A New Addition to College Curricula:  Preparing to Fail

The New York Times generally covers education issues in its “Fashion and Style” section.  Make of that what you will (including my reading habits), but one of their recent articles caught my eye: “On Campus, Failure is on the Syllabus” (June 24).

The lede is illustrative:

Last year, during fall orientation at Smith College, and then again recently at final-exam time, students who wandered into the campus hub were faced with an unfamiliar situation: the worst failures of their peers projected onto a large screen.

“I failed my first college writing exam,” one student revealed.

. . . .

The faculty, too, contributed stories of screwing up.

“I failed out of college,” a popular English professor wrote. “Sophomore year. Flat-out, whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.”

“I drafted a poem entitled ‘Chocolate Caramels,’ ” said a literature and American studies scholar, who noted that it “has been rejected by 21 journals … so far.”

It is now a meme (see my entry on “Watch What You Post!” for a definition) that millennials are unusually fragile creatures who require cosseting against the vicissitudes of the real world.  In other words, they are weak creatures who have been raised in a bubble.

This is an odd idea on its face when applied to students admitted to elite colleges and universities.  These students have won an extraordinarily competitive race for four years to demonstrate that they are superbly equipped for any academic challenge.  Why would these students, of all people, suddenly crumble when they arrive at college?

Late adolescence is an uncertain, and even dangerous, moment.  At the extreme, this is the time when some forms of mental illness are more likely to emerge, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression.  See https://nami.org/collegeguide (claiming that one in five adults will experience a form of mental illness in college).  Students are also experimenting with adult life, including entering relationships which can end badly.

Further, many of these students have never experienced academic failure before they arrive at college.  The winners of a grueling race that penalizes even a “C” quite heavily, these students are heavily invested in succeeding, and are likely to be blindsided by failure.

Colleges are becoming alarmed at the frequency of students buckling under the new – for these students – experience of failure.  Smith College reminds students that 64% of students will receive a B-minus or lower during their time there.

And it goes a step further:

[W]hen students enroll in [Smith’s] program, they receive a certificate of failure upon entry, a kind of permission slip to fail. It reads: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

A number of students proudly hang it from their dormitory walls.

Smith is just one of many elite colleges rolling out such programs.

consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling.

Some of this can be attributed to the newly fashionable idea that “grit” is an important ingredient for success.  As with most such revelations, a grain of truth can be puffed up into a silo full of grant-funded excesses seemingly devoted to accentuating the obvious.

However, such movements can also be useful, and this is one of them.  The “lesson” for students and the college counselors who work with them is that students should be made aware of the challenges ahead.  Most important, students should be told before they leave the nest that colleges have resources available to help students in distress.  Students should know the location of the Counseling Office on campus.  They should be instructed to seek help, and informed that doing so will not result in any social or parental stigma.

We all know that failure is part of life.  Make sure that your student knows that, too.  For my part, my students who just graduated high school and thought that they had heard the last of me until my Christmas break “check-in” are about to receive an e-mail with the New York Times article attached.

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