Way back in the Stoned Age, Bob Dylan sang us, “She knows there’s no success like failure/And failure’s no success at all.” Even though most of us had no idea what this meant at the time, it was so smartass/Oscar Wilde clever that we took to tucking it into casual conversations. Sounding profound (I think we called it heavy) got a lot of traction in those days. Half a century later, of course, we realize Bob was simply stating the bloody obvious and poetically making it sound like he was Einstein with a guitar. Actually, I hadn’t thought about that song for years. However, it did come back to me the other day in one of those plus ca change moments. I was reading about this revolutionary new theory that children learn tons more from the occasional failure than they ever do from constant success. Wow! Who knew? Apparently, just Bob and I.
These radical thinkers came up with this burst of genius from observing children in their natural environment — without parent or teacher intervention. They found that, left to their own devices, kids have a way of shrugging off the metaphorical kick in the teeth. Not only that, but they actually learn from their mistakes and seldom repeat them. Problem solving becomes an analytical process, not a hope-for-the-best guessing game, and children feel a sense of accomplishment when they finally master a task. These revelations have been written up in the usual gobbledy-gook (big words like learning opportunities and educational initiatives) in several learned journals. However, from my point of view, the whole thing sounds remarkably like tales from my childhood – and that’s the problem.
To the entrenched minds of the last fifty years, the notion of condoning failure in education is dangerously turning back the clock. (What next? Letter grades? Dunce caps? The lash?) The prevailing wall of wisdom is that self esteem is the holy grail of a kid’s education, and all salvation stems from that. Failure is the hidden satanic verse which could destroy that self esteem, and so, like porno, it’s suitable for adults only. We’ve shaped our entire education system to this end. Many schools no longer give tests, issue grades, keep score at sporting events or even allow games like tag. So for a bunch of dissentients to boldly pronounce that this approach is crap…well… them’s fightin’ words to the powers that be.
I’m siding with those young guns on this one. For the last two generations, we’ve been chasing the chimera that everybody under twenty should get a trophy — just because. The results haven’t been exactly stellar. Generation X has spent the last ten years bitchin’ and moanin’ about how badly society has treated them, while simultaneously ass-grooving in front of their video screens, hanging with the Kardashians. Meanwhile, their children, the iGeneration (Millennials, if you prefer) spend their days just being angry. They’re convinced that the world owes them a living and can’t, for the life of them, figure out why they’re not getting it. Both think adversity is what happens to other people and neither would know what perseverance is if it bit them on the buttocks. Personally, I think if they’d been allowed to stumble and fall a couple of times, when they were young, they’d have learned to pick up their feet by now.
When Bob Dylan offered us the success and failure conundrum, it was true. It always has been; we just forgot it for a couple of generations. Perhaps, however, as Dylan also sang, “the times they are a-changing.” We can only hope.