I have been thinking lately about failure and mistakes. Schools are arenas where we often isolate those who commit them (go to the principal’s office!) or put on probation those who do not perform well (code word: improvement plans). Both contribute to a culture of blame and of shame. Historically, the punitive route has always been easier. If anything, failures and mistakes can be the great equalizer. They put us on common ground, from janitor to head of school, 3rd grader to valedictorian. It is the existential tattoo of being human. Yet we live in a culture bound by right answers and wrong ones. Boxes and labels. Dewey spoke eloquently about this kind of two dimensional thinking in “Experience and Education” when he said, ”Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites….In terms of Either –Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities. “
But mistakes, if we allow them, and failure, if acknowledged, can be harbingers of opportunity and self-knowledge.
In organizations that are unforgiving, the default mode is to either cover up or to point fingers. When we assign blame to everyone but ourselves, we vindicate ourselves. On the Richter scale of emotional intelligence it is up there with road rage: instinctual, and unconscious. I have been in both camps, a disciple of blame and avoidance.
Failure, a close relative to mistakes is another cultural taboo (in spite of the spate of articles and books on embracing it). Failure is like a bad odor: You want to avoid it. Flee from it. Or be in total denial. When I was fired from a job in which I held a high position, it was a time of shame and retrenchment. I felt branded with the Scarlett A of unemployed. At the time, I felt lost, wounded, and very angry. Failure never feels good. It’s not something you want to talk about at a dinner party. But it is a part of the University of life. And if we accept responsibility, probe beneath the surface; we apprehend one of life’s great treasures: humility and perspective. Failure is not apocalyptic. It is a rite of passage that sometimes (if we allow it) can transform us.
There is the proverbial ‘school of life.’ But what about life in school? The knotty, ambivalent, complexities where failure and mistakes happen all the time. Where do they fit into the curriculum? This is where literature, the sciences, the arts, and history can play such a riveting role. The dilemma of Oedipus, the trial of Socrates, the Voyager Space Shuttle, Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the life of Charley Parker. School should be a place where we explore and talk openly of these things, so that our students can learn what it means to live deliberately and mindfully. But this only happens in schools filled with honest, motivated, connected, eager, learning, experimenting, and reflective people who are enfranchised to take responsibility. If school, as we so glibly claim, is a preparation for life, than it is not test scores that kids need readiness for but a seamless environment which takes seriously learning how to lose, how to fail, and what it means to accept responsibility for our actions. Who has not broken a rule, lost an assignment, or unfairly judged a colleague? These are immeasurably important lessons that arise from our frailty and sometimes our carelessness.
So teachers and administrators, make your school (and life) a safe zone for failure and for mistakes. But don’t confuse understanding with permissiveness. Few things establish a greater sense of bonding or commonality. Or the preparedness to live life ethically.