Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“The future belongs only to the excellent” (speech: Ellensburg High School)

Scholarship Recognition Banquet
Ellensburg High School
May 16, 1984

When I was asked to consider speaking to you folks this evening, my first thought was, What a lovely opportunity it will be for a graduate of Ellensburg High School to return to his old school and share a few thoughts with the honored graduates of 1984 and their parents. My next thought was, What can I say that would make any sense to you or would justify the invitation to speak this evening? And the more I thought, the more I concluded that the only genuine contribution which I could make on this occasion would be to briefly share a couple of my reflections on American society as I currently live in it and what I believe you will  increasingly face as you go on with your life in it.

I intend to make my remarks reasonably short, but I do want to bring two thoughts to you young achievers this evening:

First, in order to continue your record of excellence in your own environment, in your own world, in your own sphere of influence, you will constantly fight against a pervasive social force of egalitarianism around you.

Second, the future does not automatically belong to you except perhaps in the most fundamental biological sense. But in so far as influencing and transforming the future trend of events, the future is not necessarily yours. I want to look at these two reflections a little more carefully in the next several minutes.

The first reflection: the difficulty of you continuing to be truly excellent in a society which increasingly celebrates mediocrity. Egalitarianism is the basic assertion that each individual is created equal and therefore everyone is to be, treated equally. Now, egalitarianism does not refer to our federal Constitution’s protection of equality before the law, but rather equality in capabilities, motivation, achievement and rewards.

Now to a certain limited extent, this commonality of mankind is true—we  are all finite beings created in the image of a personal God to worship him and to enjoy him. But beyond certain rudiments of our legal and spiritual existence we humans are a richly different grouping of individuals each with unique strengths and weaknesses, freedoms, and responsibilities. And within those freedoms given to us by our Creator and our Constitution is the freedom to be excellent, the freedom to be better than equal.

Sometime during your years in public school, you and your parents formed a team which resolved, formally or informally, to see to it that you excelled in life. And tonight we recognize a major step in that direction. You and your family determined that you should be one of life’s “elite.” I like the word “elite,” although it can have a negative connotation of a small cadre of self-styled arbiters of our fortunes and destinies. But I like the work “elite” because it’s more correct and fundamental meaning is “choice,” that is, the choice part, or flower of society or a group of people. And that’s what you are – you are the choice part, you are the academic flower of the class of 1984. And you should wear your academic achievement as a well-deserved accolade of honor.

Many of you have already paid a sacrifice to sit here tonight. At this point I’m perhaps speaking more to you parents concerning your sacrifice, so that your child might sit here this evening. But to you students, the sacrifice you have made to this point to excel will seem minor in comparison to the sacrifices which excellence will demand from you in the future. For many of you, setting yourself apart from the common, from the average, from the mediocre, is already a habit. But I guarantee you it’s going to be difficult to continue that habit.

The egalitarian pressure to conform, to be popular, to blend into the crowd, to adapt, to compromise, to be silent, to be stupid, to do enough just to get by, to assimilate, to accommodate, to be satisfied with less than your personal best will be with you the rest of your lives. And this homogenizing pressure will not always come from those around you. It also comes from within you. Many times you may just get tired of fighting your laziness, your mental dullness, your desire to do the easy, perhaps foolish thing, rather than the difficult, significant thing. And it’s at that crucial point, which may come several times every day of your life, that you can choose to do the excellent thing or the mediocre thing.

Now, I know many of your parents. I work with some of them. I serve in civic organizations with some of them. I socialize with some of them. And I urge you to ask them if making the choice to be excellent ever becomes easy. Ask them if it still doesn’t cost them something to choose to be better than common, better than equal—to be excellent.

No one makes excelling easy because ultimately no one cares but God and you, and you are the one that must make those daily decisions to continue to be one of the “choice” ones. Many of you will go on to college where the competition for excellence is greater than you’ve so far experienced. However, whether you opt for further education or not, let me challenge you tonight to determine in your mind that you will continue to be excellent, that you will be one of society’s “elite.” Frankly, I would not be so confident that what I am saying now would find a receptive audience or that my remarks would do any good, except, except you people have already demonstrated that you understand at least the beginnings of the “search for excellence,” to quote the title of a popular book on American business.

Aristotle argued at one point in his writings that the worst form of inequality was to try and make unequal things equal. He held that only equals ought to have equality. The Time magazine cover essay of April, 1974, stated, “Equality suspects excellence and becomes envious of it or even hostile to it.” Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has his domestic political problems. One cause of these internal problems is his attitude often expressed to his fellow Canadians that they are to eschew the common, the average, the ordinary. This attitude is epitomized in the following statements of his: “A society which eulogizes the average citizen is one which breeds mediocrity.” That, of course, is the threat to your excellence today in our society. You must fight to maintain your achievements or your efforts will become mediocre, and your personal gifts and talents and contributions will be squandered and wasted and lost.

There is, of course, the ugly side of excellence of which you must also always be vigilant not to give yourself over to. And that is the ruthless and predatorial and even male¬volent pursuit of excellence, but I will address that danger later. For now, understand that ruthlessness is not a danger if you don’t care to be excellent.

Now to the second reflection—and that is that the future does not automatically belong to you. It is standard graduation fare for a speaker to say in so many words that the future is in the hands of the graduating class, whether that class is from high school, college or even graduate school. That amounts to a lot of people every June who think the future is theirs for the taking. But I’m here to tell you that ain’t necessarily so.

Because you see I’ve got my own ideas about what the future ought to be. And so do your folks. And we’re not ready to just hand the future over to you. You’re going to have to earn it. Furthermore, it’s not just our generation you must convince. It’s also our parents—your grandparents—whom you must convince because many of them are not ready to step aside for you. As an example, the two most powerful men in the world are senior members of your grandparents’ generation: President Reagan and Russian Premier Cherenkov.

I bring up this idea of your role in the future because it is easy to be misled into believing the opposite. One of my personal heroes is Alexsandr Solshenitzyn, who, when he had just come to the West several years ago, primarily the United States, was thunderstruck by our obsession with the youth culture as demonstrated in our advertising and entertainment and in our ascribing to youth great wisdom and profundity. He was amazed that so many people listened to the ideas espoused by a twenty year old with the same credulity as to the ideas and thinking of a 40 year old or a 60 year old without judging those ideas on the merit of their content.

Despite our youth orientation, however, you will find, I believe, when you sally forth from Ellensburg High School as one of its top scholars that wherever you go or whatever you do, you will start at the bottom all over again. Only this time, unlike being a freshman in high school, you will be competing directly against people who have been there longer than you and therefore know how the game is played. And believe it or not, some of those people don’t really want you to be excellent, because your excellence will take away from them—at the most will cause them to fail and at the very least, your excellence will embarrass them.

Furthermore, some of these people will not necessarily be your avowed enemies. They may, in fact, be your friends, but their actions and their attitudes can adversely effect your commitments to personal excellence. And if you let them bring you down to their level of achievement, you will have no chance to influence the future because there are thousands of individuals who will not let down their guard in their pursuit of quality performance. And the future belongs only to the truly excellent.

Is excellence, then, all that is demanded of you for you to shape the future? No. Because even once you leave the herd of commonality and achieve excellence you will still find yourself a part of a group (a select group to be sure) but still a group of excellent achievers who likewise plan to shape the future. Look around you tonight. You have left a large group of the senior class behind but there is still good number of you here. So how do you separate yourself from the other excellent achievers and take hold of the future and shape it? Why will other men and women of excellence look to you for guidance and direction? The answer: Because you treat people with integrity.

“Good night,” you say, “what does he mean by that?”

“Integrity” means “the condition of having no part or element taken away or missing.” It means “wholeness” or “completeness.” This treatment of people with integrity will become supremely important in the next 30 years as our society moves toward a fully technocratic society where we humans run the enormous risk of being treated as pawns by those that control the social machines, be those the machines of mass communication, the machine of the legal system, the machine of the economic system, or the machine of the educational system. It will increasingly be too easy to treat each other as impersonal objects to be used and exploited, or obstacles to be eliminated in order to achieve one’s goals. And the greatest danger to mankind is from you folks, the excellent ones, the ones that have the capability to form the future.

To treat a person with integrity means to see that person as someone who has genuine physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual worth, and that worth must be addressed in a way which does not do violence to any part of the entire human being. For a complete, integrated, whole person is composed of a physical side, an emotional side, a spiritual side, and an intellectual side.

In order to convince others to step aside from governing the future, you need to give others your personal commitment not only to be excellent, but to view other persons as uniquely important individuals of great worth and dignity. And for those of you who operate on the fast track of life, that will be exceedingly difficult because your praiseworthy drive for excellence and your desire to shape the future will have to be tempered with patience, kindness, gentleness, and sometimes, humility, all of which are difficult human characteristics to maintain for anybody, but for the super achievers like you, they will be extremely difficult characteristics to sustain.

If you come to us with your excellence which has been tempered with these qualities, your leadership will be irresistible and we will step aside to follow you because you will have earned our trust and our confidence. But you must convince us. And that’s the challenge to every individual here tonight: to prove your excellence and to demonstrate your wisdom to those of us who have gone before and to those who will come after you.

The future belongs to those of you excellent young people in this room tonight only if you continue to verify your high quality of achievement and then only if you amply demonstrate that you can hold to your excellence while at the same time holding to your integrity. That is your challenge.

Congratulations again to you young scholars and may your high achievement here at Ellensburg High School be only the launching pad for lives of richness, fulfillment, accomplishment and nobility. I salute you.


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