Permission to Fail

Let’s face it – some people just aren’t smart enough for college.  They won’t be able to hack it, no matter how much help you throw at them.

I’m guessing – from the gasp of horror I’m imagining in my head – that I’m right about the unspoken American mythos that everyone – everyone – is able to make it through college if they just try hard enough.

This is a dangerous thought.

Don’t mistake this as some kind of “you’re on your own, America is a pure meritocracy” kind of argument.  There are lots of Very Big Obstacles in the way of people succeeding in postsecondary education. Cultural capital, physical access, monetary access, poor preparation during elementary and secondary schooling.  Discrimination due to race, gender, religion, lifestyle, sexual orientation, whatever and all of the above.  Family of origin issues, life circumstances, and work obligations also limit the ability of those who could succeed.  That is NOT what I’m talking about. 

The danger is in presuming that all people could succeed if only all the barriers come down. And that is patently false. The reason this is so dangerous is twofold:

  1. There’s an asymptotic cost. As the final last few students are failing, more and more resources (time, money, capital, etc) are poured into getting them to succeed. This “spending” quickly becomes wasteful. The flip side of this problem is degree inflation and dropping standards for degrees

  2. It makes failure a personal failure of will

The latter, I think, is more damaging to society. It gives additional (and false) prestige and rewards to a particular type of skill and learning. There is a huge amount of skill and knowledge embedded in any job – even so-called “menial” jobs – and the myth of passing college as a reflection of personal will and moral character intrinsically devalues everything else.  This leads to pay inequalities, status inequalities, and in places and organizations where they overlap, it leads to rank stupidity as the people with degrees ignore the information from those on the ground.

It leads to treating people by position, rather than by knowledge.  Degrees lead to undermining the actual meritocracy we claim to desire.

We must be able to hold two thoughts in our head at once:  That there are real barriers to education, and that some people will not be able to succeed at postsecondary education.

And then, most importantly, we must be able to remember that those people are worth just as much as a Nobel Prize winner.

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