Let Them Fail

February 14, 2013 § 12 Comments


This past weekend at the PASA conference, more than a couple folks asked me where I’d gone to school. I get this question a lot, and I love it, in part because I harbor an unflattering degree of antiestablishment pride in having defied the high school dropout stereotypes (well, most of them, anyway), and in part because it is a tremendously convenient jumping off point to a larger conversation about the current state and proper role of public education.

In truth, of course, I didn’t dropout of high school because I had some noble intent for my young life. Rather, I left school primarily because I was disinterested, and could not be compelled to become interested. Well, that, and the fact that school was having a negative impact on the quality and duration of my partying. I mean, really: Even a young man has only so much time and energy. Priorities, priorities!

Let me be clear: I will never know how my life might have unfolded had I stuck it out and followed the presumed path to college and beyond. It might have been great, fantastic, extraordinary. Or it might not have been. Of course I cannot know, and to even hazard a guess seems both futile and pointless. That’s the path I did not walk, and in not walking it, I did not blaze it, and therefore, it leads nowhere.

I do not think that formalized American educational opportunities are inherently bad in and of themselves, and I know darn well that the vast majority of the people working within these institutions have only the best of intentions. But despite this, my view of public education is jaundiced: I see it, in broad terms, as being part and parcel of a particular set of expectations and arrangements that, when taken as a whole, are not leading our society to a very promising place. It seems to me as if most educational institutions view it as their duty to prepare students for the world as it exists (and who can blame them? After all, this is what we demand), without considering whether or not that is really the world we all want to inhabit. I believe that so long as these institutions promulgate the mantra that our children must be groomed to compete and excel on a global stage, in an economy that reveres growth and defines success and security in terms of money and force, a world of true peace and equality will remain forever out of reach. In short, the feedback loops built into the status quo of our contemporary economy will not be overcome so long as we continue to educate our youth in a manner that upholds them.

In my own life, I view leaving high school as having been an enabling factor. Not so much for the doors it opened and the so-called “opportunities” it presented (although given the space, I would perhaps argue that it was beneficial even in these regards), but for having played a role in changing my view of what, quite simply, mattered. Not grades, not money, not winning, but things that are less tangible, that less readily lend themselves to being quantified and therefore, cannot be added or subtracted from GDP or other economic metrics. Connection. Contentment. Feeling.

I realize that I’m probably as guilty of stereotyping the institutionalized educational experience as many are of stereotyping the high school dropout as a so-called “failure,” so I will stop. I will even agree that when measured against the contemporary American definition of success, I am a failure. But the truth is, when I look at what our culture’s definition of success is doing to the world, I couldn’t be happier than to be failing. And frankly, I can’t want anything more than for my kids to fail, too.




§ 12 Responses to Let Them Fail

  • ncfarmchick says:

    Yet another post that hits close to home for me. I struggled with the process of applying for college. I remeber being so afraid I wouldn’t get into the one school I wanted to attend that I almost missed the deadline for applications. I was just paralyzed so kept putting it off. My mother finally told me I didn’t have to go if I didn’t want to but I knew she did not mean it at all. It was expected and I knew I would really dissapoint my parents if I did not go. Fortunately, I did get into the only school I wanted to go to and it was life-changing. Looking back, I realize I needed to have that particular experience to undo all the damage (and that is not too strong a word) done by my public HS experience. The only positive thing that came out of my HS life was I met my husband there and we’ve been together ever since. But, the fear returned when it was time to graduate. I had so many interests and I had no idea which direction to go. So, I did what all my other overachiever friends did. I went to graduate school starting the program less than 3 weeks after I receieved my BA. I think I knew even then that I was delaying embarking on my adult life because I had no faith in myself to just get out there in the world and just get going and try something. I was terrified of failure so just stuck with what I already knew which was being a student. As you say, I don’t spend too much time regretting these decisions or second-guessing them as I am very content with my life. But, I think I would have gained much needed confidence much earlier in life if I had made some different choices. Funny, I needed confidence to gain confidence! All of this is to say that I agree with you and have this at the forefront of my mind for the day when my boys reach college age. I have already had conversations with grandparents who, very kindly, want to start college funds for them. I say, “What if they don’t want to go?” This resulted in some very interesting discussions and they all seem to understand our point of view. I like to think that the culture I grew up in (you have to go to college or you’re a loser) has changed to realize that college does not equal success in life and, in fact, may hinder some from discovering their own path. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. It helps to know others feel similarly. Plus, I don’t know many college grads who use the word “promulgate” properly!

  • Dave says:

    Great post Ben. The first thought that came into my head was how my wife Meg and I intentionally don’t ask folks where they work, and where they went to school. We don’t ask these questions for several reasons, but the biggest one is that it doesn’t really help to define the person standing before you.

    I too chose a different path than what was prescribed for me. I left high school early by completing my General Educational Development test, moved away from my parents, got myself a full time job, and an apartment. I was seventeen. Looking back I’m not sure if it was the best choice I could have made, but at the time it seemed like the only choice that made sense to me. I was smart enough to know that something wasn’t right with the system I was being shuttled through, but I didn’t have the life experience to know what my other options were.

    Which brings me to what I think was the biggest failing of the education system I travelled through. The lack vocational programs at my high school. If I had learning a trade as an option I think things would have gone very differently for me. I’ll cut my rant off before I highjack your comments section.

    I just wanted to share that I too chose a different path for myself, it wasn’t always easy, but looking back I have no regrets. It was the first big decision I made for myself and it has shaped the man I am today.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Thanks, Dave. Great point about asking folks where they work, or where they went to school. I agree that the answers to these questions do little to properly define a person, although it’s also my observation that this is precisely how a lot of people define themselves. The truth is, though, that I define myself – at least in part – by having not finished school. So I might be a bit of a hypocrite in this regard.

      • Wendy H says:

        I have battled this, too, in the past – this ‘self-definition’ that has hinged on the societal standard that ncfarmchick above pointed out (you have to go to college or you’re a loser) – which might have stunted me had I not had one extremely intelligent parent who opted for the non-formal path themselves (the other went the formal route). I look at myself and others as Dave does – and, instead, ask “what rich experiences have they lived, what particular path has brought them to be in my life, and what can I learn from them to grow more myself?”. I believe that is a better way to be engaged than the more indoctrinated way that seems to run rampant throughout society today.

  • maggiemehaffey says:

    Isn’t it strange that we are a society that defines learning as something one can only do in school? When there weren’t public schools, people learned from their parents, or the books that were brought into their homes, or from an interested adult who exposed them to knowledge. Abraham Lincoln didn’t go to school, and neither did his parents teach him. He learned because he was hungry to learn, and found books and educated himself. And he was, I would posit, one of the most intelligent and learned men of all time. We do a great disservice to our children and ourselves if we keep promulgating (there it is again…) the myth that a good life is possible only through success in school. I went back to college after having dropped out and after my children were born. It was a far better experience for the maturity I had gained. That was when I learned how to learn for myself, and I have never, and will never stop! Lifelong learning is one of the essential keys to happiness, no matter where it’s learned, right?

  • Thank you again for articulating something that was struggling for expression within me!

  • Wendy H says:

    Bravo, Ben – well said! I had a similar way of thinking myself growing up.

    Interestingly, several years ago, I was part of a day-long conference and subsequent round table discussion in Randolph about education and entrepreneurship in Vermont.

    One of the questions I posed to my group (and to a staff member of Senator Leahy’s, no less) was why children go from being encouraged in their early school years to thinking entrepreneurally (e.g., lemonade stand, cookie sales, jewelry-making, etc.) to being led into a curriculum and mindset that one must continue into college to be seen as worthy and successful. This is SO counterproductive – and counterintuitive – to our innate creative spirit!

    I, myself, did not follow that path directly and found I experienced a much more interesting life than if I’d gone to college directly after graduation. In fact, how my path led me to finding my primary career could not have been predicted or studied for had I gone on into academia. It was merely through my own understanding of watching for certain “connections” & “signs” that I managed to find the path. And it was partly due to the fact I found my entrepreneurial spirit again, which encouraged me to think outside the box and take chances I hadn’t when I was in back in high school. I did eventually go on to college, but it was more than 10 years later and only to appease my employer’s doctrine of expectation at the time, .which is anathema to my current lifestyle I might add. It’s usefulness in my life now is pretty near zero I think!

    My own upbringing served to make me believe that furthering one’s education should be done as a personal quest out of interest – not because it is mandated by employment, monetary or social (acceptance) system. And, I’m sure we both know too many college graduates who are life-stupid, with all their knowledge based on textbooks that have no real identity to life’s problems or issues faced. Common sense and creative thinking will help one survive much more today than a piece of paper hanging on a wall, wouldn’t you agree?

    As you so eloquently stated, one’s personal metrics cannot necessarily be measured and quantified by most formal education standards, but they are just as important – more maybe – than the current basis upon which most have bought into.

    A country is only as free as the minds that keep it so! ;-D

  • Miriam says:

    Beautiful! I just found your writing this morning, and I look forward to reading more. I totally agree with you about “the things that matter”- it’s why I decided to homeschool many years ago:)

  • Angela says:

    I love reading when you write about education. I don’t have kids yet, and think often of how I want to raise and school them, and your writing is an inspiration (always). Let us all fail, if that is failing.

  • Erin says:

    Great Post!
    This raises so many thoughts about my family’s past and future.
    My Dad was in his third attempt at grade ten when a buddy came to the door one day before school and said “I’m hitching a ride to Ottawa to join the Navy, wanna came?” and my Dad said “sure”.
    He joined the Navy, was there for six years where he matured immensely, and learned alot about the ocean, big guns, people and the world, and reinforced his knowledge that this type of structure etc was not for him. He wasn’t failing his high school classes because he was a dummy, more because he didn’t fit there, he had no time for impractical learning at that time in his life and was in a holding pattern. After the Navy he returned to his town and life went on to include taking part in a log building skills school, building his own log house, becoming a paramedic- a career that suited him to a T, and raising three kids.
    And now that I have a family of my own I feel I have to buck against the pressure to put my kids in Early French Immersion at school (seen as a big advantage here in Canada) because “without it they’ll never get a job”. Complete nonsense! My peers all seem to think the be all and end all is to work for the Federal Government- in a way I feel sorry for them to have such a narrow view of the world and such little understanding of what is out there beyond cubicle world.
    Hopefully I’ll be able to encourage my kids towards a path that leads them to live a fulfilled life and see their “failures” simply as steps towards a larger whole.

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