Just do your best.
This is probably the most common advice parents, teachers and counselors give to children. No one is perfect, let’s remind them, and all we can ask for is that they do their best and do their best. But do we really mean it? And, nowadays, is their best enough?
This year’s AP English Language & Composition exam open-ended question asked high school students to consider the value of striving for perfection. As writer and teacher Carol Jago noted, this is a totally appropriate question for perfectionist and highly motivated Gen Z kids who take advanced placement courses, which are college-level courses taken at high school. As an English teacher and writer, I thought about how I might approach such an essay, as it looks quite interesting on the surface, but it might also be difficult to delve deeper into the subject. And what is the correct answer or the perfect answer?
I think I would start by addressing the connotation of the word “strive”. Certainly, we could argue that no one ever really seeks mediocrity, although even that is up for debate. We all need to consider what results we are willing to accept, as well as how much effort and at what cost we are willing to pursue levels of achievement. Years ago when I was in graduate school I remember a 300- or 400-level course that several of my cohort classmates took with more undergraduates. . We were shocked and a little upset to hear the subclasses say things like “I only need a ‘C’ in the class” or “I only take pass / fail because I have just need credit. This approach certainly compromised and diminished any sort of “effort” they were going to engage in.
And, of course, the literal definition and varying interpretations of “perfection” are also important to consider when answering the College Board’s question. We’ve all heard the advice to “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and whatever the task, we have to come to terms with some degree of imperfection. Right? Obviously, I don’t want anything less than perfect from a doctor operating on me, although I also have to admit the issue of the nuance of it all. For students and their expectations for success, we must recognize that a high score of an “A” in class or a “5” on the AP exam does not necessarily mean 100% perfection in the exams. answers to questions. In fact, from a percentage angle, the difference between an “A” rating of 90% can be quite different from perfect or flawless. Even so-called “perfect scores” on the ACT or SAT actually allow for missed questions.
Robert Fulghum, the famous writer of quirky essays on “unusual thoughts on common things,” once told the story of a troubled man who went to his rabbi because he felt like his life was a failure. The rabbi told him to go to the library and read page 930 of the New York Times Almanac, where he would find peace of mind. What the man found there was a list of Hall of Fame slugger Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average. It was 0.376. When the man returned to the rabbi in disbelief at the random anecdotes, the rabbi noted that the greatest hitter of all time only hit the ball three out of ten times.
In sport, we know that 100% is rarely, if ever, the bar for perfection. Coaches and advisers love to remind people that if you can hit the ball one in three times with sticks in the big leagues, you will likely be an All Star. In baseball, they even use the term to describe a masterful performance of a dominant pitcher in the sense that a “perfect play” is a play where no hits or walks are allowed by a single pitcher. But that doesn’t mean the opposing team hasn’t hit the ball at all. And is it more perfect for the pitcher to strike out every batter or throw fewer pitches but allow contact that is well aligned by his teammates for the outs? These are unanswered questions.
Perfection is then always elusive, although it remains a noble goal but ultimately inaccessible. So all anyone can really ask is that we do our best.
Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator and school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at [email protected]