Excellence: A Point of View

October 18, 2016

Excellence: A Point of View

COMMENT: Everyone in Malaysia talks about the pursuit of excellence and some pretend to know what it means, especially  our mediocre politicians in power and men in the public service who are tasked to implement our national education policy and Blue Ocean Strategy.

Image result for malaysia education blueprint 2015 higher education

We employ snake oil consultants  and experts to write glossy blueprints and reports at horrendous cost to taxpayers but fail to execute them.  We create institutions like Pemandu to promote Najib’s deformation agenda, and Permata for bright kids, while our Chief Secretary to the Government makes himself advocate-in-chief of the Blue Ocean Strategy concept to suck up to Najib Razak. In reality, we do not know what excellence is, what it takes and how to get there.

Image result for blue ocean strategy malaysia

Excellence is a simple idea if we are serious about it. All we need to do is change our attitude. Talk is cheap. Stop it and start taking action.

Malaysia has an attitude problem and it is our greatest obstacle to our future as a people and a nation. Where to begin? It has to be first fixing our education system to become a nation of high achievers and second we must stop playing politics  with the education of our future generation. But we are not doing that because UMNO politicians are afraid of  smart and pushy Malays in particular.

I wish to share with you A C Grayling’s thoughts on Excellence. This philosopher is endowed with the ability to communicate with ordinary men and women in clear and concise language. Read his article and share your comments.–Din Merican

Grayling on Excellence

When Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy over a hundred years ago, he described the pursuit of excellence in the fostering of culture as “getting to know, on all matters that most concern us. the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

Arnold was an inspector of schools, and a champion of higher education, and he believed in excellence in education as the way not only to staff the economy but to produce an enculturated society which would live up to the ideal in Aristotle’s noble dictum about the educated use of our leisure.

Image result for AC Grayling with undergraduates

From China to France, every country that is or aspires to be developed has an elite educational stratum, aimed at taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. In China this is done at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. In France the system of Hautes Ecoles–superior universities, entry to which is fiercely competitive–creams off the outstanding minds and subjects them to a rigorous discipline. The aim in all cases is to enhance the best in order to gain the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts.

Few could object to the rationale behind this, save those for whom universal mediocrity is a  price worth paying for social equality (or in the case of Malaysia where mediocrity is a means of political control, added by Din Merican). But there is the danger to which meritocratic means to the cultivation of excellence – or what should be solely such – fall prey. It is if, after the establishment of the means, merit by itself ceases to be enough, and money and influence become additional criteria. In many, perhaps most, countries in the world, money and influence are the determiners of social advancement, even where meritocratic criteria still apply too: in America money is needed to gain social advantages, in China it helps to be a Party member.

The rich and the well connected are not the kind of elite an  education system ought to be fostering. It is easy for popular newspapers and populist politicians to make pejorative use of the term ‘elite’ to connote these elites of injustice; but they are just as quick to complain if doctors, teachers, or sportsmen playing for national sides fail our highest expectations- if, in short, they are not elite after all, in the proper sense of the term.

Although there are few if any true democracies in the world– most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies–the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to make everyone alike. The latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains.

But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denominator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.

The Meaning of Things–Applying Philosophy to Life by AC Grayling (London: Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 2001) pp.160-161

8 thoughts on “Excellence: A Point of View

  1. “Excellence is like your shadow. If you chase your shadow it will run away from you. But if you do your work diligently it will follow you.” I wonder who said that.
    I do not know who wrote that, but I agree with him. Excellence is not a finish line but a journey towards perfection, which we know we cannot achieve, but which is worth pursuing.–Din Merican

  2. Smart thinking and subtleness can be present in the elites through high learning as well as in the ordinary man in the street purely through life’s experiences. Which learning is more valuable?

    A boatman was ferrying two friends, a scientist and an economist, across a river. The scientist asked the boat man “do you know why the sea water is salty?” The boat man replied “I don’t know” and to that the scientist said “you have wasted 25% of your life”. Next the economist asked the boatman “do you know anything about stocks and shares” and the later replied that he does not know anything about it. The economist told the boatman that he had wasted another 25% of his life. Just then the clouds turned dark and the waves were rocking the boat. The boatman asked the two “do you know how to swim”. Their answer was no and he told them “your whole life is wasted”. Heavy rain came and the boat capsized. The boatman swam to safety and the other two got drowned.

    At the airport, a passenger in full suit was angrily yelling at and finding all sort of faults with the manner the porter was handling his luggage. On the other hand the porter remained cool and never lost his temper. After the man had boarded the plane another passenger waiting to board another flight asked the porter how he could remain so calm. The porter smiled a little and said: “the man is going to America and his luggage is going to Japan”.

  3. “… taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. … creams off the outstanding minds … The aim in all cases is to enhance the best …”

    I think this will only create an elite strata of society. indeed, this looks very much like the ‘grammar school’ system in UK which was abandoned in the 80s/90s. The system took the cream of the students via the 11-plus examination and educational opportunities were opened to this elite student population (25% in 60s dropping down to 5% after the late 70s). However, those who failed the 11-plus were educated under the ‘secondary modern’ schooling system, a much inferior educational choice. (My wife who failed the 11-plus was streamed into a secondary modern school. In the 6th Form, she was discouraged to apply to a university. After her ‘A’ Levels, she managed to get into Bath University through clearing, where I met her.) Grammar schools was a mean to afford the upward mobility of bright working class children – the idea was a student was given a chance to excel irrespective of his home background. However, most educationalists today have concluded that, as a society, the beneficial influence of the bright students onto their ‘lesser’ peers in a comprehensive educational environment has an overiding positive effect. Whilst the ‘bright sparks’ may not have been given the ‘the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts’, the uplift of the educational level of the general student populace is enormous. Despite Theresa May’s (current UK’s PM) ranting and raving over grammar school, UK is unlikely to turn the clock back.

    My personal opinion is grammar schools are wonderful for the bright students; not many people would dispute that. However, they not only soak up the best teaching resources (best teachers, best facilities, etc.) , financially they cost more (measured by £ per student/year).

  4. I believe that there is always a better way to do things and my aim in life is to find it. Nothing is stagnant. Nothing is the ultimate. There is always room for improvement. That will lead to excellence in anything in your life.

  5. The world including here went crazy in the early 80’s when Tom Peter’s In Search of Excellence was published. Almost everywhere and speech after speech you hear the word “Excellence”. Then the civil service caught on whilst the private sector moved to habits. Again there were training courses after courses. Then the civil service caught on.

    The cycle continued with Blue Ocean. First private sector (usually MNCs then the local) and finally the civil service.

    Did all these took us anywhere? Did we learn much? Most probably in the private sector. Civil service? I doubt whether elephant can tap dance …

  6. All good comments above, but I would like to add a little to HT Low’s very interesting and candid account of the 11+ exam because I have a special interest in this exam, not just because its variation run over here in the then Malaya destroyed the lives of countless young people but because of what I learned years later when I stepped foot on English soil. May be in another thread I shall discuss an alternative route towards approaching excellence, but this might again confirm Robert Lim’s sceptical view of sure-fire paths to superlative performance in the workplace; as a matter fact, it preceded the latest Blue Ocean fad, but why it did not capture the imagination of corporate America, I don’t know.

    The man closely associated with the 11+ exam was Sir Cyril Burt, considered at one time a giant of applied educational psychology, and it was he who incorporated IQ tests in the 11+ exam. I shall quote remarks and comments, picked at random from various articles on Sir Cyril Burt:

    “. . . supporters believed that IQ tests measured intelligence and that IQ is hereditary . . . . Burt claimed his 40 years of research proved a child’s intelligence was mainly inherited from its parents and that social circumstances played only a minor role. His research formed the basis of education policy for half a century-from the 1920s until the 1970s. Yet only a year after his death in 1971, evidence began to emerge that Burt was a fraudster who had simply invented results to fit his theories about the hereditability of intelligence. . . . “The exposure of Burt as a fraudster was of enormous significance in the movement to get rid of the 11-plus and selective education . . . . in 1969 the 11-plus exam was abolished in England and replaced with a comprehensive system. . . .The result of the shift was a vast improvement in education for all children. . . .

    . . . . Hans Eysenck, a former student of Burt, gives a highly illuminating account of the complex of factors surrounding this controversy . . . .

    . . . .Burt carried out studies of IQ in identical twins separated at birth and raised apart . . . There have been only three other published studies of this kind besides Burt’s. No one had previously been able to assemble more than 20 pairs of twins. . . .

    . . . . Burt’s study stood out because he claimed to have found 53 pairs, more than twice the total of any previous attempt. Burt also showed an extremely high hereditability of 80 percent for IQ performance. It was no wonder that his work was eagerly seized upon by all those who shared his rigid hereditarian views . . . .

    . . . .Things started to unravel soon after Burt’s death, when it was shown by respected US psychologist Leon Kamin that Burt’s figures constituted a statistical impossibility. ‘A liar and a fraud,’ was Kamin’s verdict. This charge was borne out when it was found that Burt’s two female ‘collaborators’, who supposedly collected and processed his data, had never worked with him and probably never existed! . . . .

    . . . . It was three years after his death that attention was drawn to some apparently puzzling features of his data concerning the inheritance of intelligence: by Arthur Jensen . . . ; by Leo Kamin, . . .in a strongly worded book that questioned the scientific validity of all research publications, then available, supporting a significant role of heredity in measured IQ; and, finally, by two former PhD students of Burt’s, Alan and Anne(sic) Clarke, in a textbook on mental deficiency.”

    Now, getting personal!

    Ann M Clarke was one of my lecturers, thorough and scholarly, and at one point even offered me a job in her department, but lack of funds forced me to decline. I have in front of me a copy of a paper written by her and her husband A D B Clarke published in the Supplement to the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society (1980), 33, 17 -19 titled Comments of Professor Hearnshaw’s ‘Balance sheet on Burt’. Excerpts:

    “ . . . . As the biography makes clear, we were registered PhD students of Burt although working in Hans Eysenck’s department at the Institute of Psychiatry at a time when the former was putting numerous obstacles in the way of the latter. Our relations with Burt were on the whole amicable, although we were surprised and angry when he wrote and published articles under our names which appeared to be slanted against Eysenck in a way with which we disagreed. In many other respects he seemed courteous and kind.

    Our views on the heritability of intelligence and on educational policy are in many ways similar to Burt’s although our position was less entrenched and less extreme. There is no doubt that he worked very hard to promote a system which enabled talented children from impoverished backgrounds to secure academic provision which they might otherwise have failed to attain. Nor is there any doubt that he had interesting insights into the social conditions associated with delinquency and backwardness. He also wrote quite accurately about the mentally retarded, although as we have elsewhere indicated, his thinking failed to move with the times.

    We first began to look in detail at two of Burt’s seminal research papers during 1971/1972, and concluded in a chapter, against all other previously published evaluations, that there were ‘puzzling features’, ‘surprisingly high intercorrelations’, ‘question-begging’ and results which ‘appear suspiciously perfect’ (Clarke & Clarke, 1974). We did not then, perhaps to our shame, suspect fraud; this came slowly, as one of us collaborated with Michael McAskie in a detailed analysis of several papers (McAskie & Clarke, 1976). The turning point came when Dr Gillie revealed that neither Howard or Conway could be accounted for. . . . In an earlier letter to The Times with Michael McAskie we had concluded that Burt was either a fraud as a scientist or a fraudulent scientist . . . . An alternative possibility . . . that from early adulthood using his charisma and unusual linguistic gifts, Burt was a successful confidence trickster. . . . It seems probable that others earlier in Burt’s career were as similarly deceived, before 1940, as the rest of us were afterwards; the hallmark of a successful confidence trickster is precisely that people are persuaded of his honesty. We make no secret of our distaste for Burt, now that the truth about him is known. For a man to rise to his position both as an applied psychologist and also as an accredited scientist with such a record of cutting corners and active deception of honest and trusting colleagues is for us horrifying . . . . Burt was, in our view a poor applied psychologist. Applied psychologists have a particular social obligation to be at least as exacting as academics, because their work often affects people directly and immediately. . .”

    So, there you are H T Low, tell your good lady, Sir Cyril was the culprit. If there is any consolation at all, tell her that another lecturer of mine despite having sailed through the Comprehensive system with straight As still failed to get to Oxford — why? — at a dinner hosted by one of the colleges for potential new scholars, he committed the grave sin of passing wine to a friend across the table — no can do — Oxford demands better table manners!

    So, is intelligence really measurable? Do genes, according Cyril Burt, decide everything or, does the environment play a more important role in human performance? Or more likely everything is Nature and Nurture?

    In a slightly obtuse manner anthropologist Margaret Mead’s daughter puts it this way, “You can’t have culture without the biological conditions necessary for culture. This dichotomy is false.”

    Three links:
    1) The intelligence fraud : http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/sr196/parrington.htm
    2) The Case of Sir Cyril Burt Cyril Burt was considered one of the most …
    3) A true pro and his cons – https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/a-true-pro-and-his-cons/161397.article

  7. A thousand apologies:

    Last para, read as: In a slightly oblique manner . . .

    And of course, 4th para from the last:
    neither Howard nor Conway could be accounted for. . .

  8. Excellence is not a finish line but a journey towards perfection” — how true, and an echo of R.L.Stevenson who said, “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” As promised an alternative journey to performance nirvana articulated about twenty years ago — sorry Robert Lim about this, but rest assured I share your sentiments!

    In 1995, Prof Ikujiro Nonaka together with Prof Hirotaka Takeuchi presented to the world their book, “The Knowledge Creating Company”. In essence the message is knowledge will drive a company to greater success — this sounds almost too trite but for the fact that we have long equated the mechanistic use of knowledge through outsourcing thinking to technology as the equivalent of thinking through a problem using the corpus of information in our head acquired from experiential learning or deliberate active thinking while seated in the quiet of an office or in our study.

    The one is relying on semi-cognitive performance facilitated by electrons moving at high speed — “half-head” while the other is moving neurons in the head at equally high speed, leavened by the gentle impulses of the heart — Head and Heartcognitive and affective skills, the Hand — representing motor skill — playing no role when the head and heart are engaged in serious contemplation, and a minor role when technology is used — typing on the keyboard for example. Of the three H’s the Hand represents the first skill humans acquire, then comes the Head, and finally the Heart. This “natural” progression has a caveat because it is the last which is the most elusive and difficult to acquire. No surprise then that we meet every so often brilliant misfits (through blessed inherited genes and superior educational nurture) with zero people-skills — in short, bumptious bipeds with low Emotional Quotient.

    This is precisely how Prof Nonaka and his friend Takeuchi give a refreshing look at knowledge acquisition as seen through Japanese lenses, and how this knowledge can drive a company forward provided it is always actively engaged in getting its employees to discover new levels or fields of knowledge in the initial phase and then working out from there. Robert Lim, am I helping someone to market another type of snake oil?

    “With his thick-rimmed spectacles, impeccable manners and predilection for long disquisitions on epistemology, Ikujiro Nonaka hardly seems like a normal management guru. It is impossible to imagine him rigging best-seller lists, dreaming buzzwords, or doing any of the other things that have become associated with that most dubious of professions . . . . Berkeley, famous for its pretension, has just made Mr Nonaka its first ever professor of knowledge . . . had wanted to make him a professor of ‘knowledge management’ . . . ‘The Knowledge Creating Company’ . . . has been showered with praise . . . . Now that the American fad of re-engineering, which involved introducing lots of computers and cutting out lots of jobs, is under something of a cloud, management thinkers have started looking to Japan once again for new ideas. ¶ When set beside most American writers, Mr Nonaka’s thoughts about knowledge seem different in at least two ways. The first is his relative lack of interest in information technology. Many American companies equate ‘knowledge creation’ with setting up databases. Mr Nonaka argues that much of a company’s knowledge bank has nothing to do with data, but is based on informal ‘on-the-job’ knowledge — everything from the name of a customer’s secretary to the best way to deal with a truculent supplier. Many of the titbits are stored in the brains of middle managers — exactly the people whom reengineering replaced with computers. ¶ The second thing that makes Mr Nonaka stand out is his insistence that companies need plenty of slack to remain creative. Allow employees time to pursue hare-brained schemes — or just to sit around chatting — and you may come up with a market-changing idea, argues Mr Nonaka; force them to account for every minute of their day, and you will be stuck with routine products. ¶ All this explains why Mr Nonaka makes such an ideal philosopher king for all the consultancies and publishers keen to ram ‘knowledge management’ down the gullet of corporate America. But is ‘knowledge’ really likely to take off in the same way that re-engineering did? . . . ¶ More fundamentally, knowledge remains an infuriatingly vague subject to write about — let alone sell . . . . Mr Nonaka’s own work is open to the charge of being too narrow. He has focused relentlessly on large, well-established Japanese firms. This helps explains his popularity with large, well-established American companies. . .” [31st May 1997 – The Economist]

    Robert Lim must sigh with relief that Nonaka’s ideas didn’t take off here especially the part about chasing hare-brained schemes and sitting around chatting. If it did, it would have been the civil service taking this up ahead of the corporate world — thank you very much they would say. Nonaka’s idea about providing slack would irritate the majority of our civil servants who witness on a daily basis the slack some of their colleagues have been giving themselves from day one of their appointment.

    To achieve excellence we were told to look East, but we were not told look down at the timepiece strapped on the hand — this was the telling miscue which was left unsaid by Mr Nonaka’s compatriots to Dr Mahathir. And I don’t wish to pin the blame on the latter. In the culture of Yes/No double-speak, ostensibly cultivated through centuries of taking care of someone else’s water face, time-keeping is lost even to those who wear the most expensive watches because form overrides function and time remains timeless with our people — if you don’t mind the pun.

    Robert Lim, can we collaborate to write “The Muddy River Strategy”, the strategy to end all strategies?

    Or-ghe Kelate kato, “Action lah, mati tak poh”!

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