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All the tributes to Toni Morrison this summer (my favorite was by Hilton Als in The New Yorker) made me think of this video featuring Kerry James Marshall.

I loved that the emphasis was so squarely on Toni Morrison’s accomplishment -- the pure mastry (this is how it is spelled in the Kerry James Marshall video, so I’m sticking with it) she displayed in her novels and essays -- and how it inspired the writers who followed to reach deeper within themselves and aspire to be better than they initially thought they could be.

This is the theme of the Kerry James Marshall video. I first saw it as part of the retrospective of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago a couple of summers ago. In 20 years of visiting art museums, it is by far my favorite show, enhanced by the memory of a conversation I’d had with the artist over dinner a few years earlier. I just happened to be seated next to him at some fancy event, and Kerry James Marshall spoke to me of his vision for transforming vacant lots on the South Side of Chicago into spaces of beauty rather than emptiness. He made me feel like I was the only person in the world, even though I’m like plankton on the food chain compared to him.

In any case, the video. It may be the most powerful seven and a half minutes of commentary I’ve ever watched. I think of it as lessons from a master to students who will take the time to listen. Here are the themes and questions I drew out:

  • What do you want to master? Who were the early masters of that genre? What work do you have to do to be as good as them?
  • What is your ideal world? How do you convey that with the fullness and beauty it deserves?
  • If you seek mastry, criticizing others is a delay tactic. Masters build things; people who want to create distractions about why they are not masters criticize others.
  • Ideas are bigger than identities. Focus on ideas.
  • No excuses. Either you do the work to become a master or you don’t. Be honest about the distance between where you are and where the masters you admire are, and then do what it takes to close the gap. No excuses.

Of all the purposes of higher education, nurturing mastry is among the highest. This is the theme of Anthony Kronman’s important new book, The Assault on American Excellence, but he is far from the first to underscore the point.

Here is the great Howard Thurman, writing about his alma mater: “Over the heads of her students, Morehouse holds a crown that she challenges them to grow tall enough to wear.”

This is an understanding of higher education as a place that nurtures while not compromising on standards of excellence.

I had a professor or two who let me make fashionable excuses about why the paper I wrote was less than my best work. That was laziness on my part, and a dereliction of duty on theirs.

And it did not serve me well when I got to the academic big leagues -- graduate work at Oxford. I remember presenting an early draft of my dissertation to faculty in the Department of Educational Studies and getting absolutely flayed. I went to the bathroom, wiped my tears away, returned to face my adviser and prepared to tell him all the ways that I found Oxford an unfriendly environment for someone like me.

He let me finish. His facial expression never changed. There was no edge or meanness in his voice. He simply said, “You either write a dissertation that meets the standard for a doctorate at Oxford or you don’t. What you submitted isn’t good enough.”

Then he looked at me expectantly. The next move was mine. Was I going to make the improvements and do the work to reach the Oxford standard or not? If I was, he would help me. If not, there were others he could help.

Watching that Kerry James Marshall video, thinking about Toni Morrison and Howard Thurman, brings me back to those silent moments in that room with Professor Geoffrey Walford. Higher education is where many of us first glimpse a standard that we can not yet meet and yet want to achieve. We have to decide if (in Thurman’s beautiful metaphor) we will grow tall enough to reach the crown.

I spent some time in Mexico City at the end of the summer (more on that in future pieces), and re-read a lot of Sandra Cisneros. I was taken by how the themes in her essay “I Can Live Sola and I Love to Work” struck the same chords as the advice Kerry James Marshall offers in that video. She is harsh on artists and writers who make excuses, the ones who carry around “their little gray cloud on a stick” and point to it as proof that the sun will never shine. After a while, Cisneros says, she found herself wanting to scream the truth to them: you are content to be mediocre, and you want to drag me down with you.

Cisneros didn’t want to be mediocre. Her own vision required more.

The key line in her essay doubles as a theme for this (or, really, any) academic year: “Our best weapon in adverse times -- excellence.”

My advice to students: think hard about the areas in which you want to achieve excellence -- mastry -- and then find professors who refuse to let you make excuses in your pursuit of that goal.

That’s why college exists. That’s why you went.

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