an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Lessons From America: Reverence for Excellence

Social and cultural conditions in post-Soviet Russia are changing rapidly. At the time this short piece was written, its ideas and claims seemed true. It is a new “sign of the times” in Russia, that it may be growing less and less true by the day!?

One of my earliest positive impressions in Russia, beginning in 1986, was noting the seriousness and substance of education which my Russian acquaintances had received. I often had occasion to be surprised by how much more well-read in American, not to mention Russian, literature were many of the people I met. This was sometimes rather shocking, and often embarrassing. And not only were they often more broadly read in great American authors of the 19th and 20th century, but the enthusiasm of their interest, the depth of their ideas and insights, the vitality and intimacy with which they had read this literature, was in fact at times actually astonishing to me. And I mean this literally (as we say in the USA). Russia and Russians astonished me. I recall how I had never really felt the word “astonishment” before. But during the weeks of my early 3-4 month-long trips to the Soviet Union, I recall the gradual real experience of astonishment – certainly heightened by the contrasting Soviet conditions which could be experienced and felt by Intourist visitors.

After 3-4 years, my Russian and American friends and colleagues gradually came to discern that Soviet education had given a much more serious and substantive education compared to that of the USA – that a student here was, generally speaking, about two years ahead of their US counterpart. (This applied to school and university education!) A ten-year old boy that I met, the son of an Intourist English teacher, had such a good and proper command of the English language as to impress me greatly. (The majority of Americans do not well learn a second language even in academic study.)

And it was not only the level of knowledge in a particular field which was impressive; but also the breadth. Anyone who knows the tendency towards departmentalization of study and specialization of focus in education in the USA (mostly of course at the upper levels), could not but be startled and surprised at how broadly- and well-read were even “engineers” here in Soviet Russia. An “engineer” today in the USA would in general not be expected to have much knowledge, interest or passion in, say, literature or poetry, as visitors often met here in Russia. Somehow in the USA, literature for example was some sort of “extra”, an accessory, a sort of option, or inessential addition to one’s life and interests; in Russia I (and others) could see that for Russians, literature and poetry were often deep passions and essentials in their lives. (It took me, for example, several visits here in those times, before I could really recognize and understand this Russian social and cultural fact. Many of my fellow traveling Americans never quite got their mind around this.) I recall always returning from Russia with enough inspiration (and humiliation!) to do more reading in American (and Russian) literature. As a colleague Tatyana Morozova described it in a piece in English entitled “Thoreau’s message to Russia”, Americans had a more practical and pragmatic relationship to books (and knowledge), not a “Platonic love of books” as in Russian culture. This was absolutely the experience I (and many other visiting Americans) had here in Soviet Russia.

And it seems to me that an essential element of this “Platonic love” here in Russia, was what I came to describe as a reverence for excellence. How many times did I find Russians (in many areas of life and interest) who had a visible respect and reverence for the best: writers, musicians, poets, singers, philosophers, literary critiques, authorities, et al. A respect, indeed, a reverence for the best! Whether the great individual were alive or dead, whether they were someone recognized or ostracized by the state, there was a discernible respect for those who were the best, who had higher knowledge or ability in some area of human culture and life – be it poetry, philosophy, music... I recall when Yo Yo Ma performed some of Bach’s suites for solo cello in St. Petersburg in the late 80’s, and how the audience had a depth of attention, a sensitivity of appreciation – and silent feeling-reflection during the intermission – which I had never met even in any Church service in the Western world. This respect and reverence for excellence, for those who know more, deeper, perform better, more profoundly, etc. is something now mostly absent in the USA.

For example...there is an extraordinary American woman I know in her 1980’s living in California, who devoted herself to art history. To this day, when she publically gives lectures on art, the largest public hall is filled. But in the past years attitudes are changing: a young 18-year old university student boldly stated that she and this art teacher had different opinions of Van Gogh, adding that her opinion was just as valid as the teacher’s. The implication was that all opinions are equal in value and substance: the 80 year old art historian had her opinion, the 18 year-old had her equally valid opinion. This small incident, recounted by the Art Historian in a public discussion concerning educational conditions in the USA as a “sign of the times”, says much about cultural conditions and attitudes in the USA today (and in the past decade or two). Such an attitude – far from reverence for excellence – is increasingly popular and present in the post-60’s American cultural life. (The distinction between high and low culture, between greatness and competence in some area of life, had been greatly affected by egalitarian and individualistic tendencies in American cultural life.) The tendency is to treat all opinions (especially in the humanities, for they are closer to the “rights”, towards individual beliefs, etc, than science) as equal. In fact, it is even difficult in the USA today to say that someone or something is better than another. There is an aggressive tendency, especially in certain sectors of US society, to reject that anyone’s knowledge, opinion, skills, insights, etc, are superior to anyone else’s. And while this is not present everywhere, the attitude and tendency is widespread and spreading, even though not always aggressively.

When people prefer to criticize and reject, rather than admire and revere someone who knows more, is better skilled, is, “more…”, one has an attitude in society which America clearly reveals as quite ill, and disorienting. (Here one touches the problem of America’s cultural values – for it is not at all clear in American society today, what is to be revered and respected: rich Hollywood movie stars, millionaire athletes, billionaire businessmen who made billions on cheap labor in other nations...or some eccentric artist or solitary scholar who have devoted their lives to their art, work or study... In the battle between reverence for external or internal wealth, America is profoundly confused – though it clearly tends towards material riches.

Social and cultural conditions in the USA, both in the general culture and in the world of education, clearly reveal the truth of the “lesson”: reverence for excellence.

First published in the magazine English, #30, 2000, p. 1-16.