Trying Harder to Realize the Dream

Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I had some thoughts on the struggle, against long odds, to see America live out the true meaning of its creed.

Two weeks ago our principal spoke about the state tests in math and English. Our views on testing are well known, arising from many years of experience and reflection.  if you want you can read more here.

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Being practical, parents asked Ellen what they can do to support their children on these tests. Her response could seem obvious or simplistic but it’s actually quite profound: Tell them to do their best work. Not just on this test, but every day.

This is what we should all do, in all our endeavors. Of course this is hard, so we look for short cuts. We imagine there is a solution for sale –  tutoring or a pill. Like the answer to “how do I get Carnegie Hall?” success comes from “practice, practice, practice.”

The tension between knowing we should always try to do our best and the desire for an easy out is universal and long-standing.

In the 6th century BCE Aesop told of the fox and the grapes. After leaping unsuccessfully at the fruit for a while, the fox gives up, deciding that the grapes were sour anyway. Not worth the effort.  

Less well known is the story of an 18th century Rabbi, Zusha, who was thought especially righteous. Nearing death he cried uncontrollably. His students “tried to comfort him by telling him that he was almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham, so he was sure to be judged positively. He replied, When I get to Heaven, I will not be asked Why weren't you like Moses, or Why weren't you like Abraham. They will ask, Why weren't you like Zusha?" Why didn't he fully live up to his own potential?

Closer to our time, professor Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit, writes about her daughter Amanda’s piano practice. She asked why she should practice so hard: “It not like I’m going to be Mozart,” she says.

“You’re not practicing to become Mozart,” she responded. You’re practicing to do your best.”  Which, if you think about it is a lot more profound, and more of a struggle.

I wrote previously about Duckworth’s book, which introduced me to Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher. He thought deeply about the human struggle for meaning. In Human, All Too Human he wrote “When something is perfect, we tend to neglect to ask about its evolution, delighting rather in what is present, as if it had risen from the ground by magic.” To succeed Nietzsche believes, we must act like craftsmen:

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became ‘geniuses’ (as we put it). . . . They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it, because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole.” 

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In Melbourne this weekend American tennis player Francis Tiafoe upset his opponent in the Australian Open. The victory came after a string of defeats to lower-ranked players. Tiafoe realized, his coach told the New York Times, that “talent is not enough to get you where you want to be. You’ve got to turn up for every single point. You have got to want it, and want it bad.”

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. You (and we) want ICS to be a place of joy, of making friends, of having fun. And our staff and your kids make that happen often, naturally.

But in the end our primary purpose is to impart knowledge, to convey the gifts and discoveries of our predecessors to the next generation, to help your children become more capable and thoughtful. To carry on the work of perfecting our far too imperfect Union.

Dr. King's legacy does not require us to be as smart, eloquent, brave, or motivated as he was. But it does mean doing our best work. Every day. Taking pride in each step on our journey. Test or no test.