Sunday, August 14, 2011

The increasing prevalence of excellence

Mt. Everest
(Photo credit: babasteve)
An interesting phenomenon that occurs in many fields is that what may seem at first to be an extremely rare and difficult achievement, can become increasingly prevalent over time.

It's easiest to find examples of this in athletics, sports, and other physical activities. Think, for example, of the four-minute mile. Originally thought impossible, it was first broken in 1954 by Roger Bannister. Now professional mid-distance runners routinely run a mile under four minutes (the current record is Hicham El Guerrouj's 3:43.13 minutes, set in 1999, nearly 17 seconds lower). Or consider the feat of climbing to the top of Mount Everest. Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's pioneering accomplishment in 1953, there have been more than 4000 ascents to its summit.

The contributing factors in the repetition of these achievements are i) an awareness that the achievement in question is physically possible, ii) the desire and motivation to repeat/exceed the achievement, and iii) improved understanding leading to better techniques and training.

Anthony Tommasini, the music critic for the NY Times, writes about a similar trend in piano playing in his article "Virtuosos becoming a dime a dozen."  He writes that the ability to play nearly any piano piece with technical proficiency, once considered a rare talent, is now relatively common:
That a young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago. The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teachers, critics and commentators have noted the phenomenon, which is not unlike what happens in the last decade or so the growth of technical proficiency has seemed exponential.
He adds:
 A reason that pianists are getting technically stronger is that as in sports, teachers and students are just learning to practice the craft better, becoming better conditioned and getting better results... another reason is that pianists are rising to the challenges of new music that pushes boundaries.
Indeed, this phenomenon can be observed nearly all other fields of human endeavor, as varied as painting, writing, architecture, even science and engineering. Often we find achievements that are striking at first, but that serve also to set a bar. This bar is then met or even exceeded, repeatedly, by many others, by that process of striving for excellence and self-improvement that is the natural order of things for our species, taking advantage of cumulative experience and advances in techniques and training.

That core drive for self-improvement is in all of us, actualized through it may be in different ways, different directions, and to different degrees, according to our situation in life, our interests, and our experiences. Whatever the context, the process of education must be primarily about preserving, cultivating, and enhancing this core drive.