- Querulous Inquiries
As the year 2000 approached, almost every day a different magazine announced on its cover that it contained a list of the 100 best athletes, films, TV shows, personalities, etc. These lists sell magazines because people enjoy arguing about who should be included. Shortly after Sporting News published an issue featuring the 100 best baseball, basketball, and football players, readers sent in letters saying that so and so should have been or not have been on the list or should have been higher or lower and so on. The Chicago newspapers were insulted that in a list of the 100 best football players Walter Payton who played for the Bears was not in the top ten. What the publishers of such lists count on is the rounds of un-decidable disagreement about them. Because none of the lists offer clear criteria about what might count as “good” and thus as “better,” debates about who or what is included are open-ended.
Richard Hare in the Language of Morals notes that uses of the word, “good,” are meaningless unless there is a stipulation that “x” is “good with respect to y.” If there are no criteria upon which to make a decision, any judgment is possible. Similarly, the vaguer or broader the criteria, the greater its extension and the harder to render a clear-cut decision. Expressions such as “A Honda is better than a Toyota” are meaningless unless some criteria are specified. If the criterion is gas mileage, then a decision is possible and the sentence “A Honda is better than a Toyota with respect to gas mileage” is a meaningful judgment that can be tested against experience. It is almost always the case that something, say Breyers ice cream, is better than something else, say, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, in some respects but not in others. Breyers may be less fattening than Ben and Jerry’s but it may also contain fewer strawberries or . . . . In [End Page 64] short, expressions such as “x is better than y” are meaningless because they are contentless.
The idea that content emerges from systems of difference is familiar to most practitioners of literary and rhetorical criticism. What may be less familiar is how this principle applies to universities themselves as organizations in which, presumably, the best of what we know is produced. How do members of universities rank themselves and determine levels of achievement? This topic has been addressed recently by Bill Readings in the posthumously published The University in Ruins. Readings has created something of a firestorm with his claim that the American university system is in ruins because its purpose no longer concerns “culture,” but the pursuit of “excellence,” a contentless conception that structures programs to be guided by “the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information” (39). Given that universities and their departments are preoccupied with the pursuit of “excellence,” we would like to consider more specifically how “input/output” ratios are measured for the practitioners of literary and rhetorical criticism. We are concerned with the question of how a concept such as “excellence” fits into the practice of criticism, and how it influences decisions about which academic institutions and scholars make it to their own “best of” lists.
The term “excellence” has the same semantic character as the concepts of “good,” “better,” “best,” and therefore is relatively meaningless unless the “with respect to X criteria” is specified. Yet academics tend to downplay this relational component by treating abstract standards of goodness or excellence as if they have transcendental properties whose qualities can be immediately recognized. For example, we teach writing courses as if we can devise standards of articulation that will demonstrate which students (including graduate students) are “the best” or are able to “pursue excellence.” Often, textbooks make comparisons between poor examples of student prose with revised versions that are “better,” and offer seemingly cogent explanations of what makes writing effective. The tendency in these books is to ignore the contingent character of language and to concentrate on essentialized forms, implying that if students mimic these forms, their writing will also manifest traits of excellence...