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Seneca: The Concept of Excellence and Latinos

August 29th, 2010 · 5 Comments

Every culture has a different take on what ‘excellence’ means. In Western culture, we tend to borrow many of the meanings of our ‘virtues’ from the Greek thinkers or the Hellenic cultural tradition. Western cultural tradition constantly or continuously seeks or strives for ‘excellence’ in life’s everyday quests: academic, professional, artistic or spiritual. Latinos’ western cultural tradition can be traced to the Greek concept of ‘arete‘ which loosely translates as ‘virtue’ or ‘excellence’ . This concept derives from the Greek or Hellenistic outlook on life among the Athenian aristocracy where accomplishment was invariably praised. In our modern day culture, the individual is always praised for outstanding achievement beginning in pre-school or earlier. This continues right through college and into professional life. Team effort or accomplishment is equally praised.

Yet, there are cultural differences in the way the concept of excellence is approached that should be pointed out. For example, the Jewish tradition is noteworthy in explaining the constant demonstration and celebration of ‘excellence’. The Jewish concept of striving for excellence is inherently different than the Greek ‘arete’. The Greek concept, which we Latinos seem to emulate, is that every social class has its own icon of perfection and all should strive to be that perfect individual (in strength/beauty/intellect etc). Whereas in Judaism, according to Rabbinical thinking, one does not stress trying to be the pinnacle of strength/beauty/intellect etc. because these are God given gifts and it is not always within an individual’s capabilities to be the strongest, prettiest, smartest individual within a group. Rather, Judaism stresses utilizing those God given gifts to the limit of one’s ‘potential’.

One Rabbinical expert goes on to say: “A person may not be that intelligent, but if he utilizes his intelligence to the utmost limit of his capabilities – he is deemed to have reached perfection. Whereas the individual with far superior intelligence, who has authored many scholarly works, if his potential was even greater than that, and he could have pushed himself to the limit of his capability to become an even better person, he is deemed a less perfect person than the other fellow who did indeed utilize his capabilities to its fullest.” Hence, in Jewish culture it is often said: “do what your passion in life asks of you, but do your best and try to be the best if you can”. The renown accomplishments of Jewish achievers can readily be cited in any field: mathematics, literature, music, art, science, engineering, media, and commerce. This does not denote or suggest an inherently smarter or more biologically gifted ethnic group. What it underscores is their grand tradition of honoring and practicing the virtue of excellence within the scope of the individual’s potential. Hence, in the Judaic visualization of excellence, the challenge to achieve is not out of anyone’s reach since what it asks is for each one to be the best one can be.

While both the Western (Greek) and Jewish cultures strive for perfection, the not-so-subtle difference between the two cultures is telling. This difference should be a real consideration when Latino movers and shakers clamor or call for more achievement-oriented action among the Latino community. This is especially indispensable when seeking scholastic or secondary school and college completion. More importantly, the Latino community should ensure that ‘excellence’ translates into being the best each one can be, instead of chasing a model of perfection that emulates the idea of ideal perfection outside of what is possible. The pragmatism of demanding excellence in doing everything within one’s potential in daily activities should be part of the daily mind-set as well as the mantra.

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Tags: Education · Seneca

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chicano future tense // Aug 30, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Thanks Sr Senecea for throwing out this question of excellence.
    The question of excellence as it relates to Latino culture is a complex one.
    While it is true that Ancient Greek and Jewish cultures have had to a certain extent shaped and formed Latino culture,I would say that such an effect has been more indirectly imposed on Latino culture through the domination and conquest of European civilization and now currently American culture,through which they were focused.
    Speaking of ancient Greek and Jewish culturesWe must not forget that Ancient Greek and Jewish cultures also based their concepts of excellence on warfare and upon conquest of alien cultures and civilizations,which included slavery ,genocide and colonization (just read through the Old Testament in the Bible).
    The Native Americans, and their descendents the Latino peoples were on the receiving end of so called Western Civilization’s excellence,that is,their domination,slavery and genocide whose legacy continues down to present times.Our school history books have strove to indoctrinate all Latino kids into glorification and worship of Western European civilization.This has had a major role in destroying Latino minds,creating a deep sense of inferiority in the Latino psyche.They have pounded into our heads since childhood..”white means excellence,brown means worthlessness”.
    For hundreds of millions of Latinos, even more so than Ancient Greek or Jewish culture, Native American Culture has had a deeper and more profound effect on psyches and culture. Just go to Mexico and you can see the tangible roots and genesis of Mexican culture. The original Native civilizations,which were many, were spread out all over the Americas all the way from Alaska down to the Tierra del Fuego tip of South America.Native American blood runs deep in Latino culture and personality.
    Most Latinos,with the exception of white Latino elitists who identify almost exclusively with European culture,are the victims of Western European notions of “excellence”.
    Such Western European excellence resulted in unimaginable brutality,suffering and cruelty to our ancestors.
    Also, it would be negligent to omit the catastrophic effect the western European economic system Capitalism has had in shaping and molding our history.Capitalism demands “excellence”,that is competition and profits over people,this means war and imperialism for profits,markets and natural recources mainly at the expense black,brown,yellow and red peoples around the world.This is also their standard of “excellence”.
    Latinos are still struggling to overcome the “excellence” of Western European civilization.Latinos still struggle to survive and resist racism,oppersion and xenophobia,trying to survive the most excellent Capitalist system which still has them down at the bottom to exploited for profits and treated like expendable second and third class citizens.
    Latino excellence will be found,one day it will triumph like the Fiery Phoenix shall rise from the fire and ashes and destroy Capitalism which enslaved and exploited their ancestors and now themselves.If Latinos take the road of trying “out capitalist” whites in Capitalism they will surely and most definitively be beaten and defeated badly.Furthermore that course would result in the deepening and strengthening of oppression,exploitation of Latino people.Such a road would set back Latino advancement for many generations.
    Our Latino excellence shall NOT be found not in how big a corporation we have or how much profit we make off exploiting our own people,or how we can further control and exploitation over other Latinos.
    Ultimately,Latino excellence can only be realized in destroying Capitalism changing history forever,through struggle and fighting back our excellence will be in bringing about self-determination,freedom and justice.

  • 2 Latinos and Excellence | Chicano future tense // Aug 30, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    [...] Latino Politics Blog [...]

  • 3 india blanca // Aug 31, 2010 at 5:33 am

    Chicano future tense: If Latinos are victims of white western European civilization then why call ourselves Latinos when the first to use to describe their culture and language ‘Latino” were the second western civilization: the Romans. I think we have to be careful to label the West as the only capitalist and imperialist enslavers. If you take a historic look the Tlaxcala tribe made league with Cortez to get rid of the dominant and enslaving Aztecs. The Korean ‘yellow’ people for centuries have resented and feared the ‘yellow’ oppressors the Japanese. The South-East Asians have traditionally feared the dominant Chinese. The Afghans have feared the Persians, Ghengis Khan, the Chinese, and the other Central Asians. And the Africans feared the neighboring dominant black tribes.
    Moreover, if you stop to ask yourself where has capitalism flourished best in the last part of the last century and this 21 century you might realize that it has been in ‘yellow’ communist China and the Ancient Asia Pacific Basin, not in Latin America in spite of its often venal and corrupt Western white elites. For 500 years the West European white civilization was dominant because technology allowed them to have global reach. Susan Sontag vividly noted over 40 years ago, that white civilization has been the cancer of all civilizations because everywhere it went, like the ravenous white corpuscle (leukemia), it destroyed the non-white ones. Domination, subjugation, genocide, imperialism, racism and exploitation are certainly characteristic of the white West but not exclusively. In every corner of our planet, the murder and plunder of human kind has continuously manifested itself across the ages as greed, domination, and lust for power. The West has been most egregious because of its technical capacity.
    However, I must agree that excellence among Latinos has indeed been complex, perhaps because it raises the perennial identity issue that our mestizaje has brought upon us. Yet, in the end I agree with Seneca. Excellence could be demystified if only we were to think of it as pushing ourselves to be the best we could be, each one of us, by identifying our own talents and developing them to the best of our own possibilities. Unfortunately, there will always be reasons to deny ourselves the right to hone our skills and develop our potential if we allow ourselves to simply view ourselves as victims of our ancestry.

  • 4 webmaster // Aug 31, 2010 at 10:37 am

    “Excellence could be demystified if only we were to think of it as pushing ourselves to be the best we could be, each one of us, by identifying our own talents and developing them to the best of our own possibilities. Unfortunately, there will always be reasons to deny ourselves the right to hone our skills and develop our potential if we allow ourselves to simply view ourselves as victims of our ancestry.”

    I agree w/ this from India Blanca. The reality is that we live in a capitalist system, where corporate interests reign supreme. We can try the best we can and work smarter, but I don’t see us moving towards overthrowing this way of “doing business.”

    I think that Seneca is reminding us that we should pursue excellence in all that we do. Too often, I see many in our community play the “victim card” and of course, in many ways, we have been victimized, but there comes a point where we demand excellence from ourselves. And this means that we make a concerted effort to advance ourselves without waiting for X,Y, or Z to do it for us. For instance, our academic achievement levels (or lack thereof) can be tackled within our families and homes in part by demanding excellence.

  • 5 Chicano future tense // Aug 31, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Thank you LPB for responding to some of the points made in my post!
    I think it’s great we have a lively and sincere exchange of view points.Such an exchange brings out a range of opinions and helps illustrate and highlight the spectrum of political views currently held by Latinos in our society.

    It is a good thing for people to read,analyze and consider different points of view and the respective paths for change they believe in.
    This way Latinos can consider which views for them more accurately reflect reality and which ones applied would be the most effective road for change:getting rid of racism and xenophobia as well as social,political and economic injustice..
    The Blogosphere is relatively new means of social communication.
    It, much more so than the MSM,has great potential for reaching millions of people out there seeking knowledge and alternative viewpoints.
    Let us hope the Internet remains free from government or corporate control and censorship.
    The Internet is a vital artery for Latino news,views,communication and knowledge.
    We must do our best to keep the Internet free!
    This is Democracy in action!

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