failure (n): a key to success. ‘The idea of building grit and building self-control … you get … through failure, and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.’—Dominic Randolph, Headmaster, Riverdale Country School, New York. ‘Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential’—J. K. Rowling in her commencement address at Harvard.
—from the Didact’s Dictionary
Educators, popular writers, psychologists, and twelve-step programs: all these say that we must work through our rock bottoms, our nadirs, and our difficulties. Yeats adds his poetic testimony in the lines “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.” In the face of what Richard Hofstadter called “the collective experience of the human race,” many schools in the US, and perhaps some universities, are offering the infantilizing alternative that “failure is not an option” and replacing “the fascination of what’s difficult” (Yeats again) with “the menace of what’s difficult.”
From this premise some people question the sense in allowing accomplishment that might entail challenge or danger. I do not mean unreasonable danger; I mean any danger at all. Take as a first example physical danger. An old headmaster of my acquaintance, teaching in the Pre-Cambrian Era, allowed at the school he headed a number of tree houses in the schoolyard. I asked him once whether he was worried what would happen if a student fell out and broke an arm. He said, “No, we would get them a cast and in a few weeks everything would be fine.” Any child allowed in a tree house is enchanted by them, hence their (former) popularity. Any child with a memory of tree houses who reads in The Lord of the Rings about Lórien finds the land’s first enchantment is that its inhabitants live in tree houses.
By contrast I have in mind a friend’s young daughter, who decided she wanted to learn to roller-skate. The poor thing was swathed in shin guards and pads and lumps and braces till she looked lie a mini-Michelin Man as she tottered down the 2% grade in front of her parents’ flat. She never scraped a knee, but what else did she never do because abrasions were not an option?
The second kind of example is academic danger. Here we enter the realm of institutional make-believe, but also a world in which students are warned off intellectual challenges or padded against them. I have written about one American school, which hedged its own IB program with such off-putting warnings as “demanding,” “challenging,” “strict” and “stringent”. But there are programs out there that don’t even offer challenges with the hedging. Hence Poor Vanessa, who aced her high-school math tests without study but found herself foundering in college. And hence university students who read at the 7th-grade level. Failure has not been an option for them either.
Or has it? The New York Times reports a third danger in an upturn in cases of anxiety reported at US universities. One of the main causes is evidently that students who were swathed in protection for twelve years don’t know what to do when the prospect of real, authentic failure appears before them. Sometimes it is not failure: sometimes it is just getting the C that will “shatter” the fantasy prospect of medical school for a student who starts to crumple when assigned five hours of homework a week—not just per course, but in its entirety.
One wise teacher of my acquaintance used to tell his students, “You can pay now, or you can pay later.” The thing about failure suffered early on in relatively supportive conditions is that “paying now,” even when somewhat painful, becomes a part of an education that insures against the worst effects of “paying later”. Students who have been given sixteen years of magic shows instead of education are unlikely to be accepted at medical school, but if they were, what would they do when faced with the Anatomy Lab (to take an early challenge) or their Internship-Residency (to take a later one)? What will flowers raised in a hot house do when the weather gets a bit nippy?