Americans, especially those in our schools, love to talk about excellence. A mission statement that lacks the term is rare since the two go hand in hand—empty platitudes require empty platitudes. The term “excellence” seems to point to proficiency, success, and all the blessings of a well adjusted human being living in modern developed society.

What does it mean to excel? Everyone knows: To excel is to win, to exceed someone else. “Excellence” bears out the true purpose of all models of wide-scale social testing because excellence is really about a contest of pure relativity, the calculus of which determines who gets to survive and thrive.

Standardized testing in compulsory schools today may be problematic for a number of sociological reasons, but it is also rare for those same reasons. Think of an institution that uses a single test as a measure of membership or qualification that is not a department of motor vehicles. Imagine testing the population of the United States to find its most suitable presidential candidates. Imagine a Church using a test to decide and decline its membership. Find one good college that solely relies on a test to offer admission. Find a single test that has proven so uncontroversial and salutary that it produces results that matter and do not result in a gulag.

Excellence nowadays is code for a violent contest that takes place on a developmental spectrum. It sorts much more than workers or jobs or economic metrics. Corporations know better than to rely on tests or, often, schools. Even the testing corporations themselves do not use tests in this way; surely they must be aware that their own watery-eyed standards of excellence are ones they cannot meet. I sometimes dream of giving testing executives and policy makers their own easy tests, for the sake of sheer absurdity.

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Long before The Hunger Games, Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery,” in an issue of The New Yorker, imagined a dystopia where an annual community raffle decides the fate of one of its members. The final line is chilling: “‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

The community of Jackson’s story isn’t cavalier or unthinking about its dark stoning ritual, nor do its members seem grotesque or monstrous. On the contrary, they sound respectable and working-class. They dread the lottery and feel bad about the whole thing. Fear is their only consolation. Some even voice displeasure—“Seems like we got through with the last one only last week”—but nonetheless the yearly ritual goes on to the bitter end.

Some think otherwise—“They do say … that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery”—but others don’t buy it—“Pack of crazy fools … Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work anymore.”

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There are worthwhile tests; there are real standards; things exist that are worth being held accountable to. Paul, of course, refers to winning a race and Christ frequently speaks of the Kingdom in ways that demand rigorous preparation. There is surely a contest to be aware of and to compete in.

But scripture speaks of a contest without singular tests; indeed, it is a paradoxical contest in which the last become first and the first finish last. This is not a contest that demands excellence. This is a test that asks for more that that: Life is only achieved through death. This is not a contest of might or will; it is an exercise that glorifies what is most hidden and wholly other. The prize is holiness, not success. Union, not separation. The commitment must be total and absolute, much more than to a single faddish standard.

Anyone who has excelled at something knows the dark truth of its high costs and fleeting rewards. Even the school that excels must meet the mark again and again. How many excellent students have fallen prey to their shallow success? Surely there is something more excellent than excellence. Surely there is something more to education than schooling. Surely there is enough courage left to detest shallow and arbitrary contests that abound within and beyond the school. Surely we must reject at least a few conventions that draw and quarter life into oblivion, excellence be damned.