Demanding Redefined Greatness

By Jordan Soffer

As he reflected on his much-revered seminal work, Abraham Maslow should have been overcome with pride. In 1943 he designed the Hierarchy of Needs, which quickly became essential to any conversation about human development. Its design is enduring and continues to be venerated today. In it he organizes and elucidates all human needs, arranging them from the most fundamental to the most meta. Atop the pyramid rests self-actualization (SA), which he defined as reaching one’s full potential, a subjective though not arbitrary aspiration. It is only achievable once one has mastered all the previous levels and involves identifying and actualizing one’s most innate desire.

During this reflection, however, Maslow felt unsatisfied. He came to believe that what he had initially envisioned as the pinnacle of human need, SA, was in actuality secondary. Self-transcendence (ST), the connection to something beyond oneself actually rests precariously atop his influential pyramid. Scholars debate whether he understood this to be a new category on its own, or a part of self-actualization, but in either case he recognized the human need to move beyond one’s self.

Half a century later Martin Seligman went through a similar process of reflection. His 2002 book, Authentic Happiness, quickly became essential to any conversation about human development, and he became known as the father of Positive Psychology. As he reflected on his revered seminal work, he too should have been overcome with pride.

Seligman, like Maslow before him, however, felt unsatisfied.

What Seligman had initially identified as the ultimate path towards a successful life felt inadequate. “I used to think that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction […] I now think that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.” Happiness, he contends, overemphasizes a “cheery mood.” Flourishing, on the other hand, goes beyond our mood and focuses on who we truly are.

Both of these thinkers constructed innovative models of human development. Their ideas were instantly popular, and their influence was enduring. Nonetheless, both realized that their ideas were incomplete; their original constructs were insufficient. They both amended their original models to leave space for a stage of development that moves beyond the moment and beyond the self. They did not recreate their models, but they expanded them, insisting on a shift towards transcendence.

It is my fear that education can become stuck in the initial version of these theories. We, as educators, may place a premium on SA to the detriment of self-transcendence. SA and ST are not inherently mutually exclusive; on the contrary, Maslow would contend that transcendence is untenable without first achieving actualization. Nonetheless, an over-emphasis on SA, often defined by Seligman’s initial theory (what puts us in a “cheery mood”) is woefully inadequate, and frankly unbecoming of students of Torah. We can and should expect more.

As the rhythm of the Jewish calendar transitions from a month of self-pity (Av) towards a month of self-assessment (Elul), Jewish schools should follow a similar path. As a teacher, a counselor, and as a student, I have been incredibly fortunate to be a part of schools and organizations that have internalized this message and the difference is palpable. The concern quickly shifts from one of greatness as defined in traditional tems (class size, placements, etc.), to one of greatness as defined more innovatively (impact, advocacy, empowerment etc.). Although demographic challenges are threatening, challenges of relevance and resonance are more fundamental and more profound. If our schools do not strive for individual and collective flourishing and self-transcendence, our problem will not be in the number of our graduates but in the impact of those graduating. We must demand greatness, but can no longer settle for its traditional interpretation. So long as we continue to gauge our success by the quantity of students in our Kindergarten rather than the ethical quality of graduates, we will remain trapped in a cycle of mediocrity. We must aspire for more.

Maslow initially wrote “What a man can be, he must be.” He never disassociated himself from this idea, and yet he also never felt trapped by it. He realized that one can go beyond that and began to teach that what humanity can be, we must be. This aspiration is the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity for today’s schools.

Jordan Soffer is Rabbi-in-Residence at Carmel Academy in Greenwhich Ct.