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Is the pursuit of excellence harmful?

Certain concepts are so ingrained in the American character that we rarely question them. Among them is the idea that we’re tops in everything. We’re “the greatest country in the world.”

But the truth is that, in many ways, we’re far from the greatest. When it comes to education, for example, we’re average at best.

The real leader in education is Finland, which boasts students who have “some of the highest test scores in the world” and make American kids look like drooling simpletons by comparison. Of course, the xenophobe is quick to point out that Scandinavia doesn’t have as many immigrants or pesky ethnic minorities as the USA. That must be why their school kids do well.

The only problem with this, besides its inherent racism, is that “the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education.”

So what’s their secret? How do they wallop us — the good old red, white, and blue — in head-to-head competition? Perhaps it’s because they have no interest in competing in the first place. As The Atlantic points out, “the Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.”

In essence, the Finns try to keep the playing field level for their children. Cooperation is more important than winning, and their goal is to educate “not just some of its population well, but all of its population well.” Consider that “there are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland,” as opposed to America, which is obsessed with snaring private tutors and getting its little darlings into the most prestigious academies.

Naturally, those students who grow up in low-income areas or without top-flight teachers are at a disadvantage. But I guess that means they’ll just have to try harder, right? Such thinking is anathema in Scandinavia, where “education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”

Now some will proclaim that this is socialism. Perhaps they are scared that an egalitarian approach to education is apparently more effective and “more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.” In fact, one could argue that “the problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society.”

And speaking of ethnicity, keep in mind that Latinos perpetually lag behind other ethnic groups when it comes to educational achievement. Could one reason for this be that American culture has no interest in lifting up these kids, who are often at a socioeconomic disadvantage? Doing so would appear to undermine the sacrosanct principle of competition.

If that’s the way the game is set up, then those who have a head start are, of course, always going to win. And all the competitive striving in the world isn’t going to change that.


About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


  1. Hector Luis Alamo, Jr. says:

    Any non-Latino who says Latinos settle for mediocrity has been sold a lie about Latinos; any Latino who says the same has been sold a lie about themselves.

  2. Ghaladhriel says:

    Latinos have a choice, to excel in education or do poorly. It is what they choose to do that affects their future. Many have access to better education (even more if their school is doing poorly.) Some choose to lay the blame on others and because they only see the negative in things, the outcome is negative. While others see the negative and it powers them to turn it around and do beyond great. In the end it’s what our parents teach us that will affect the outcome. Some care, some don’t and in the end it’s all their own fault, no one else’s. I can sit here and whine about how my kids school is the crappiest and how it cripples its education. Or I can get up and move heaven and earth to give my child a better education, to excel in life and give back to the community. I say we need to take advantage of all the opportunities we do have here (because there are many after all) and stop complaining about how we are being opressed by others… I mean, how long will that last?

  3. Excellence should always be a goal are you kidding me? The latino community accepts mediocrity? ????? Come on,Everyone should strive for excellence,academically and physically, Ex Jeremy Lin! !!!

  4. …just a niggling point. While immigration may have doubled, that isn’t a very important “doubling” since the vast majority of Finns are still ethnic Finns…unlike the USA where we’re fast approaching a population of which almost half are recent immigrants or first generation residents and that does create some “problems.”

    The Finnish model is interesting to look at but hard to transfer their factors into the American model.

  5. Though the “Best Of” lists are ridiculous, they certainly are not the cause of decline in the United States education system. I don’t know anything about the educational system in Finland and therefore am not able to comment as to its productivity. However, I can say that regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic, or immigration status, if students, parents, policy makers, and educators embraced and lived an attitude of excellence, we would be the measure by which other coutries are evaluated, instad of us trying to keep up with the rest of the world.

  6. Is the pursuit of excellence harmful? Tell that to the tens of thousands of Chinese-American and Indian-American parents who instill the pursuit of excellence and whose children excel, as opposed to Hispanic culture, sadly, where education is shunned and almost frowned upon.

  7. The article states the following about Latinos in America concerning education: “Could one reason for this be that American culture has no interest in lifting up these kids, who are often at a socioeconomic disadvantage?”

    There might be some truth to that, but there has also been a lot of conspiracy theory in the perceptions of Latinos “the powers that be” in America, according to generations of socialist indoctrinated Blacks and Latinos, (the powers that be: white conservative Republican heterosexual Christian males) are out to get brown people by not allowing poor brown kids a quality education amongst other things. I think that’s a load of garbage. If anything the whole of America has been dumbed down academically to the point where yes, nations like Finland, China, and India are going to overpower this great and exceptional nation we call the United States. And keep in mind that the educational industry and academia in this country is not run or financed by the alleged bad guy white conservative Republican heterosexual Christian males “power that be” types. Instead in America, (similar to the media) education is directed by urban elitist progressive socialist public school oriented teachers unions and a liberal / leftist baby boomer professoriate in “higher” education.

    If anything, one should be blaming them, the liberal teachers and unions of any academic failures within the Latino community as well as America’s educational shortcomings as a whole – where kids today don’t know anything about American history, where knowledge of geography is nonexistent, and where political correctness has superseded the classical basics like reading, writing, arithmetic, and civics, and instead they have been inundated with Obama worship and Democratic party reverence, one sided anti Western multiculturalism, anti male feminist indoctrination, showing of condoms on bananas, Ebonics, supposed gay role models, and anti American Latino revolutionaries amongst other things.

    Sometimes Latinos are their own worst enemies when it comes to education and the betterment of their lives, even when they go around blaming others like whites or conservatives for their cultural and educational dysfunctions! That takes lots of cojones to do that – but they do it all the time! I never stop hearing a lot of envious Latinos criticize those Latinos that have chosen a path of education as Tio Thomas or trying to be white. Yet those envious Latinos are the first ones to complain when things don’t go so well for them financially or academically!

  8. Mario, you take it too far. Enough with the “blaming others” meme. It’s getting old and it ignores other factors. I know Latinos who don’t blame others AT ALL for their plight; they are just LAZY BASTARDS WHO DON’T APPLY THEMSELVES. And OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS who are EXACTLY THE SAME. Try the white people of Appalachia, for example. Isn’t that enough? Why go all out and start condemning Democrats and Obama? Why do you have to go all KKK on us?

  9. Finland

  10. Costa Rica

  11. lol @ costa rica


  1. […] I wrote that American education pales in comparison to other countries’ school systems. But America is still the place for those hardworking, […]

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