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.