Whenever I can, I like to begin my 10th grade English classes like this: “Someday, you are going to die and no one is going to remember you. Whether you graduated from Harvard, became a successful businessperson, or worked as a janitor, the chances of the history books actually remembering you are slim to none. So what’s the point?”
My school prides itself on its accomplishments. The school mission statement encourages students to pursue excellence in all of their activities. As a result, our students have sent satellites into space, travelled to Scotland for theatrical performances, marched in the Rose Bowl Parade, and have won state championships in athletics. Our students are headed for the Ivy Leagues because they have learned the art of pursuing excellence.
Working with such motivated students, however, has reacquainted me with a problem, one that infects every area of our lives. We mistake excellence for education, muddling together appearances with reality.
Excellence is predicated on comparison by performance. Instead of attending to the proper formation of our souls, we are more concerned whether others find us impressive, attractive, or enjoyable. We work so hard at our excellent performances that we’ve become accustomed to a mode of existential exhaustion. Then, like my students, when we’re reminded that someday we’ll die and be forgotten by history, we’re left with a distressing question: “What’s the point?”
In his book Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard addresses a similar problem. In an attempt to distinguish Christian love from worldly love, he drives a wedge between love itself and the performance of love. “For,” he says, “one is not to work in order that love becomes known by its fruits but to work to make love capable of being recognized by its fruits. In this endeavor one must watch himself so that this, the recognition of love, does not become more important to him than the one important thing: that it has fruits and therefore can be known.”
The desire for “recognition” is the desire for the appearance of love at the expense of love itself. In the same way, my students sometimes struggle for a perfect GPA at the expense of their education. As a result, grades don’t accurately reflect a student’s intellectual development; instead, they reflect a student’s ingenuity in manipulating the educational system.
For Kierkegaard, the only safeguard against the desire for recognition is obedience, a direct response to Christ’s command “Thou shall love…”
Obedience, unlike excellence, depends on my willingness to obey. Any other motivation encourages pride, which is itself a symptom of excellence. Pride, like excellence, needs comparison, because “it is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” Without the comparison, excellence cannot assert itself as excellent.
Obedience, on the other hand, is a private act of the will independent of popular opinion. Obedience cares nothing for appearances because it’s primary concern is to be in proper relationship to the command. Every obstacle of excellence pales in comparison to the immediacy of obedience. It liberates us from the changing demands of comparison and ushers us into communion with God “in Whose service is perfect freedom” (BCP 1928).
Education, I try to tell my students, is the difficult process of learning to be good, conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God. The point is not that they earn an A in my class and go to a fancy college. The point is to become liberated, happy human beings.