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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Are we doing the best we can?

In today’s column I try to come to terms with an assertion I hear often: “Everyone is doing the best they can.” It has troubled me.

My first impulse has been to respond “Really?” Burning our children with cigarettes, abusing them sexually, raping and torturing each other, ordering the incineration of cities, poisoning the land and water for profit — this is the best we can do? God help us.

Then I think, who am I to judge? Perhaps those who do such things have been warped by forces over which they had no control. Walk a mile in their shoes.

For humankind, these questions aren’t merely academic. For teachers, that’s precisely what they are. We must set standards for our students, and periodically we must judge how well they meet those standards. And we know that students, especially in the early grades, tend to live up or down to the expectations their teachers have of them. It’s reasonable to conclude, then, that though we must judge, we shouldn’t presume to judge in advance what a student is capable of.

Further, it’s wrong to view student performance as stop-action, meaning that each performance moment (a test, a paper, a project) defines how well a student can do. Learning is continuous, and a significant component of it is learning from our mistakes. Whether students can get smarter depends on one’s take on intelligence; we know it can vary within a sizable range in the crucial early years of cognitive development depending on childhood experiences. But whatever their intelligence, all kids get more capable over time.

If we turn from intellectual to moral performance, the potential for growth is even more open-ended. We learn how to behave from imitation, from guidance, and from the consequences of our actions. And given the importance of that last instructor, there’s no chronological limit to moral improvement. Indeed, we’re better positioned to make moral advances in our sixties than in our twenties. Intelligence and wisdom aren’t synonymous.

Once a person acts, it’s philosophically tenable to maintain that s/he did the best s/he could. That’s the stop-action view of the matter. But to say that we are all doing the best we can is to say something quite different, because doing is continuous, and over time we can improve.

Usually, however, we can’t improve without help, especially if we’re in a bad place (e.g. a third-grader struggling to read, a chemically-dependent adult, a war-torn nation). The awareness that poor performance is less an individual than a collective failure allows us to reject the fatalism implicit in accepting that we are all doing the best we can, and at the same time prompts us to action, not judgment.

The poor outcomes of a culture that focuses so heavily on the individual and devalues the social and the civic are on display from the White House to the jailhouse. Our prevailing spirit is ungenerous and judgmental. We underfund programs of early childhood health, nutrition and education, then berate individuals who fail and spend $40,000 per year to keep them behind bars. The legislators who behave this way wreak greater havoc than those they imprison.

Were we to make a national commitment to create conditions in which it is easy, not difficult, to succeed, and in the process communicate a high-minded understanding of what human success means, then when we all do our best, it will be very much better than it is now.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.