Note: While originally written when the author was 16 years old, this article was revised by Nikhil in 2018.
It is also narrowly defined — do well in school, go on to a great university, graduate, matriculate into graduate school, graduate, get a great job, and somehow everything will fall into place. It’s not that simple anymore.
It has come to a point where people find it dangerous to stray from the path. Many have argued that we treat the word “fail” as a four-letter word. As one blogger put it, “Okay, well, fail does have four letters. But you know what? It’s not an obscene word.” It’s been often said that if you’ve never failed, you’ve never lived.
We must uphold the remark made by John Dewey, America’s original philosopher of education: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” What if “school weren’t school” anymore, as one manifesto put it? What if school became an arena to blend communities and the world? What if school created the “citizen ideal?” That’s what we must work to.
Let's start by thinking about failure differently. For instance, Thomas Edison “performed 9,000 experiments before coming up with a successful version of the light bulb,” according to the Economist. For Sir James Dyson, it “took 5,127 prototypes and 15 years” to create his vacuum cleaner. The Economist “describes an entrepreneur’s J-curve of returns: the failures come early and often and the successes take time.”
Schools, on the other hand, paint failure in a terrible light. The poster “Failure is Not An Option” is plastered in many classrooms. Under the pressure to be perfect, children suffer mentally and educationally. We are creating grade-obsessed students to “do school,” as Stanford professor Denise Pope has dubbed it, which she defines as “they are not really engaged with learning nor can they commit to such values as integrity and community.”
Gerald Celente, editor of the Trends Journal, said it best in the documentary The College Conspiracy: “You have to have a certain kind of brain to understand the dead language that they write in textbooks. But they brainwash you from a little kid up so that you’ll buy into the system. You get good grades and you study hard and you become a member of the system. No freedom. You don’t know how to think, because they told you how to think their way.” We shelter kids from the real world. So after post-secondary education, many are unable to cope.
Seth Godin has argued, “Most people don’t see that they have options beyond what society tells them to do. That’s the biggest problem. They honestly believe that compliance is the shortcut to success.”
Or as Michael Ellsberg put it in his book The Education of Millionaires:
"In the famous scene from The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin, a newly minted BA, receives some unsolicited career advice from a family friend at a graduation party around the family pool. 'I want to say one word to you. Just one word…. Are you listening?' the family friend asks. Benjamin nods yes. 'Plastics.'"
“If we had to boil down to just one word the career and success advice we give our own young people, that word,” wrote Ellsberg, “would be education.”
This advice hasn't necessarily held up in the years since the financial crisis of 2008.
As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues in The World is Flat, “There was suddenly available a platform for collaboration that all kinds of people from around the globe could now plug and play, compete and connect on—in order to share work, exchange knowledge, start companies, and invent and sell goods and services.”
We are at the ideal moment to begin transforming our institutions. Now is the time to "scrap the legacies of industrialism,” as Fast Company once put it, drawing on the work of Cathy Davidson. For education, that means ending the SAT, grades, and standardized testing.
So what should we do? First we must redefine schooling to account for the role of failure.
Second, parents must understand that the road to success is uneven and messy. As Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner wrote in Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, “traditional ‘helicopter parents’ indulge their children’s every whim, while hovering and protecting them from adversity. For innovation-minded parents, intrinsic motivation — passion — is the driving force.”
Third, let’s bring back the dreamers. Seth Godin wrote in his book Stop Stealing Dreams, “students are trained to dream small dreams.” He adds, “Dreamers in school are dangerous. Dreamers can be impatient, unwilling to become well-rounded, and most of all, hard to fit into existing systems.” Dreamers are the “round pegs in the square holes,” as Apple’s “Think Different” ad campaign captured — “The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.”
And finally, schools have the weight of instilling what Wagner calls the 3 P’s: “play, passion, and purpose.”
Ellsberg argued in his book The Education of Millionaires, “Changes in one part of the system impact the entire system. Prepare for many more interruptions, shocks, surprises, global reorganizations, ‘black swans,’ and totally unforeseen developments on this scale (both positive and negative). The ‘left field’ out of which random and unpredictable events can come has just gone global.”
This up-and-coming generation will be forced to face and act on some of the greatest challenges in human history. I want kids leaving school with their heads hurting on how to shake up the world.
Keep changing! Keep doing! Keep dreaming! As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “When you stop learning, you stop living in any vital and meaningful sense.”
Nikhil Goyal is a student at Syosset High School in New York.
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