Almost a Huge Hypocrite.
That’s me. Well, it was almost me.
After reading a recent New York Times article on the notion of “smart failure,” I was ready to start next school year by giving each of my students a “Failure Certificate.” After all, if it’s good enough for Smith College students, it’s good enough for my students. I had learned that these days, students at Smith, receive a “Certificate of Failure” which reads:
How great would that be for my students? What a relief it would be, I reasoned, for these high-strung scholars, many with 4 or 5 AP classes and as many extra curricular activities on their docket---to receive permission to fail. "Brilliant!" I thought...until I gave it some more thought.
What’s the snag? Doesn’t it make perfect sense? All the en vogue educational experts these days (Carol Dweck’s Mindset research and Angela Duckworth’s work on Grit) seem to be quantifying this wisdom, wisdom which common sense has long purported, namely that we necessarily learn and grow from failure. In order to grow, we must traverse our comfort zones, which often entails failing in order to acquire the kind of experience and first-hand wisdom that ultimately breeds success. We know this.
So then, what’s the problem? Why won’t I be handing out “Certificates of Failure” this fall?
Because the whole thing reeks of hypocrisy. Would Smith, Harvard, and Stanford students have been accepted into these prestigious schools had they lived by this motto? Would they be Ivy Leaguers today had their parents encouraged them to fail? To experiment? To disregard points and grades and test scores in favor of learning?
Is it the very institutions which have perpetuated the need for perfection the ones now hypocritically offering bandaids and ice cream cones to their bleeding victims? The simple answer: yes. The only reason the solution of embracing failure is needed is because we, as educators, created the problem in the first place. The need to teach the value of failure exists precisely because we have created a high-stakes, grade-obsessed, avoid-failure-at-all-costs educational system to which a student stroll through platitude park is not the panacea.
It should be no surprise that the institutions leading the charge to embrace failure (Smith, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton) are the most competitive universities around. The perfectionism, elitism, and cajolery required for acceptance into these schools are precisely the catalysts for the anxiety, depression, stress, and suicide rates which have necessitated the “fail up” movement.
Is it any wonder that it was Harvard and Stanford faculty who coined the term “failure deprived” to describe the students dotting their campuses “students (who) seemed unable to cope with simple struggles.” Through observing their students, they recognized the need to encourage productive failure, a need which arose directly from the game their students were forced to play in order to receive their highly-coveted acceptance letters.
More than a bit of hypocrisy here.
I was having tea with a parent the other day, the mother of lovely and extremely high achieving students. The expectations in their family are very high and very clear. She, too, had read the New York Times article and was pondering giving her children a copy of the “Certificate of Failure.” And again, I couldn’t help but spot a thick coat of hypocrisy in her words. As a parent who expected 4.0’s, could a “Certificate of Failure,” no matter how well-intended, be given in good faith? As an AP English teacher, could I give my students a “Certificate of Failure” knowing that the reason they are in AP English in the first place is because they (and their families) do not subscribe to a “fail to learn” mentality, and that doing so would have likely precluded them from enrollment?
How many of us share our children’s failures as oft as their successes?
How many of us encourage our children to be artists...for a living?
How many of us encourage our children to learn...without grades in mind?
How many of us encourage our students to do what they love even there’s no spot for it on a resume?
The “fail gracefully” sentiment may be bantered about by administrators, teachers, and parents when they happen across an article in the New York Times, but its opposite is clearly expected on a day-to-day basis.
Perpetuating the “fail well” philosophy is sheer hypocrisy. It’s merely handing out band-aids and ice cream cones while ignoring the perpetual bleeding.
Here’s the real message: Maintain your 4.0, do well on ACT and SAT’s (or take them over repeatedly), do what it takes to get into a good college, land a good job, have a responsible life that ensures your economic stability and reflects well upon the rest of us. We can talk all we want about the value of “failing well,” but when our actions speak the opposite, perhaps its time to stop with the band-aids and ice cream cones.
Let’s call a spade a spade.
Unless we’re willing to change the data-driven, high-stakes testing state of child-rearing and educating of which we’re complicit members, we cannot with clear conscience, talk about handing out “Certificates of Failure.”