A couple of years ago, I received a post-semester email from a student’s father. He was upset about his child’s final grade in my class, which had landed somewhere between a high B and a low A.
The grade was clearly not very low, but the student’s father wanted me to reconsider. Apparently, a specific assignment’s less-than-perfect score had kept his son from making the honor roll.
I explained to him the propriety of the assignment’s low mark, but he was not convinced. In the end, I did not change the grade. The student’s father was furious.
This situation is symptomatic of something more serious than the mere annoyance of a difficult parent-teacher exchange. In fact, it points to a cultural intolerance of imperfection: There is no room for mistakes either on a personal level or a societal one. My student was not allowed a moment of weakness. It was not possible that he had performed less than perfectly.
It would be unrealistic to cite just one cause of our culture’s intolerance of error. Like most events in history, many factors have played a part. Nevertheless, it might be useful to consider how one major modern philosophical theory has contributed to our cultural aversion to mistakes.
In Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes developed an anthropological theory known as Cartesian dualism. This theory states that the human mind and body are made of two separate substances: mind and matter. Thus, man’s nature is divided into two separate but unequal parts. The mind is the dominant substance, and according to Descartes, of the two substances, the mind is the one that exists beyond any doubt. Its reality is proven by the very act of thinking.
The existence of matter (including our bodies) is proven indirectly through the senses via the mind. In other words, I know my mind is real because I am thinking with it, but my body’s existence is merely possible as the most likely cause of my mind’s sensory perceptions.
But how has Cartesian dualism contributed to our current intolerance of imperfection?
Ever since Cartesian dualism was first proposed, philosophers have debated its plausibility. Though some have insisted that everything in and around us is simply matter (the workings of the mind are all chemical and neurological in nature), belief in the ultimate power of the mind over matter persists.
This cultural belief is clear in the current push for transgenderism. The idea that a man might actually be a woman (or vice versa) is accepted solely on the grounds of an individual’s self-perception. A man claims to identify as a woman.
It is, allegedly, mind over matter, but the implication goes further. If a man can think himself into womanhood, then the mind has the power to dictate reality. And if the mind can dictate reality, then the mind cannot be wrong. Whatever a mind conceives is true for that mind. This, I believe, is an inevitable consequence of the mind-body dualism proposed by Descartes.
It’s not difficult, then, to understand the current climate of intolerance of imperfection. After all, mistakes are impossible for a mind that can make subjective claims about reality and label them objective.
Though a student who performs less than ideally at school should face the choices he made, it’s easier to believe that a teacher, school system, or society misunderstands the way the student’s mind works. His belief supersedes the evidence of the grades. It allows him to be free from error.
The irony is that the student is not free. Neither is a society that demands perfection from its members. A culture that does not allow itself to admit being wrong, even about major moral issues, is a culture populated by prisoners of ideologies, concepts, and theories.
Making mistakes is necessary for wisdom and growth. A community that wants to flourish must pay attention to its mistakes. It must raise questions about the limits of the mind’s power over matter. A healthy society accepts that it has committed errors, contemplates how they came about, and acts humbly according to the facts.
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