Why we must be free to fail

Posted by on Jul 6th, 2010 and filed under Economy, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry from your site

By Michael Goodwin

At first glance, the idea that we are losing the freedom to fail sounds like a reason to celebrate. Losing the chance to fail should also mean we’re guaranteed to win, right?

Wrong. Misguided social perfectionists have given failure a bad rap, and too many of us have bought into their foolish view.

The economic meltdown of 2008 and 2009 put on vivid display this clash of old versus new American values. Bankruptcy laws were written for this very kind of moment, but many who bet the farm and lost demanded exemptions as America’s addiction to borrowing swiftly morphed into an expectation of bailouts. Trillions of taxpayer dollars and guarantees were poured into the breach.

Letting someone fail when we have the power to prevent it seems so robber-baron-ish, so social Darwinist, especially when the shock waves could ripple across the country. This Gilded Age comes equipped with safety nets for those in danger of losing their gilt.

Wherever you look, failure is an endangered experience.

The social-promotion movement has turned much of our nation’s educational system into a global joke. Instead of demanding that students meet academic requirements that will prepare them for college or the workforce, today’s educrats find it easier just to pass little Johnny along, even when he is illiterate. When Johnny gets bigger and still can’t read, they pass him along again, sending him out into the world, which usually finds it has no use for him.

All this is done, of course, in the name of compassion. Armies of psychologists and other captains of the self-esteem movement wail that holding Johnny back until he is actually ready for the next grade will destroy his psyche. In the real world, self-esteem comes from mastering new skills and achieving goals. But the anti-failure forces have turned the idea on its head: They think they can give Johnny self-esteem first, and only later ask him to earn it.

This disastrous egalitarianism is now so entrenched that many of Johnny’s teachers are themselves products of the same social-promotion disaster. Naturally, flunking bad teachers — and booting them out of the schools where they don’t belong — runs afoul of ironclad union protections. Better that all students should just be passed along so teachers can keep their jobs.

The New York City experience is as instructive as it is disheartening. In 2008, four years after the city supposedly ended social-promotion policies, nearly 75 percent of high-school grads entering the City University’s community colleges needed remediation in reading, writing or math. Many needed it in all three.

As part of the so-called reforms, Mayor Bloomberg’s education department created report cards for schools and promised teacher and principal bonuses in schools that met benchmarks. Talk about grade inflation! For 2008, 97 percent of the schools received either an A or a B, forcing the cash-strapped city to pay out as much as $35 million in bonuses.

So it is in many of America’s schools, where every tough new standard is hollowed out by an even stronger push to make sure nobody fails to meet it.

The fraud is a perfect illustration of the doomed and misguided zeal to sandpaper failure from American life. Students waste their educational years and are not forced to develop the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for life after school. Most realize they have been duped only when they collide with a wall that hasn’t been lowered to meet their stunted abilities.

Had they been allowed to fail earlier, they’d have a far better chance of leading productive lives as adults.

Just as we don’t know pleasure without pain, fullness without hunger or black without white, we can’t define success without its opposite. Someone who is not free to fail is not truly free to succeed.

Adults who must compete in the real world, where there are rewards for success and penalties for failure, understand this integral relationship. Those who reach their goals are winners, and our society heartily celebrates them. But we can’t measure success unless we are also willing to measure failure accurately.

Perhaps there is a land over the rainbow where everyone always wins and nobody ever loses. In this world, we are stuck with the verity that success and failure are inseparable. “In order to succeed, you must first be willing to fail,” goes an old saying. So it was, and so it remains, no matter how much we wish and pretend otherwise.

This article was originally published by Michael Goodwin at www.nypost.com

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