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    Sorry Geoffrey Canada, but failure IS an option, a reality, and even a boon

    by Valerie Strauss My guest is Diana Senechal, who taught for four years in the New York City public schools and is writing a book about the loss of solitude in schools and culture.

    By Diana Senechal

    Calling for more school choice, Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, began his March 27 New York Daily News op-ed with the following:
    "Visitors to my public charter school often ask how the students feel about the signs on the walls that say: 'Failure is not an option.' They are surprised to hear that the signs are really for the staff."

    There are two ethical problems with declaring that failure is not an option. First of all, failure exists everywhere, chosen or not, and to deny it is to deny reality. Second, without the option of failure, we would have no freedom of will; we would have to succeed at everything, and the success would lose meaning.

    It makes sense to say that failure should be no one's automatic destiny, that no one should be set up for failure.

    The Harlem Children's Zone, a high-profile and well-funded organization, aims at breaking the cycle of poverty for Harlem children through a combination of education and social services. Using a "conveyor belt" model, which takes children from infancy up to college, the HCZ strives to provide seamless supports so that no child falls through the cracks.

    Its efforts and achievements are for the most part admirable. Its schools include the Promise Academy Charter Schools. Curiously, grades 7 and 8 are not mentioned on the Promise Academy Web site (although the HCZ Web site does mention them).

    What happened to those grades? Apparently failure happens even in the HCZ. In March 2007, Canada announced that he was phasing out the Promise Academy middle school, which originally was intended to expand into a high school. The graduating eighth graders would have to find high schools elsewhere. And there would be no incoming sixth grade. Why?

    The preliminary test scores weren't high enough. (See chapter 10 of Paul Tough's "Whatever It Takes"). Performance has since improved, but no one has bothered to put the seventh and eighth grades on the Promise Academy Web site. If "failure is not an option," then presumably those who fail cannot fully exist.

    And existence is then limited. If we deny that failure happens, we disregard wars, famines, and other disasters; we wish away low test scores, college rejections, romantic rejections, divorce, addiction, death, injustice, car accidents, lost jobs, misspelled words, stutters, misunderstandings, and our daily mistakes and slippages. Those who take on the slogan "failure is not an option" wittingly or unwittingly paint over their lives and the lives of others, and the result is not only false but flat. Such a paint job can't hold a candle to humanity.

    Failure can be inconsequential, crushing, or anything in between, but we need failure as much as we need success. Our successes and failures, in combination, teach us about the world and ourselves. They help us understand history, literature, science, arts; they show us who we are, what we do well, whom we love, what we desire, what our limits are and aren’t, and how our private and public lives meet and part. Moreover, they are ambiguous. The narrator of Robert Browning's poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra" suggests that failures may be successes in disguise and vice versa:

    For thence,—a paradox
    Which comforts while it mocks,--
    Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
    What I aspired to be,
    And was not, comforts me:
    A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale.

    Without failures, we would be a fraction of ourselves. If we were to limit ourselves to successful actions only, we would keep the sugar bowl close to the teacup, lest we drop a grain or two when transporting the spoon. Whenever failures did occur, people would try to hide them through cheating, lowered standards, and deceptive jargon.

    Some may take this as a call for lower standards or for giving in. It is the opposite. The more substantial our undertakings, the likelier we are to fail along the way. What matters is what we do with our failures. Some we may just toss aside. Some we may examine closely. But if we believe they shouldn’t happen or try to obliterate them, our learning and understanding will suffer; we will fall for what G. K. Chesterton delightfully termed "The Fallacy of Success."

    Where did the phrase "failure is not an option" come from? It has cropped up in much motivational and education literature over the past few decades, but its origins are unclear. It is sometimes attributed to Gene Kranz, former NASA flight director who directed the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew in 1970. In fact it was the film Apollo 13 that put the words in his mouth, and he later used it as the title of his autobiography. Ironically, his famed team responded to a failure: the explosion of a cryogenic tank in the spacecraft’s service module.

    Granted, they were determined not to fail at that point—but failure had happened, and it would happen to spacecrafts in the future.

    Failure is an option, a reality, and even a boon now and then. So is success. In thousands of ways, the two combine in our lives. Through education, practice, and hard knocks, we learn to take part in the shaping.

    — Diana Senechal
    Washington Post Class Struggle


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