The June 2008 issue of The Atlantic contains an article entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” a biting piece by an anonymous “professor X” who toils as an adjunct instructor at what he calls “a college of last resort.” The students he teaches, he claims, chose his particular college “not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on Mapquest” (p. 69). As an instructor obliged to grade student work, he feels squashed in the collision between two societal forces: the expectation that pretty well everyone should go to college, and the reality that only some have the capacity to meet university-level expectations. Especially in schools big on marketing, and ambitious to grow, the pressure on professors to validate sub-standard work is almost overwhelming. I am grateful to be employed by a seminary that has valued high holistic standards, but all of higher education is feeling the pressure to dumb things down these days.
Every church and academic institution I know is officially committed to excellence. But for many the pursuit of excellence is just a cliché. There is no substantive commitment or achievement behind the marketing and branding rhetoric. “Good enough” more accurately describes their true disposition. That’s because achieving excellence at anything—rising above the mediocre and commonplace—is agonizingly difficult at the best of times. But the drive toward excellence is even more seriously sabotaged when people buy the Balaam’s donkey argument.