he not still do better by devoting more effort to the enterprise? Once again, we can deal with the exhortation to "do one's best," only if we agree on a criterion against which to measure "the best." I have argued here that such a criterion must take into account all of life, and not just a particular line of endeavor.

It is essential for the Christian, therefore, to distinguish clearly between excellence that is focused only in certain aspects of life, and excellence that is related to all of life. Authentic excellence for the Christian cannot exist outside of a holistic relationship with God and others, which is reflected and manifested in all the dimensions of his life. The limitation of the pursuit of excellence to a single field or a single area of endeavor cannot help but squeeze the vitality out of other aspects of life and lead to a one-dimensional lifestyle. Such a lifestyle may be judged "excellent" by human standards, in that the person involved may indeed "be or do better than others" in that particular field, but it cannot be judged excellent by God's standards, which are centrally concerned with the network of relationships between God and men.

It is also necessary to distinguish between the quest for excellence according to God's standards and the quest "to become No. 1, " as this is popularly understood and acted out in people's lives. In the case of an academic program in science or engineering, excellence (or, being of the highest quality) is to be judged by the quality of the education through classroom teaching and research, by the quality of the research in selecting and attacking significant issues in a way that contributes to human understanding and abilities, and by the nature of the relationships between faculty members and students, as well as befween students themselves. It is not a matter to be judged ultimately by a poll of leading university presidents or deans, who look at the enterprise primarily from the outside, or by some kind of statistical optimization, but by the effect on the lives of the faculty and students who are involved.

Becoming No. 1, on the other hand, has in its very semantics a spirit of competition in which public relations and politics play as large a role as the quality of personal relationships-judgment is carried out by external criteria, frequently related only indirectly to the fundamental purposes of education as listed above. To think seriously of "becoming No. 1" is more reminiscent of the transient world of sports, or of the area of national pride, than it is of an academic institution. There is the danger that the press release may become more important than the scholarly publication, that the research fad of the moment may replace the impact on the future, and that the political give-and-take of the reception line may be more significant than the technical seminar.

Biblical Perspectives On Excellence

There are so many dimensions to the concept of excellence" that it is not surprising that different English versions of the Bible disagree on whether or not it is the best word to translate the original language. As one set of illustrations of its use, we use the Revised Standard Version.

By its relative absence in the Old Testament, we may note first that the concept of "excellence" was not central to Hebrew thinking. This is probably because the word is too abstract, and too distant from the close walk with God and His concerns for the world that characterize the Old Testament. One reference is found in Isaiah 28:29:

    This also comes from the Lord of Hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom.

Here excellence is associated with the concept of wisdom, one of the most vital of the Old Testament insights. Today we tend to overvalue knowledge for its own sake; the Bible keeps us straight in recognizing that wisdom, true understanding, requires knowledge but is far more valuable. To be "excellent in wisdom" is indeed to live a whole life illuminated by the presence of God. This same kind of input is obtained from Romans 2:18, where out of the relationship with God should come knowledge of His will and approval of 11 what is excellent."

It there is anything in the Bible that occupies a higher place than wisdom surely it must be love. It is fitting, therefore, that having described various kinds of Christian activity, knowledge, and function in I

Corinthians 12, Paul concludes that chapter with the words, "And I will show you still a more excellent way." He then continues with the well-known "love chapter" of I Corinthians 13. Can any way that is not characterized by love be called an "excellent way?" This triumvirate of knowledge, wisdom and love is again tied together in Philippians 1:9-10:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

Later in Philippians 4:8, Paul gives a listing of qualities, one of which is excellence:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

When we speak of excellence, it is appropriate, therefore, that we recognize the type of qualities that are Biblically associated with the word.

The limitation of the pursuit of excellence to a single field or a single area of endeavor cannot help but squeeze the vitality out of other aspects of life and lead to a one-dimensional lifestyle.

Although the concept of excellence is not specifically mentioned in it, the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is certainly an extremely relevant one to the present considerations. In particular, it helps us to understand what "doing one's best" means and emphasizes the role of gifts and resources in what is required of a person. Each person is called upon to use his gifts and resources in service to God and his fellows, and faithfulness to this call requires full commitment of those gifts and efforts. But the standard of "the best" is not the same for any two people, being judged by the individual gifts and resources at the disposal of each. This is equivalent to our previous remarks about the total area in Figure 1 being a variable from person to person.

Pitfalls in Becoming No.1

In order to see in more detail the relevance of these considerations for the quality and excellence of academic life, we look now briefly at some of the pitfalls that can befall a devotion to "becoming No. 1. " Each of these pitfalls does not stand by itself, and it is expected that there is considerable overlap and interaction between them.

Connotations of "Becoming No. 1"

The phrase, "becoming No. 1, " comes to us primarily from the environment of sports. There a particular individual or team is accorded the distinction of being No. 1 on the basis of the best won-lost record in competition, or of victory over other individuals or teams who were also seeking the distinction of being No. 1. These accomplishments are interpreted to mean that the winner is superior to all others. The status is quite transient, since the No. 1 individual or team of one year may be far from No. 1 in the very next year, even in the same sports context.

The criteria for being declared No. 1 are fairly straightforward, consisting of some kind of numerical score in a particular sports contest. When the concept of being No. I is pursued by an academic institution, many of these same kinds of motivations and implications become involved.

Loss of Personal Relationships

Because "becoming No. I" for an academic institution depends almost by definition upon the perception of other people (who judge that the institution is indeed better than all others), the quest to "become No. 1" often focuses on external impressions caused by activities on campus. It is therefore essential that a program be planned that will produce the maximum public notice. Such public notice is much more commonly associated with exciting developments, major professional achievements, the winning of prizes by the faculty, and the involvement of the faculty in a variety of professional and semi-professional activities away from the campus. The quiet and regular development of professional awareness of students and of personal relationships between faculty and students, or between faculty and faculty for that matter, does not register high on the external impact meter. Indeed, the time required for such relationships to develop detracts from the time that could be spent on activities more likely to result in recognition as No. 1.

High priorities are placed on techniques that allow the institution to carry out its formal duties of education without causing this enterprise to take up too much time of the faculty, who can be freed for activities more likely to contribute to recognition. Sometimes this is called "lightening the load on the faculty," but frequently it represents only a shifting of the load from building relationships within the educational and research context to carrying on activities more likely to receive public applause. Instead of being used as enrichment for the educational process, computers and teaching assistants often become substitutes for the faculty's time, interest, and commitment. At the same time that the institution is receiving the kudos of external judgment as No. 1, it may be seriously failing in its basic commitment to the task of education, whether in the classroom or in the research laboratory.

There is the danger that the press release may become more important than the scholarly publication, that the research fad of the moment may replace the impact on the future, and that the political give-and-take of the reception line may be more significant than the technical seminar.

Students as Products

It is perhaps not uncommon for a person to seek a faculty position in science or engineering, in contrast to a research or development position in industry, because he or she prefers to be involved in the professional and personal development of human beings rather than being devoted almost solely to the development of impersonal objects for commercial merchandising. It is true that a person who becomes a faculty member in a 11 research university" rather than a "teaching college," appreciates the significance of carrying out valuable and meaningful research and understands the necessity for providing time and effort to all of the related activities, not the least of which is the constant quest for research funding. But even in the setting of a "research university," it is not unreasonable to suppose that a major purpose of research is to aid in the development of new scientists and engineers, which is certainly at least partly accomplished by personal interactions.

The quest to become No. I often cancels the principal motivation of this desire. Instead of seeing the development of students into whole persons as the product" of the institution's program, students may indeed be viewed as dehumanized products, used as a relatively inexpensive pair of hands in university research contracts and then effectively programmed at the institution for the benefit of interested industry.

Just as the industry requires raw materials and equipment, so also it requires the input of people trained to fill required niches in the industrial program. In such a perspective, the education of students in any broader sense, or the development of meaningful facultystudent relationships, may come to be regarded as irrelevant to the institution's task. It is relatively easy for the situation to develop where a principal criterion used in judging whether or not the institution is No. 1, is how successfully it supplies major clients with the manpower they require. The average starting salary of its graduates, as they go on to positions in industry, may become one of the major statistics used in judging the rank of an institution.

The quiet and regular development of professional awareness of students and of personal relationships between faculty and students, or between faculty and faculty for that matter, does not register high on the external impact meter.

Research as Public Relations

Specific topics or areas of research can be chosen at a university for a variety of different reasons. The typical faculty member at an institution dedicated to being No. I would probably reply that he or she chooses research projects primarily on the basis of how important they are perceived to be; this is of ten equivalent to how much attention will be attracted in the external world by research success. Research in "hot topics" of the day is automatically favored over research on other topics, perhaps with more long-term significance. Certainly students are not benefited by being involved in research in dead fields, but there easily comes into being a "tyranny of the novel," in which everything new is judged good and every fad faithfully followed. There is a general unwillingness to consider the value of other research, equally capable of obtaining contract support and resulting in high-quality, publishable material, while perhaps better serving to help students develop research and engineering skills.

Whether or not a possible research program is suitable for student development may arise particularly when such a program is proposed by a prominent industrial connection of the university. There may be a strong temptation to accept such a program because of a desire to please the industrial connection, without due regard for the overall suitability of the program for student growth.

Another view of research sees it is being part of the educational process, so that a faculty member may respond that he or she chooses a particular project at least partially with a view to how suitable this project would be for student research and education. Presumably no one deliberately works in uninteresting fields that no one else cares about, but there is a difference between doing research for the public relations benefits, and doing research for the sake of the development of student researchers and engineers, with more concerns than simply the technical ones of how to get a particular job done.

The "Give 100 % " Syndrome

Every major human endeavor that sees people as tools in the pursuit of commercial or ideological goals, rather than viewing people as whole persons with a variety of needs and capabilities, tends to emphasize the necessity for these people to devote 100% of their time and energies to the activities of that endeavor alone. It does not matter what kind of human endeavor is chosen to test this statement. It is true of the totalitarian national goverment that demands total loyalty (as defined by the government) in all aspects of life, of the industrial company that desires to maximize profit by total subjection of the lives of its employees to the goals of the company, even of the church community that regards its own development and survival as the only concern worthy of its members' efforts. It takes the form of the apparently reasonable statement: "If you are going to be part of this organization and be supported by it, then you should be ready to give it 100% of your energy, time, and ability."

Research in "hot topics"' of the day is automatically favored over research on other topics, perhaps with more long term significance.

Such a demand can be just as true of an academic institution as of the others just mentioned. Such 100% devotion is often regarded as essential to success in becoming No. 1. The cost of such 100% devotion, however, is broken relationships and shattered lives.

"Outside interests," which may include in practical cases friends, family, community and church, as well as worthy causes, social movements, political organizations, and international activities-are viewed with suspicion. They are seen to indicate lack of loyalty, trustworthiness, serious commitment, and general suitability of the person found guilty of harboring such interest, and-worse yet-taking time away from the goal of becoming No. I to attend to them. Human priorities in which the nation, the company, or the institution are not ranked first are criticized as unworthy of a member of the select group.


"Nice guys finish last," is the sometimes conventional wisdom of the sports world. All too often the desire to become No. 1 means essentially the same thing. When becoming No. I is the main concern, the final end that justifies all means, then the intense spirit of competition between people who might otherwise be cooperating together is a natural consequence. In the worst cases, we may actually see the deliberate denigration of others in order to advance our own progress toward No. 1. However appropriate or inappropriate this attitude may be judged to be in the sports world, or-perhaps some might add-in the business world, the threat that it might become a major ingredient in the academic world in the pursuit of becoming No. 1, means that far more has been lost than can possibly be gained.

My comments critical of a spirit of competition in this paper should not be interpreted as an argument that all competition per se is improper and self -destructive. There is indeed a healthy spirit of competition that spurs us on to greater effort and adds zest and excitement to the process. This kind of competition can, however, be readily distinguished from the common destructive kind by invoking another phrase from the world of sports: "It's not who wins or loses, but how well you play the game. " If winning in competition is needed to convey personal worth, while losing in competition removes personal worth, then that kind of competition is destructive. Positive competition is the kind that results in a joint celebration of winners and losers after the contest, as they all share together in the sense of achievement given by the knowledge that all have done their best.

The "Best Person in the World" Syndrome

Sometimes the desire to become No. 1 causes a university to state that it wants to hire to its faculty only 11 the best person in the world. " Such a label implies that the person being considered is so regarded by other people around the world, whose contacts are generally limited to the professional visibility of the individual. But this leaves several important questions unanswered. Is the "best person in the world," according to these criteria, the most able to help students develop into whole human beings with an appreciation for the values of life and their profession, or is "the best person in the world" the most flamboyant, unifocal person dedicated to giving 100% toward making the institution No. 1?

Growth is certainly not evil in itself, but growth for its own sake may become a very definite pitfall.

Bigger Is Better

Finally we may note that the desire to become No. 1 and be better than all others is frequently translated into the determination to become bigger than all others. This is probably an expression of the common judgment, "Grow or die." The quest for more money, more buildings, more faculty, more students, and more programs is often the expression of the pursuit of excellence and the effort to become No. 1. Again, growth is certainly not evil in itself, but growth for its own sake may become a very definite pitfall. When it comes to authentic excellence, the 50-member research group may not provide as excellent a maturing environment for students as the small research group interactions between students and faculty, and the 300-student lecture class may offer a less valuable experience than the 10-student seminar.


Profound issues are raised in dealing with the pursuit of excellence. A person's entire world view is involved in responding to these issues, and Christian perspectives may frequently be quite different from those of the secular world.

First, there is the question of what constitutes excellence. A common secular response is to regard excellence as the state of being better than anyone else. Competition between people is the framework in which excellence is defined, and the achievement of excellence requires, in the last analysis, being recognized as No. 1. The Christian perspective sees excellence rather as the state of being of the highest quality as measured by the standards of God. There is no necessity for superiority of one person over others, and no particular virtue in being labeled No. 1.

Second, there is the question of how excellence is judged. In a secular framework, excellence is judged by the opinions of other people. In particular areas some direct quantitative measure of excellence may be agreed upon, but this also represents the opinions of those constructing the quantitative measure. The Christian perspective measures excellence against the standards of God. In fact, it begins with the recognition that no one is by nature excellent before God, but that by His grace in Jesus Christ and by the power of His Holy Spirit, we may serve Him to His glory in all that we do. The opinions of other people may indeed be helpful in guiding a person in the pursuit of excellence, but they do not constitute the final decision.

Third, in a secular perspective excellence can be viewed by considering one part of life at a time. A person may be judged to be an excellent physicist at the same time that he is judged to be a complete failure as a husband and father. People are rewarded for maximizing areas of excellence in life without taking any special care for other areas in which failure results. Excellence is task-related, and there is little vision of excellence in all of life as a major goal. For the Christian, excellence in all of life is the goal. Excellence in specific aspects of life is to be maximized only insofar as such maximization is consistent with the minimization of unfaithfulness to responsibilities, broken relationships, failed commitments, and insensitivity to others' needs.

If an academic institution chooses to follow directions laid down by the secular perspective, it becomes quite a different place than if it had followed the Christian perspective. The deliberate choice to become No. 1 enters a university on a treacherous path scattered with many pitfalls. Individuals concerned for the quality and effects of education should carefully consider the implications of this choice.


I am indebted to the following individuals who have given detailed comments on drafts of this paper: John Bravman, Mark Bube, Doug Ericsson, Robert Eustis, Robert Matthews, and William Nix, as well as the reviewers of this paper for publication. Their suggestions have considerably improved it, while of course its shortcomings remain my own.


1. T. Peters and R.H. Waterman, In Search of Excellence, Random House, New York (1982).
2. C.R. Hickman and M.A. Silva, Creating Excellence, New American Library, New York (1984).
3. T. Peters and N. Austin, A Passion for Excellence, Random House, New York (1985).
4, Mary Madison, Peninsula Times Tribune, September 1986. "Tougher tenure standards at Stanford University are designed to make Stanford shine in faculty brilliance.... Norman Wessells, dean of humanities and sciences and professor of biological science, said in an interview Monday that Stanford's goal is to be No. 1 in the country in the quality of professors in all fields."
5. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition, American Heritage Publishing Co. and Houghton Mifflin Co., New York (1975).
6. R. H. Bube, "Four C's for the Christian," The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 37, (1985), p. 229.