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Strategic Planning for Goodness

Regardless of what verdict may be returned in the case brought against a former upperclassman of St Paul’s School for raping a freshman, the rector’s public reaction to the case is unsettling. On the one hand, he assures parents and students that the school remains ‘committed, as always, to ensuring our students’ safety and wellbeing [emphasis added].’ On the other, in the face of allegations that the school appears to turn a blind eye to sexual predation in certain circumstances, he says that ‘we could be doing better’ to plan and structure preventives to such things as ‘relational violence’.

‘Relational violence prevention’ is one of the eeriest euphemisms I have heard anyone use in connection with secondary education. It is possible that the rector is merely walking on eggshells, but yet another statement of his suggests a deeper problem. The New York Times reports that he said, ‘[the alleged rape] provides us with an important opportunity to reconsider elements of our shared life that do not appear in our strategic plan.’

Strategic plan? St. Paul’s School is an Episcopal school, or professes to be. The times being what they are, everyone professes need for a ‘strategic plan’, though organically constituted communities can manage without them, as did another Anglican institution, the University of Oxford, in its 19th-Century reform movement. More to the point is the implicit admission that strategic planning is not a be-all and end-all. How anyone could have thought otherwise?

Part of strategic planning is to identify opportunities and threats and to consider what might be done to take advantage of the former and keep the latter at bay. Anyone who has participated in this part of the plan knows how much fantasy and wishful thinking matter in the final lists and plan. Suppose you are in a planning group and you say, on the basis of evidence available to you, that one threat to a school is destructive and violent behavior by students countenanced or tolerated within the school culture. The chances are that within an insecure or disingenuous corporate culture your warning will be dealt with ineffectively or, worse, will be dismissed or derided.

But all this discussion should be beside the point. Schools should have moral compasses, which are one of the things that happily distinguish them, or should distinguish them, from educational software. By moral compass I do not mean the one that identifies bad conduct as ‘inappropriate behavior’. That sorry category makes date rape sound like a faux pas.

If the allegations now on trial should be proved true, and if as claimed the school’s culture is shown to have led to the behavior alleged, it will suggest strongly that St. Paul’s moral compass is faulty. That is a pity, for an effective traditional guide to conduct is available to St. Paul’s. It is called the Spiritual Works of Mercy. If that seems too sectarian, there is yet another guide available. It is called the law.

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In the Meantime…

Now that the unfortunate Motoko Rich has reported in The New York Times that there’s a teacher shortage, and Frank Bruni has editorialized about making teaching jobs more attractive, we can repose in the stability of inertia, one of two normal responses to trouble in the ed biz.

(The other response is to launch a futile and abortive revolution such as NCLB or RAT. The Didact’s Dictionary proposes a definition of inertia (n.): The normal state of education. The revolutions usually said to punctuate inertia are in fact extensions of it because nothing continues to change.)

Nonetheless, I have a few suggestions for dealing with the teacher shortage.

1.    Determine that public schools are a public good and that their teachers, like soldiers and police, should be shielded from the worst effects of the business cycle.

2.    Do something about the fact that teachers are dead last among jobholders for their relationship with their supervisors.

3.    Get rid of the demonstrably worthless ‘metrics’ used to impose false accountability on them.

4.    Train them truly and then trust them truly, as the Finns do. No fake teacher education, and no top-down management.

5.    End wasteful and unsustainable personnel management (e.g., lower 24% annual turnover rates to acceptable levels).

6.    Take school administration out of the hands of incompetent monsters of the deep.

7.    Bring up children like Jane Eyre’s Adèle, to be obedient and teachable.

8.    Do not impose unreasonable teaching burdens. Instead, like the Finns & Japanese, allow teachers time to do their work at school.

9.    Do not entertain false notions about the ease and simplicity of teaching, or think by reductive fallacies that it can be reduced to a series of steps that can be captured by software.

10.    If you insist on leaving teaching a miserable job, at least provide good pay and job security until that time in the unimaginable future when the world beats a path to education’s door.

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Touts at the Schoolhouse Door

 

At one end of San Francisco’s Broadway in a quiet neighborhood stands the Sacred Heart Convent School for girls, the soul of discretion. Its Wikipedia entry is only a few lines. It knows what it wants to do, as do its students and their parents.

At the other or neon end are (or used to be) the city’s topless and strip clubs. True, you could get gnocchi al pesto at Enrico’s or hear Tom Lehrer or Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, and you can still buy ‘Howl’ at City Lights Books, where it was notoriously published sixty years ago. But for many people from the 1970s to the 1990s it was the topless joints that made the street famous. People would stroll by the topless clubs, each with its ‘barker’ outside touting the delights to be found within, such as ‘live girls’. (Gary Larson in The Far Side imagined an insect topless joint featuring ‘live females’, but that joke is less understandable today, when people often refer to men and women as males and females, than it was when Larson published it.)

The polarity of Broadway has its analogous polarity in education. At one pole are the schools that simply get along in their completeness, giving information to those who inquire and simply attending to their missions. Those missions are themselves simple and free of gongs and sirens. One school I know of has the mission ‘to provide a liberal education based on Christian principles’. One can hope that such a mission is free of baloney and that people are attracted to the school for all the right reasons.

At the other pole are the schools that ‘market’ themselves like barkers, inviting the young to sample the delights within, delights that usually fall far short of the barkers’ hyperbolic promises.  One such school, absurdly named Quest to Learn, even managed to get The New York Times to do its barking. I was not very hopeful that the children gulled into attending would come out with much to show for their efforts, assuming efforts were required. (This is not a sure thing, especially where ‘failure is not an option’.)

As my summer holiday continues I visited a former colleague who found a teaching job at one of the more ‘prestigious’ (what a word!) schools in the city where she lives. She has just quit, telling me that she is tired of an administration that seems more intent on barking than teaching. Part of the school’s ‘problem’ is that it and other schools ‘compete’ for the same students and try to catch them by pitching ‘the delights within’. It sounds less like admissions than like hunting season. I think the last straw was being commanded to make students take notes on computers only, not by hand, so the school would be 100% computerized. Since there can’t be any reason for 100% computerization that forbids handwriting, it must be to accommodate their pitchmen.

One mark of a potentially good school (there are others) is that it can be found at the right end of Broadway, so to speak, far from the barking crowd.

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Education by Poetry and Education by the Beast from the East

During his years teaching poetry at Amherst, Robert Frost came to understand an important feature of ‘slow learning’ that is often overlooked by proponents of ‘virtual’ education. It is that in a classroom, students often show their nearness to or achievement of understanding by a look that is fugitive but unmistakable when it appears. Experienced teachers recognize this look and use it for two purposes. One, which Frost discusses, is a check on understanding. At one point in his ‘meditative monologue’ on “Education by Poetry’ Frost correctly asserts that sometimes the look is the only thing we have to go on for judging successful understanding and for marking.

These postings have argued that assessments that are close to the course being taught are likelier to capture fugitive elements of a course than are ‘distant’ assessments like standardized tests. William James argued that consciousness includes an item on which we focus and a ‘fringe’ of material that is tentatively present to us, to which we may immediately turn at need. On line education rids the ‘classroom’ of this fringe and proceeds, as if blinkered, through its syllabus. How many of us have had a teacher like Mr. Ciriello, who used to scan the faces of his students for comprehension during lectures and discussions? When I realized what he was doing, I could knit my brow and count on an explanation without the embarrassment of having to raise my hand and admit that I did not understand what he was talking about. And how many of us have had teachers like Professor Sareil, who probed and crumbled caked wisdom thoroughly and relentlessly at his colloquium table? It was scary, but it worked; and by being a bit scary he helped teach me how not to crumple under forensic pressure[1].

One of Frost’s students reports that after his classmate had done a particularly splendid reading of a poem, Frost told him, “You get an A forever.” What a wonderful reward and motivation to continue as he had done! Education on a human basis allows all these possibilities. Education by machine does not.

* * *

My summer trip continues, during which I heard two stories about excellent teachers of long standing who were maltreated by capricious administrators. One of them was a gifted math teacher who after twenty years of successful teaching[2] was hounded out of his school by a vindictive principal. Another, a successful English teacher of thirty years’ standing, suddenly started receiving negative reviews. It turned out that the reviewer’s administrative colleague, whose son she had taught, had given him false reports of her methods. This kind of whispering campaign is not always detected and eliminated, as my friend’s fortunately was. More often it results in wreckage such as happened to the math teacher.

(The ghastliest story of capricious bullying by an administrator involves a former colleague who became a target of our principal’s tender attentions. She was gradually beaten down, but the last straw came when her husband, a distinguished physicist, received news that he had been elected to the Royal Society. She asked the principal’s permission to attend his investiture; he rejected her request. She came to school but announced her resignation. I saw her a year after she left, her health entirely restored.)

Evidence shows that American teachers are dead last among jobholders in the quality of relationships with their supervisors. One reason, but only one, is this kind of treatment by bad administrators. Why is no one investigating this deadly impediment to good teaching and learning?



[1] As I think about it, I wonder whether part of the washout problem in American universities is due to students’ not having had such experiences in their education.

[2] One of his students, a future Senior Wrangler of Cambridge, was beyond the high-school curriculum, but this teacher arranged for him to receive instruction by professors at Cal Berkeley.

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Unraveled Sleeves and Abaci

My summer holiday took me this week into some terrain containing oblique lessons in education. While on the remote and mountainous Big Sur coast of California I stayed in a monastic ‘cell’ at a monastery whose monks are largely silent except during sung and spoken prayers. (The discipline is relaxed at the midday meal.) Like the cells of the Grand Charterhouse in Grenoble, the cells of this monastery are designed for silent reading and other contemplative activities by their tenants when they are not at work or prayer. Each one has a little garden with a wall around it. After evening prayers the cloister becomes utterly silent and dark. No TV, screens, or gadgets.

These conditions, it turns out, may conduce to good and healthful sleep of the kind that students (and their teachers) are, more and more, giving up. It is not just that they are staying up longer: it is that when they finally drop off, the sleep they get is less in quantity and quality.  The reason lies to a great extent in the kind of light they experience in the hours before their bedtime. Light with an abundance of its constituent wavelengths at the blue end of the spectrum acts on our bodies as a signal that undercuts the impulse to sleep, even to the point of disrupting circadian rhythms. This is precisely the kind of light emitted by the gadgets one does not use at the monastery.

Though most of us would prefer a bit of sleep deprivation to a very ascetic life, there is a big difference between a bit and a lot. Sleep is supposed to “knit up the ravell’d sleeve of care,” but no knitting gets done when students are murdering sleep in how they conduct their waking lives.

* * *

Today I visited a small but excellent bookstore that deals in new and used books. The shop assistant was helpful but distant until I took out my fountain pen to sign the credit card slip. She complimented the pen and asked if she might try it. She took it in a practiced grip and with confident speed executed a line of beautiful calligraphy. It turns out that she had studied calligraphy under Corita Kent. As the fountain pen goes the way of the abacus (except at the marvelous Hop Cheong Pen Shop in Hong Kong and other outposts), we are not just giving up a bit of the modest artistry that a full life should afford. We are handicapping the young people who miss the formative and even therapeutic effects that handwriting can have, for it turns out that learning to write and then taking notes in cursive letters rather than typing them aids in the handling of the material noted.

Such experiences and arguments would not impress Idaho’s unfortunate Governor Otter, who said of one of Idaho’s gifted but gadget-free teachers that if she has “only an abacus in her hand, she is missing the boat.” He and others like him, who keep catching futile boat rides to successive futures of the month, will eventually be forced to see what they and their students miss and what remains unraveled in their education.

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Great-rooted Blossomers

Hong Kong’s schools start their summer holidays in mid-July. (Summer’s lease hath all too short a date, for we return at the beginning of September.) At my school year-end report cards are distributed to students on Parents’ Day, the second-to-last school day. Each student and his parents meet with his ‘academic advisor’, a teacher who minds his progress during the year, flagging trouble if need be.

I was in the office this morning (Saturday) because I needed to meet with a student and his parents: the father would be unable to attend on Parents’ Day. We had a productive meeting at which (again) I marveled silently at how non-adversarial the relationship between parents and teachers tends to be here. There are exceptions, but they are notable, not run of the mill.

Before that meeting I was reviewing the report card, which is actually a seven-page document that includes, besides grades, comments by each teacher, explanations of grades, and a compendium of Creativity, Activity, and Service. Academic advisors usually check with teachers who write severe or non-laudatory comments to try and find out what lies behind them. There were none of this kind of comment on the report I was about to hand out. The student’s grades were very good, though not quite what he would like; but he has been deeply involved in a number of extracurricular activities, particularly drama.

While I was looking, a familiar voice called to me on the intercom at the door that allows students (politely) to summon teachers from the office for meetings. Whom should I find at the door but two graduates to see me! One of them, who graduated a year ago, is ‘reading’ (studying) law at the London School of Economics. The other, who graduated two years ago, is in the Philosophy Politics and Economics program at Oxford.

Both graduates had been in the school choir, but the LSE student has turned to writing in his spare time, while the Oxford student joined the choir of his college, where he now regularly sings at the college’s services. (It is Oriel College, where the Oxford Movement started).

This evening I’ll be attending a ‘Homecoming Concert’ in the school’s auditorium. There are four in July to mark the end of the school year.  All charge rather stiff prices for seats, and all the seats are sold out. I am looking forward to hearing the Senior Choir, the Orchestra, the String Orchestra, and other groups play.

These are not just elitist frills, or shouldn’t be. My own public high school in California used to field award-winning bands and orchestras, and wherever they are found, secondary-school arts and music programs bring something essential to a curriculum and a school. Some students like my Oxonian continue their musical activities past graduation. Most have fond memories of them.

But there is more. They bring something essential to the mind, something that Charles Darwin regretfully recognized in his middle age. He said that he regretted giving up listening to music, reading poems, and looking at pictures, and was sure that he had lost something essential in this lack. In touting the STEM we should not forget the roots and trunk and crown.

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Caution: Sowing in Progress

Sometimes a single statistic tells a whole story. That is the case with a statistic taken from a report I recently read. Pages 3 and 4 of the report say that California now spends nearly twice as much on its prisons as it does on its universities. Thirty-five years ago it spent more than three times as much on its universities as on its prisons.

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The Inanity of Standardized Testing

Among the many plaudits that came to Louis Menand after the publication of The Metaphysical Club was the Pulitzer Prize for history. He deserved them all: this history of American philosophy is engaged, witty, knowledgeable and thorough. One example of its excellence is a two-paragraph character sketch[1] of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the distinguished polymath and father of the Supreme Court justice. The sketch is vivid and pointed, though perhaps its judgment of its subject’s sense of self-esteem is a bit hard on Holmes. The way to judge, of course, would be to compare it with other material at hand about Holmes and his world. Menand is harder on William James—too hard, I think, in light of my other reading about him. That should not affect my admiration of the work as a whole, provided that I take his assessment of persons with a bit of caution.

I would certainly not want to say that Menand and other writers of history should be bound by rules of writing, or that our judgment of them should be governed by simplistic rubrics. How, for example, should Menand’s writing about James be compared with Jacques Barzun’s? No rubric will say, for judgment is an art, or at least a matter of finesse, as Pascal put it.

Finesse works better when the mass of little details that surround a piece of work are known to the one making the judgment of it. And who will know this mass of details in a student’s writing better than a teacher? This is the finding of research showing that tests produced close to home and assessed by a student’s teachers were more sensitive to the details and subtleties of students’ knowledge than are tests produced by state and national organizations and graded by strangers or machines. My posting linked above mentions this research in connection with rating teachers, but it is obviously important in rating the students themselves.

How important may be inferred from an article in The New York Times about students’ essays being graded by (mostly) non-teachers in the employ of an “education” company.  They are paid less for their work than McDonald’s employees in Los Angeles will soon be paid for cooking hamburgers: perhaps the company applies stringent quality control standards to separate the sheep from the goats in this field of talent.

The question they will grade requires students to “[r]ead a passage from a novel written in the first person, and a poem written in the third person, and describe how the poem might change if it were written in the first person.” Now, one reason not to centralize testing[2] is to prevent thousands or millions of students from having to answer one of the most inane exam questions I have ever seen. At least an isolated teacher coming up with this question will bewilder or frustrate only a roomful of students.

What can the examiners be getting at? I am afraid that the only answer is to buy the textbooks helpfully made by the same “education” company, and try to figure out what they mean.

Going to the Common Core for guidance will not help. It has a standard requiring that students in Grade 5 be able to “[d]escribe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.” Aside from its avoidable ugliness, the standard is off base in what intellectual powers it requires of the poor students. Surely what they need to do here is not to describe but to analyze?

The task is made not just inane but complex because the two extracts chosen are from different genres, a novel and a poem. Thus, a ten-year-old student is required to examine point of view cross-generically and abstract principles about its possible effects from two given extracts, presumably fortifying his assertions with examples.

Allow me to present a miniature illustration. For the sake of brevity, I will use a stanza of a poem and a paragraph from a short story rather than anything longer, but they should serve to make my point. To simplify further, both passages have snakes as their subjects. The first is from ‘A narrow fellow in the grass’ by Emily Dickinson; the second, from “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“A narrow fellow in the grass / Occasionally rides; / You may have met him—did you not / His notice sudden is, / The grass divides as with a comb, / A spotted shaft is seen, / And then it closes at your feet, / And opens further on.”[3]

“Round his brow he had a peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles, which seemed to be bound tightly round his head. As we entered he made neither sound nor motion…. I took a step forward. In an instant his strange headgear began to move, and there reared itself from among his hair the squat diamond-shaped head and puffed neck of a loathsome serpent.”[4]

Your task if you are ten years old is, by reading both extracts, to “describe how the poem might change if it were written in the first person.” The question is unanswerable, for nothing in these two extracts, or indeed any two extracts, implies hard and fast rules about the uses of point of view; and ten-year-olds can’t be expected to address this question any other way. I would be willing to bet good money that the company’s textbook has somewhere a list of unwarranted generalizations, perhaps two columns of bulleted points, contrasting first and third persons. Further, I bet the extracts conform to the expectations the list engenders—not because the expectations are generally true but because the examples have been chosen to fit them. It gives me a headache thinking about Dickinson’s poem being cross-personified in this bizarre way. The same with Menand. Never mind: somehow somewhere someone decided this “method” would do.[5]

Though this activity is questionable, at least a lesson in a classroom, followed by a home-made test asking students to apply the lesson, is an understandable and perhaps valid way to judge what the student has learned. The point that the critics of standardized tests make is that they are likely to miss what those students have learned. The only way to be sure of securing good marks is to pay more money for the book in which the “education” company “interprets” the standard.

But home-grown testing and grading have another advantage. All that perpetual discretion that teachers have been using for weeks or months in teaching and sizing up their students can be brought to bear in assessing them. That is a good thing.



[1] Appearing on pp. 6 – 7 of the FSG paperback edition

[2] Make it “proximal”, the term used by the authors of the study I refer to in my other posting.

[3] It is true that the speaker, a man, delivers the last stanza in the first person, but that may add to the difficulty of this question.

[4] The speaker is of course Dr. Watson

[5] We might say that third person is more ‘objective’ and less ‘emotional’ than first person.  Then what about our examples here? Whatever objectivity means, most people would say that Louis Menand’s sketch of Holmes has a distinct personal cast. And, to take an example from the past, what about Darwin’s Galapagos diaries, all in the first person?

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Welcome to the Moated Grange

She only said, “This reading is dreary,

It pleaseth not,” she said.

She said, “This reading makes me weary,

I wish that I were dead!”

—refrain from “Mariana Meets the Common Core” (with apologies to Tennyson)

One of my earliest postings condemned the topsy-turvy notion that in English classes a book of literature is “intended to fill out lesson plans” and “supplement textbooks.” Using examples of poetry I tried to show that literature can have an artistic integrity and appeal to interests and tastes worth cultivating for their own sake. Students caught up in a good poem could then come to an understanding of it using their powers of thought and feeling. Eventually those powers, strengthened by encounters with those appealing works, could be applied to the study of non-literary works if needed.

This does not mean that I disapprove of reading work not traditionally thought of as literature. Excellent writers of prose non-fiction abound and may be used with profit by English teachers. In my IB English classes I have taught essays by George Orwell and James Baldwin. For years before that I used The Norton Reader and the Introduction to Great Books series, which I also use in my Theory of Knowledge classes. In ToK we sometimes use articles from The New Yorker and The New York Review as well as work by Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist whose writing is on the IB Prescribed Literature list[1]. Last year the IB English A Literature exam had as one of its ‘unseen passages’ for commentary in Paper 1 an extract from Sir John Keegan’s history of The First World War.

What all these writings have in common is that they are well written. Most of them also share what Barzun calls a “thickness” that allows us to draw on them for more than we might find in thinner stuff. But the final thing is that many of them have an artistic integrity and appeal to which the good reader will respond. Take for example Keegan’s history. The extract on the exam was so good that I immediately ordered and read the whole book. While some of it was not up to the standard of the exam extract, I thought it on the whole a very good book worth reading in its entirety, not just that little snippet, however good it was.

The point worth remembering about such works in light of this posting’s subject is that they are both “informational” (i.e., informative) and “literary.” It turns out that many teachers and “curriculum specialists” rolling out the Common Core think writing must be one or the other. That error may be due to generalizing about “informational” (i.e. informative) writing from what they read in education school, but what is worse is that some of them are “pairing” gobbets of literature with non-fiction reading in order to make them more “relevant”. Hence the pairing of extracts from The Odyssey and sections of the GI Bill in order to ‘connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans’.

This is either profoundly goofy or profoundly stupid. The first thing I thought of was how to ‘connect’ Athena to the Veterans’ Administration. A compare-contrast essay? Columns of bulleted points? FAQs? Role play between Athena and a VA bureaucrat? The second thing I thought of was ‘connecting’ the writing of Homer to that of Congressional lawmakers. After the section in which Odysseus puts out the Cyclops’ eye, try giving your own 10th-graders a taste of the law. Where do you begin if you don’t want your students to run away screaming from careers as lawyers—or from the classroom?

But the worst part of this ‘movement’ is the reductionist smoke and mirrors by which “teaching literature” is equated with “teaching particular concepts and skills.” Once you have made that category error, the next step follows inevitably: “we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.” Thus is art erased from life, just as it is being erased from school.

I just finished reading Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Are the proponents of this approach going to claim that instead of reading the entire book, I should read just one of the passages in which Rasheed beats his wives, with a gloss explaining that Hosseini explores “lives imprisoned by patriarchy”? How explanatory! But what happened to Laila and Mariam? For that matter, what happened to Afghanistan?  When you teach art as something with its own integrity, these things do not vanish. When you “teach” it as an exercise in second-rate concept-work, they do.

If I had “learned” “literature” this way, I think I would have felt like “Mariana on the moated grange.”



[1] I gave my students this year the choice of studying Orwell’s essays or Gould’s for “Part 2.” They chose Orwell. One of Orwell’s essays is a hostile review of Yeats’s poetry. By the time the students read it, they will be able to comment intelligently because they are now studying Yeats.

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Scything the Hot-house Flowers: Failure IS an Option

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?