I spent a great deal of last summer thinking about perfection, questioning its existence, and maybe even pondering the degree to which something can be “perfect” or the different ways that something can be “perfect.” Although, I suppose if there were degrees of perfection–if there were rating scales so that we could compare the relative perfection of one thing to another–that would imply that neither truly was perfect to begin with.
In our study of The Giver, we have discussed this utopian society, this society that has put countless rules into place, taken away choice, glorified calculation, and worshipped probability, all in an effort to ensure no one feels pain, no one feels uncertainty, and that everyone leads a peaceful and rule-abiding life until they are “released.” But what my students and I figured out is that, even within this society of preventing pain and struggle, there are still a great deal of imperfections. In fact, it’s contradictory in nature, as with every detail that this society tries to fix, they end up creating more problems for themselves. They remove freedoms, keep secrets from their constituency, and become an ignorantly blissful totalitarian state where the person himself does not matter; rather, the sense of constancy and peace is of the highest priority.
And there are some good things about this, too. Clearly, the intentions started in a good place. The goal of achieving perfection is so that these people never had to feel pain. The goal of reaching any utopia, for that matter, is so that fear is relinquished and that the other behaviors that fear may produce (i.e., aggression, sadness) may be avoided. The ironic thing about it all is that, when we try to reach this sense of perfection–when we try to form our own versions of utopia–we find ourselves trying to control more. We find ourselves trying to assuage our fears through control, calculation, conformity, and standardization. Sound familiar?
I think the intentions of the No Child Left Behind Act were good. I really do. People in this country identified a problem in our country–failing schools, but when this problem was identified, fear became rampant. People suddenly realized that we were “no longer the best,” even though I’m unsure if we ever were “the best” in the first place. This fear consumed our nation’s leaders, which trickled down into the local governments, eventually reaching the constituency. And how did we respond? We, as a society, responded by enforcing a utopian ideal–that all students must be at the same place, at the same time, each and every year.
Well, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of creepy. That’s because it is. But it’s important to note that I’m not advocating against things like standards or the Common Core. In fact, I am a very vocal advocate of the Common Core. I like having a guideline as to what the average student should know and be able to do in certain grades, but not so that we can place all children into a standardized mold; rather, I like the idea of standards because it gives me an idea of what students can do at their respective stages of development, and I also like to believe that it promotes equity between states and towns. What I don’t like is our vehement knee-jerk reaction when students do not reach these standards within any given year.
In fact, we react similarly to what I’ve already stated. We become afraid. We then go into all of our students’ data, nitpick ourselves and our instruction, and provide more “research-based” and “data-driven” interventions, in which students read and write manufactured pieces, void of all substance and authenticity, only exacerbating the problems that we already had. You see, in our effort to achieve educational perfection, in our effort to find ways to make sure that 100% of our students are achieving to the same level, we create more problems for ourselves, we create more problems for our students, and we ironically slide further away from this educational utopian ideal that is wholly unrealistic and unattainable.
This isn’t what education is supposed to be. Education is supposed to be the pathway to freedom, the pathway to equality and democratic ideals, the road down which students can find themselves and their individuality. It’s not supposed to be the pathway to conformity. But if you really think about it, this is how our country has been functioning for quite some time, for much longer than the time period that has elapsed since the No Child Left Behind Act.
The American Dream
The American Dream is a utopian ideal, too. Move to the land of opportunity, find a great job, make a lot of money, and “be happy” with your family. It sounds great, and it’s certainly something to which we can all aspire, but it’s just like the utopian community in The Giver: It’s a farse, an unreachable goal, an aspiration. This idea of the American Dream never was, never is, and never will be fully attainable. And here’s why.
Reaching the “American Dream”–or this level of perceived perfection–requires goals, checkpoints, and steps along the way in order to reach “achievement.” And so that’s what we do. We set checkpoints for ourselves, assess them along the way, and evaluate our success or lack thereof based on the achievement of these goals. We determine we’ve succeeded when we meet them, and that we’ve not succeeded when we don’t. So what do we do from there? We set more goals, and this process of goal setting and assessment continues and continues until the day we die. We continue to strive for better, and the “best” we can ever hope to achieve will only come through the self-analysis we undergo when we reflect on our lives immediately prior to death.
While I like to set goals, while I want to achieve, and while I’d love to eventually make it to my own version of my perceived perfection–my utopia, my dream–I don’t want to wait to feel the sense of euphoria that people believe comes with reaching our own versions of utopia.
You see, we all have our own versions of utopia, our own versions of perfection that we will never achieve, but we refuse to believe that these utopias are unachievable. This makes us afraid, this makes us panic, and so we modify, we control, and we relentlessly try to achieve perfection. But in the end, this need to control only came from a fear of failing in the first place–a fear of imperfection, a fear of what could happen should we not be anticipating what’s around the corner. It hangs over our head, resides on our shoulders, weighing down our progress, holding us back when the original intention behind setting all of these goals was to move forward.
But let’s say, hypothetically, we reach one of these goals. Euphoria sets in, and we feel an abundant sense of elation that perks our ears and boosts our adrenaline, motivating us even more so. We so rarely reach this preconceived notion of what our utopia might be, but because we’ve gotten a taste of it, we set our sights on the next utopia, thirsty for more progress, an even heightened sense of perfection, an even more exaggerated version of our could-bes, would-bes, or want-to-bes. But by striving for a heightened sense of perfection, we realize, in turn, that nothing was ever perfect in the first place. What’s more, we realize that maybe, just maybe, it never will be either.
In essence, by striving for perfection, by constantly reaching towards our own versions of utopia, we only strive for an unrelenting eternity of dissatisfaction, but by accepting reality and making the truth of these realities our utopias, we accept happiness, presence, and a sense of satisfaction into our lives.
I’m no longer going to wait for utopia, I’m no longer going to work towards it; instead, I’m going to work on acceptance of reality, appreciation of all truths, both pleasing and undesirable, in order to appreciate the imperfect and complex world that lies before me.