Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Should Our Kids Strive for Perfection?

The open-argument free response question on this year's in-person paper/pencil exam for AP English Lang & Comp asked students to consider the value of striving for perfection. As writer and teacher Carol Jago noted, it is quite an apt question for this generation of driven perfectionist kids. And I've been pondering how I might approach such an essay, for it seems fairly interesting on the surface level, but could also be challenging to really go deep on the topic.

I think I might begin by addressing the connotation of the word "striving." Certainly, we might concede that no one really every strives for mediocrity, though even that might be up for debate. All of us have to consider what 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 connotations or 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. Even so-called "perfect scores" on the ACT or SAT actually allow for some missed questions.

In sports, we know that 100% is rarely if ever the bar for perfection. For example, life coaches and counselors are fond of reminding people that if you can hit the ball three times out of every ten 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 few pitches but allow contact which is smoothly fielded by his teammates for outs? It's an unanswerable question. Hall of Fame basketball stars don't make every shot or win every game. Perfection in that regard is always elusive.

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