The infinity standard will be familiar to anyone who is interested in doing good in their work. It goes something like this. 1.) In the work of doing good, effort causes good. 2.) All possible good should be done, and 3.) all foregone effort is foregone good. 4.) In principle, there is no condition one can be in where slightly more effort is not possible. 5.) With infinite effort, infinite good can be done. 6.) Therefore, infinity is the standard. Anything short is deplorable dereliction.
Usually when outsiders have helpful thoughts for folks in the good-doing activities, they have something like this model in mind, stopping at 4 and not thinking it through to the apparent conclusion at 6. So the infinity standard may not be immediately visible in these interactions. Each suggestion is just one more little thing, one slight retool, what’s the big deal? Responsible do-gooders have generally thought or at least felt it through to 6, but like the Helpy Helpertons miss the real conclusion at 7, this is an absurdity, until it’s too late. Making do-gooders feel guilty that they’re not doing enough or that they’re doing it wrong is like shooting ducks in a bucket. In the short run it can even get more effort out of them.
Rachel and I talk a lot about things I could do to improve my teaching. She’s on board with course blogs, for example, as I probably will be before too long. It can be exciting to add new tricks to the bag, as I regularly do, as long as infinity isn’t the standard. Rachel herself is a cautionary tale. For a year she worked with at-risk high school students in rural Maine who had been kicked out of every available public school and finally alighted in her chronically underfunded specialized private school. Rachel poured her heart into it and did buckets of good by devoting most of her waking moments to figuring out a whole series of creative ways to engage and enlighten these kids. She found their interests, bonded with them, reimagined the curriculum to leverage their strengths against their weaknesses, and really got through to quite a few of them. One even graduated high school and got a job at Walmart. The rest continued to get pregnant and arrested, but they had a much better general view of their own possibilities as thinking persons.
As a result of this experience Rachel has no particular interest in teaching ever again. Which is really a shame, because she was great at it. But she burnt out, one of two classic outcomes of the infinity standard. The other is bitter disillusionment. We all know some of each.
Nothing makes me see red like the infinity standard. There’s much about how good is done that can and should be changed, sooner preferably, and there’s always more good to be done. But gifted teachers and other do-gooders do not grow on trees, so to eject or degrade them with the infinity standard is shortsighted and self-defeating. This just hits the reset button, as often as not with someone less gifted and responsible. I’m in favor of a more realistic standard and a more sustainable rate of good-delivery. Sometimes, Helpy, it’s not that we’re dragging our feet but that we’re pacing ourselves.