Friday Risk Reading: Is Failure the Secret to Success?

This week’s recommended risk reading is a recent article from the New York Times Sunday magazine. Entitled “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?,” the article examines a new approach to building character among students, not simply strengthening their academic performance.  It’s clearly hit a nerve, topping the most-emailed list on the Times website all week.

At the center of the article are a handful of teachers and scholars who are taking the risk of asking hard questions about the way we educate kids.  They’re examining whether we are preparing them to be successful in life, not merely good at taking standardized tests.

Dominic Randolph, headmaster at the prestigious Riverdale Country School, captures the issue well:

“The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

What struck me about the article was that it essentially asks whether we are encouraging kids to take enough risk in the course of their education – and whether we as parents are capable of letting them, overcoming the desire to shield kids from hardship:

“It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”

Ok, so I’ll cook dinner, but after that, kids, you’re on your own.


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