Education’s long term fear of failure

Alex Kane picks up on a conversation that stopped locally when all ministers packed up their briefs and ambled off into a long hiatus in October 2002. However education is still a touchstone for important ideological divisions. According to Kane, what he see as the liberal tendency to dampen competition is running riot through the educational establishment.“Conference believes it is time to delete fail from the educational vocabulary, to be replaced with the concept of deferred success.” This is the wording of a motion which will be debated by the Professional Association of Teachers at the end of the month; and, according to the mover, Liz Beattie, “I would be surprised if we didn’t get the motion through.”

But why would a professional teacher, let alone a union representing 35,000 of them, want to endorse such a motion? Well, again according to the mover, “Some people find failure very hard to cope with and you should try not to face them with things they can’t do. It’s important to get them fired with enthusiasm for learning and not having them hanging their heads and feeling unhappy about their marks. I think it’s a good thing to get rid of total pass or total fail.”

Mind you, having dumbed down O and A levels, opened our universities to the barely literate and made it almost impossible to fail a degree, there is a kind of logic, albeit perverse, in doing away with the very idea of pass and fail. Indeed, why not go the whole hog and do away with examinations and tests of any variety? Why not adopt the sports day philosophy of so many schools, hand out medals to all of the contestants and declare everyone a winner?

As Sherlock Holmes so shrewdly observed, “Mediocrity recognizes nothing higher than itself.” And that is the real problem. We have become a society which celebrates the mediocre. The growth and ratings success of reality television is the clearest possible sign that we prefer to watch the antics of the idiot rather than marvel at genuine talent. Putting it bluntly, we don’t want heroes we can admire; we want mediocrities with whom we can identify.

Nature being what it is, most of us are fairly unexceptional; we generally fall somewhere between being neither particularly stupid nor particularly intelligent. Only a very few of us are extremely gifted. But it is those few whose efforts, gifts and genius have enriched our civilization and advanced humankind. Every generation produces a few hundred of these people, scattered across the world; and they make the world turn.

There was a time when we admired genius, a time when we sang the praises of inventors, explorers, scientists, artists, writers and yes, even statesmen. But not today. Today we remove Shakespeare from the curriculum because he is “too difficult to understand.” We don’t talk about Columbus and Magellan, because they, we are now informed, brought disease and destruction to the lands they discovered. And when biographers and broadcasters turn their attention to the likes of Newton and Edison it is simply to tarnish their reputations.

Dylan Evans, a senior lecturer in intelligent autonomous systems, made a very important point; “The just allocation of admiration is a virtue that requires judgment and integrity: judgment to distinguish genuine talent from mere showiness, and integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it. Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful—it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.”

In other words, we will only truly value genius and achievement when we end the culture of prizes for everyone. The combined efforts of successive post-war governments, and the delusional educational philosophies of teaching unions, have succeeded in creating a climate in which mediocrity is trumpeted. That probably suits the classroom teachers, many of whom hate their job, yet conspire to operate a treadmill which trundles far too many under-achievers into fifth rate universities. But let’s be honest, if educational standards really have risen so dramatically since the mid-1960s, then how do you explain the relentless onward march of tabloid tosh, soap opera, casual violence, substance abuse and book charts dominated by Dan Brown and celebrity chefs?

And the real reason why Mrs. Beattie wants to remove the word “fail”? “I’d rather tell kids that they have done jolly well, they worked really well, they have achieved that and that’s brilliant.” I wonder what her opinion will be in twenty years time, when, following the adoption of her proposals, we have produced a generation requiring psychiatric help when someone is brave enough to be critical?

The important thing about life is learning to live within your own limitations. There are certain things I was never good at, but I accepted that I wasn’t good at them. I didn’t take it badly when people pointed out my inadequacies. I don’t want a society dependent upon false praise and worthless prizes. Cocooning children from harsh reality is simply storing up trouble for later life. You cannot “defer success” if the talent isn’t there in the first place. So how much longer do we wait until governments and teaching unions come to their senses, and stop trying to make silk purses out of sows’ ears?

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 23rd July 2005