"Grumpy Old Man" thinks about... Failure

I know a thing or two about failure, and how it gets in the way. Three attempts at my driving test; re-sits in my O Levels (as they then were); pretty poor A Levels; general low ability or attention-span or something, preventing me following one ambition, to be a Barrister. Poor eyesight getting in the way of the other two: entry to the Navy as a deck officer, which I should have liked, and to the Air Force as a pilot, which I should have LOVED.

Apart from the above, life has been pretty good, I suppose!

So what is all this rant about? Basically, I am getting quite worn down by the PC sort of drive by/within society at every level to deny failure. Where Hoodies cause havoc; where parents (young inadequate ones generally) grossly neglect their children; where released criminals and/or “loonies” attack and kill the innocent - it's never their fault as such; it's "poor home life"; "lack of appropriate support agencies". Turn the spotlight on the “support agencies: the armies of Police, Probation Officers, Social Workers, Health Visitors and so on. Its always some “breakdown in communication“, never anybody’s fault, never failure (of “systems” maybe) but never of/by the people responsible.

According to the clear-cut terminology of 40 years ago, you "Passed", or you "Failed" - simple as that. Passing your Eleven Plus meant advance to GO - collect a future. Failing your Eleven Plus meant do not advance to GO (possibly, in some cases, go straight to jail (albeit with a few years at a Comprehensive in between). As I am not in jail you will gather that (exceptionally for me) I passed!

I now work in Higher Education, at a "New University". Perhaps because it is "New", though I am led to believe this is not so, the word failure is just not allowed. Much too final-seeming. Much too upsetting for the student, his/her family and friends and so on. Those students who cannot reach the (to my mind) pathetically low 30% which affords them the possibility of condonement in a subject, are said to have been "Referred": given a re-sit as the chance to retrieve the situation. And believe me, a reported mark of less than 30% really takes some getting down to, so enormous is the economic pressure (the need for "bums on seats" - fee income) and the desire to satisfy "the customer" (the student or his/her sponsor). Academic integrity is thrown straight out of the window by my bosses in favour of a blanket policy of ordering us to fix the marks to arrive at a "respectable" average pass rate. No matter how lazy such low-performing students may be - most making no effort whatsoever to prepare between lecture and seminar, and possibly in some cases none for exams either - they get in through the back door in this way. Thus, a mark of 30 becomes 40 to produce a pass, or 20 becomes 30 (a 50% "mark-up") to facilitate condonement.

In my own day as an undergraduate on this same course (you will have seen this next bit coming) one had to obtain an overall average in any year of 50%, 40% in each subject, two re-sits maximum. How many of us progressed from Year One to Year Two? 18 out of 35. Nowadays, to progress to the next year, a student need only get an overall average of 40%, and can fail a number of modules, (oops, wrong word, sorry!) provided they catch up before they leave.

I am reminded here of the old chestnut about an airline pilot who when faced with landing his plane suddenly announced that he’d missed the week when they were learning how to land! Similar jokes relate to medics and certain surgical procedures. I can’t help thinking it fortunate that the subject I teach is not of life-or-death importance to the world as I "certify" so many folk who don’t know much about it!

What does this lead to? Cause for another TBubble perhaps on the "Blame Culture" – whereby nobody is responsible for their own fate? "Ambulance chasing" lawyers encourage us to claim for every bit of bad luck whatever befell us. We sue McDonalds for not warning us that, in excess, their foods will make us fat... and so on!

What has this last to do with failure? It is the outcome of telling ourselves, telling each other, that nothing is OUR fault. WE are not to blame. It cannot be that WE have failed to take responsibility for our lives; there must be somebody else out there we can blame.

The writer of this Grumpy Old Thought Bubble is a 53 year old lecturer in Higher Education. Wishing not to "fail" to retain employment he has asked for his name to remain anonymous. (Rumour has it that he has been approached by the Daily Mail. They like his style!)


Anonymous said...

dear Grumpy
Your TBubble brings to mind the current case of a young woman who had had a bit too much to drink, and was dancing on the garage roof outside her window; she fell through the skylight and was badly injured. She is now suing her landlord for not telling her that she shouldn't dance on the roof after drinking. Oh dear...

We can all come up with these silly stories. But seriously...Karen Armstrong tells of the repeated failures in her life -- failing as a nun, as an academic etc. and then writing "A History of God" because she had failed at everything and had run out of anything else to try. Perhaps if she had "succeeded" as a mediocre academic, she would never have become a brilliant writer. In that sense, maybe the type of failure that says "you're not yet doing what you should do" or "you're not yet giving what you should give" is actually a blessing; and the type of success that says "I guess this is all you'll ever be capable of so I'd better pass you" is actually an injustice.

Patti Whaley

Anonymous said...

Dear Grumpy,
I agree with Patti, and with the old adage that a person who never makes a mistake never makes anything.
The problem lies with fear of pain, and of the pain of failure - both giving it and receiving it.
You are told to pass all your dim-wits because we are busy protecting them from hurt - and ultimately from self-recognition - never easy.

In the same way modern 'health and safety' stops us, and especially our children, from taking risks and learning from them - both ways! It is sad - they are missing out on life.

Kit Widdows (another grumpy old man)

Anonymous said...

Of course in my day it was generally recognised that a student was 'educated in the vacations from Cambridge' (or wherever).
Is there any evidence of deterioration on that front? That would be tremendously serious.
Gordon Neal

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