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Excellence: a new keyword for education?

By KL Allan


Excellence is a term that stands out in modern educational discourse, and one that has attracted ridicule from some education commentators. In his critical commentary on how the notion of a university has changed, Bill Readings claims that excellence acts as a 'non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system' and an 'empty notion'.1 Similar observations have become commonplace. One ironically humorous example of the kind of contempt shown towards the use of excellence as a technical term in educational discourse is presented as Appendix 3, drawn from a website written by an academic. Here it is suggested that the frequency with which excellence and excellent are used by a university in printed materials is an indicator of whether that institution is third-rate. The implication is clear: excellence and excellent have become effectively meaningless terms in such contexts. While such an assertion seems naïve from a linguist's perspective, it certainly appears that the word has been subject to a process of semantic change, and this process can be traced through its increased use in mission statements, governmental initiatives and education journals. In this article I suggest that an examination of the history and present-day use of excellence can illuminate key developments in higher education in recent years. The word's semantic ambiguity makes it a keyword, in the sense that it offers access to current perspectives in this important area of culture and society

Topics: LB2300, PE, mem_text_and_place, other
Publisher: Blackwell Publishing
Year: 2007
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