The Importance of Teaching Failure

New York Times Magazine, September 18, 2011
If you haven’t yet read it, stop what you’re doing and read Paul Tough’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” I’m not sure this is quite as radical as the cover suggests, but it’s an important topic nevertheless. Among other things, Tough explores the supposed difference between “moral character” (the kind of “character” with which we’re all likely familiar) and “performance character” (the kind with which we should probably become more familiar).

Although there’s certainly much to be said for moral character, it is probably more in line with the mission of schools to teach performance character–encapsulated, at least in the context of this article, by such traits as zest, grit, and resilience. The importance of this new push, according to Tough, comes from the research of psychologist Martin Seligman. According to Seligman’s research, there are twenty-four character traits that “represented a reliable path to ‘the good life,’ a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.”

I was particularly intrigued by the communication and collaboration between public and private–between Dave Levin, co-founder of the widely-publicized KIPP network of charter schools, and Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the elite Riverdale Country School in New York City. Although they took very different paths to get there, the two educators found themselves drawn together because of a mutual interest in a particular type of “character education.” Now, they are each working to implement “performance character” initiatives in their schools.

Between the two there remains a fairly distinct divide, and yet, both see performance character as the solution. From Levin’s perspective, performance character will make his underprivileged middle school students more successful–in college preparatory high school environments and in college itself. (Tough notes that although many KIPP graduates do attend college, a significant percentage of them struggle once they matriculate). To adapt a cliched phrase, teaching performance character will help “prepare the child for the path.” At Riverdale, though, the problem is quite different.

The typical Riverdale student, of course, is anything but underprivileged, and according to Tough, Randolph worries about this. He fears that in the case of many of his students, the path has been prepared for them. Thus, his charges have never experienced any significant challenges and are perhaps just as unprepared for the sometimes harsh reality of college and adult life as are Levin’s students.

Even if that is the case, performance character is a harder sell among Riverdale’s population. Tough quotes Karen Fierst, the teacher charged with implementing Riverdale’s character education project.

“For KIPP kids, she said, the notion that character could help them get through college was a powerful lure, one that would motivate them to take the strengths seriously. For kids at Riverdale, though, there was little doubt that they would graduate from college. ‘It will just happen,’ Fierst explained. ‘It happened to every generation in their family before them. And so it’s harder to get them to invest in this idea. For KIPP students, learning these strengths is partly about trying to demystify what makes other people successful — kind of like, “We’re letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like.” But kids here already live in a successful community. They’re not depending on their teachers to give them the information on how to be successful.'”

I suspect that many independent school educators share Fierst’s skepticism here, and if one defines “success” as attending (and even graduating from) college, she is likely correct. But in redesigning their character education programs around “performance character,” Levin and Randolph seek to define success more broadly. To them, the goal for students is “the good life”–one that is not only prosperous and happy, “but also meaningful and fulfilling.”

This speaks to me as an advocate of the liberal arts and the humanities in particular, because far too often we speak of schooling as if it is, first and foremost, career preparation. It is not. At my school, we talk constantly of “preparing young women for college and life.” But we identify (and advertise) ourselves as a college preparatory school, and the ever-looming college applications infuse our school culture–for better and, I’m afraid, for worse. I would imagine this to be true at most independent schools, and although there’s nothing inherently wrong with “college prep,” I–like Levin and Randolph, it seems–wonder if perhaps the “life” goal of our mission statement isn’t actually more important. Isn’t it possible to prepare students for a “meaningful and fulfilling” life–of which college is only one part? Put another way, if we prepare them well for life (and the “good life” in particular), isn’t it likely that they will be prepared for college as well?

As Fierst’s comments suggest, there are impediments to this kind of program, and Tough gets right to the heart of the issue:

“When you work at a public school, whether it’s a charter or a traditional public school, you’re paid by the state, responsible, on some level, to your fellow citizens for the job you do preparing your students to join the adult world. When you work at a private school like Riverdale, though, even one with a long waiting list, you are always conscious that you’re working for the parents who pay the tuition fees. Which makes a campaign like the one that Randolph is trying to embark on all the more complicated. If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received — which means you’re implicitly criticizing your employers.”

It will be interesting indeed to see where this goes, but I applaud Randolph for pursuing this forward-thinking endeavor, even if it means “criticizing [his] employers.” Assuming these kids do grow up to live “the good life,” I would expect the next generation of Riverdale parents to need less convincing.

Bonus Read: For those of you who have read Amy Chua’s headline-making book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, check out Evan Osnos’ recent “Letter from China” column at The New Yorker website. He offers an interesting comparison of “The Freedom to Fail vs. The Tiger Mom.” In addition to commenting on how Tough’s idea might be received in Beijing, he references a couple of interesting studies of Chinese children’s books which considered how the concept of “achievement” was presented to young students there.

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