UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Is perfection the goal?

Just do your best. 

That’s probably the most common advice parents, teachers, and counselors give to kids. Nobody’s perfect, we remind them, and all we can ask is that they try hard and give their best effort. But do we really mean that? And, in this day and age, is their best enough?

The free response question on this year’s AP English Language & Composition exam asked high school students to consider the value of striving for perfection. As writer and teacher Carol Jago noted, it is quite an appropriate question for the highly-driven, perfectionist kids of Generation Z who take Advanced Placement classes, which are college level courses taken in high school. As an English teacher and writer, I’ve been pondering how I might approach such an essay, for it seems fairly interesting on the surface, but could also be challenging to really go deep on the topic. And just what is the right, or perfect, answer?

I think I’d begin by addressing the connotation of the word “striving.” Certainly, we might argue that no one ever really strives for mediocrity, though even that might be up for debate. All of us have to consider what results we’re 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 grad school, I recall a 300 or 400 level class that several of my cohort classmates took together along with a larger number of undergrads. We were shocked and a little miffed to hear the underclassmen say things like, “I only need a ‘C’ in the class,” or “I’m only taking it pass/fail because I just need credit.” That approach certainly compromised and diminished any sort of “striving” they were going to engage in.

And, of course, the literal definition and varied interpretations of “perfection” are also important to consider in answering College Board’s question. We’ve all heard the advice to “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and no matter the task, we must accept some degree of imperfection. Right? Obviously, I don’t want anything less than perfect from a doctor who is operating on me, though I must also concede the problem of just how nuanced that is. For students and their expectations of achievement, we should acknowledge that a top score of an ‘A’ in class or a ‘5’ on the AP exam doesn’t necessarily mean 100% perfection in answering questions. In fact, from a percentage angle, the difference between an ‘A’ grade of 90% can be quite different from perfect or flawless. Even so-called “perfect scores” on the ACT or SAT actually allow for some missed questions.

Robert Fulghum, the famous writer of quirky essays about “uncommon thoughts on common things,” once told the story of a troubled man who went to see 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 listing for the lifetime batting average of Hall of Fame slugger Ty Cobb. It was .376. When the man returned to the rabbi, incredulous at the random trivia, the rabbi noted that the greatest hitter of all time only hit the ball three times out of ten.

In sports, we know that 100% is rarely if ever the bar for perfection. Coaches and counselors are fond of reminding people that if you can hit the ball one time in every three at bats in the major leagues, you are likely going to be an All Star. In baseball they even use the term to describe a masterful dominant pitching performance in that a “perfect game” is one where no hits or walks are allowed by a single pitcher. But that doesn’t mean the opposing team didn’t hit the ball at all. And is it more perfect for the pitcher to strike every batter out or to throw fewer pitches but allow contact which is smoothly fielded by his teammates for outs? These are unanswerable questions. 

Perfection is then always elusive, though still a noble if ultimately unreachable goal. So, all anyone can ever really ask is that we do our best.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com