A recent New York Times article, "On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus," reports on how elite American universities are trying to prepare students for things not going their way.

I commend the effort, but the article reveals strategic problems in their educational foundation. It begins

Last year, during fall orientation at Smith College, and then again recently at final-exam time, students who wandered into the campus hub were faced with an unfamiliar situation: the worst failures of their peers projected onto a large screen.

"I failed my first college writing exam," one student revealed.

"I came out to my mom, and she asked, 'Is this until graduation?'" another said.

The faculty, too, contributed stories of screwing up.

"I failed out of college," a popular English professor wrote. "Sophomore year. Flat-out, whole semester of F's on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out."

"I drafted a poem entitled 'Chocolate Caramels,' " said a literature and American studies scholar, who noted that it "has been rejected by 21 journals ... so far."

Does anyone else see any problems?

I see two big ones.

First, everything is academic. Even the one about sexual orientation got connected to school.

Second, it makes what they intend to make a regular part of life something special, as if different for them than everyone else. They are exacerbating what the article quotes themselves as calling "special snowflake syndrome."

As a professor and speaker at elite universities, and a product of the Ivy League, as well as inner-city public high schools, I see that both problems reveal a deep problem at the foundation of America's educational system, especially at its most "elite":

U.S. education focuses on intellectual growth at the cost of nearly all else.

At all levels our schools challenge students intellectually, but socially and emotionally, they do almost nothing. But social and emotional skills are more valuable in today's world, where facts and academic knowledge are free online.

Behaviorally, schools teach compliance

While we challenge students to think and analyze, if we look at the behavior we teach, it's

  • Follow our schedule
  • Follow our methods
  • Focus on facts
  • We tell you what facts are important
  • Here are the subjects you can choose from

and so on. Do you see the pattern?

The behavior we teach is compliance, the opposite of thinking and acting for yourself.

We teach students to learn about values, so they can compare how Plato, Aristotle, and Maya Angelou treat them, but not to act on their own values.

If you don't act on your values, especially when others depend on you, they just become abstract philosophical concepts. In a world where people are risking their lives to defend their countries, where doctors risk their lives to combat remote diseases, and so on, the worst failure for a student at this school is not publishing a draft poem in a literary journal.

That's worth repeating:

In a world where people are risking their lives to defend their countries, where doctors risk their lives to combat remote diseases, and so on, the worst failure for a student at this school is not publishing a draft poem in a literary journal.

Only she knows her life and maybe in context her problem is more severe than I imagine, but overall, these failures are big only in a system with intellectual tunnel vision.

To call a low score on a test a failure elevates the test's importance. Yes, it's important, but it's one part of life. Our schools teach you it's the most important.

That's our educational system imposing its values on students instead of teaching students to develop their values.

We know how to teach failure, which schools devalue at all levels

We already know time-honored, time-tested, effective ways to teach students how to handle things not going our way. The problem is that school defund and devalue them at every level from kindergarten to college, graduate school, and among faculty all the more.

Method 1: Sports

Nobody knows about losing like athletes. From champions to scrubs, competitors know what it feels like to lose. When taught and coached effectively, they also develop the skills to put a loss into perspective, go back, and compete again.

Elite universities focus on the zero-sum aspect, but losing a game isn't the end.

They miss the get-back-on-the-horse learning aspect. That aspect isn't intellectual knowledge they can test. Nor is it quantifiable to report for national statistics on health.

But it's critical for growth. It makes you vulnerable, the only way to develop skills to handle vulnerability.

So is recognizing your potential and striving to reach it, coming to terms with your flaws, teamwork, discipline, injury, anatomy, anxiety, rules, cheaters, and so on.

I don't mean watching sports, learning the business of sports, history of sports, activities where everyone gets participation trophies, and other sports-like non-sports endeavors.

Nor do I necessarily mean ultra-competitive winning at all costs or big varsity televised sports. Competing doesn't mean throwing kids to the wolves.

I mean sports where each person competes and strives to reach his or her potential. Nobody can win everything so everyone learns to lose.

Method 2: Arts

Art also forces artists to face their vulnerabilities and handle criticism, botched performances, people with different tastes, and so on.

I don't mean art appreciation, art history, the business of art, or other art-related non-art activities. I mean students developing a craft, seeking something inside, expressing that personal something, and showing it to the world.

If anyone knows criticism, artists do. Anyone who performs bombs. Anyone who shows creative work gets judged. Not just judged, but judged on something personal and meaningful, what he or she considers beautiful and valuable.

And students can learn to recover and continue. They learn to express themselves, confidence in their values, freedom, spontaneity, genuineness, authenticity, and more. Things report cards and transcripts don't and can't show. If we challenge them.

Why not do what works?

The Times article continued to recount various elite schools' contrivances to expose their intellectually accomplished, socially and emotionally unchallenged and undeveloped, compliant students to things not going their way.

Instead of teaching them it's a part of life, they imply that they have to work hard to find ways of exposing that these students aren't the best in the world. What everyone knows is not a put-down except them.

Whatever their academic achievement, of doubtful value even if significant, their social and emotional innocence and compliant behavior undermine it.

Sports and arts have taught humility, teamwork, support, winning, losing, and many things these "special snowflakes" lack. They've worked for thousands of years in every culture.

Are sports and arts the final, comprehensive answer? No, but they work and they're a great start.

I suspect the angst-filled students and their faculty would benefit from them.

Published on: Jun 30, 2017
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