Failure in School

Everyone knows it is important for children to be successful in school and to grow to be more thoughtful and successful later in life. One of the challenges with the current school model that Ta-Nehisi Coats points out in his book Between the World and Me is the way in which our education system is designed for a specific culture with specific expectations for specific students. Those who match the culture and who have the right support from parents and teachers find success, but those who don’t fit with the culture of the schools, who don’t have support from parents, and who don’t have safe environments are left behind. Our individualized culture, focused on self-reliance and self-responsibility often looks at schools as though they are an equalizing force, giving each student an equal opportunity to grow and succeed, but Coats views schools differently.

“The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him,” Coats wrote about the system he found him self in as a child. The great equalizing power of school, was an equalizing of blame, moving the responsibility for success or failure from society on to the individual. This meant that the child whose parents worked two or three jobs, the child whose parents dealt with substance abuse, and the child who had to walk home along dangerous streets was now on equal footing with the children in gated communities with parents who could afford to stay at home and pay for private tutors. In this model it is not the parents, not the society, and not the culture of the school that are responsible for whether kids learn and grow, but rather the children themselves who bear the responsibility of success in school.

When we criticize those who do not complete school and resign them to low paying jobs, poor housing, and exclude them from society, we are reducing their future based on factors they could not control growing up. For me it seems unreasonable to ask so much of a person at such a young age, to demand that they not make mistakes and demand that they become more than human before they are 18. For Coats, it was unreasonable to demand academic success from young children who lacked the support and guidance of parents, who had to learn in schools that  did not accept the culture of the child, and who have to navigate the tough social realities of concentrated poverty. The most challenging part of the system, as revealed by Coats, is the idea that school was a great equalizer, and that after someone failed in school, they could be forgotten by society.
Advertisements

How Close Together Success and Failure Can Be

Ta-Nihisi Coats, author of Between the World and Me, reflects on his childhood and how close he was at many points in his life to stumbling down the wrong path. Coats grew up in a rough part of Baltimore and had to make daily decisions that could push his life in the wrong direction or help him stay afloat. As a young black man Coats remembers the challenge of making these daily decisions and describes how these decisions physically manifested in his life. Making the right decision was not always clear, and making the wrong decision (or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) often resulted in physical harm. The challenge for Coats was that the right and wrong decisions were never clear. Many times the wrong decision led to physical harm and pain, but oftentimes, so did the right decision.

“What was hiding behind the smoke screen of streets and schools?” Coats asked. “And what did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me?”

Coats described the importance of being tough and understanding how to navigate the streets where he grew up. Even well intentioned children could unintentionally cross the wrong child or the wrong person on the street corner, and even worse, if their parents had issues with dangerous people in the neighborhood, then so did the children. Not shaking hands the right way with the right people and not being able to give the right head nod to the right guys could place ones life at risk, no matter how well one did in school. With such an imminent threat of danger in the streets, the world of number 2 pencils, abstract education principles, and distant payoffs from education were too hazy to be taken seriously. Survival became the main goal, and survival required a set of skills that did not align with the world of education created by the people outside the ghettos.

All of this created a world where Coats and his friends constantly had to walk a fine line between success and failure. The inability to focus in class and build the mental skill set needed to find a good job later in life put their futures in risk, but at the same time, the inability to understand the streets and protect oneself put ones current life at risk. Few could ever navigate this world by shutting out the negative of the social world around them to excel in school, but all were expected to do so, and many would go on to be criticized for not successfully navigating such treacherous terrain from elementary through high school. A wrong step, a few bad grades, an unintentional insult to the wrong person, and success (or even life) could be taken away from Coats and the children he grew up with.

Interdependence

Senator Cory Booker starts the epilogue to his book United with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency.” Throughout his book he focuses on the connections that everyone in the United States shares simply by being an American. We are connected to those generations that came before us and the decisions they made, and we are connected to the generations that will come after us and those who will live with the world we create. Our lives are dependent on one another in ways that we cannot always imagine or understand, but when we focus on our connections we can begin to see how important it is to live intentionally and recognize how our choices impact others.

 

In the United States self reliance and personal responsibility are emphasized far more than interdependence or social reliance. When we talk about success we are quick to look at the ways that we have achieved greatness on our own and we are quick to provide examples of  individuals producing great value and reaping great reward. It is our individual spirit and our industriousness that we look at when we think about how we succeed. The situation and the environment are often left out of the equation in favor of the obstacles we had to overcome and the smart decisions we had to make. When we look at what a successful person is, we focus completely on the person, assuming that the person is great entirely due to their own actions and hard work. This translates back into the world in which we live, and we look at successful and famous people and assume there is something special about them or that they are worthy of praise because they achieved wealth, status, and fame through hard work and an innovative spirit. In some way, we elevate their moral standing, their intelligence, and their character simply because we see them as successful.

 

When thinking about failure on the other hand, we find many excuses that push responsibility away from us, onto the situation, onto other people, and onto random events. Our personal responsibility seems to diminish as soon as things are not going our way. We hold self-sufficiency as our goal, and push toward it, and any failure seems to indicate that we are somehow less than an ideal version of ourselves, so we find ways in which our failure or lack of success is not an indication of our self-sufficiency. Yet at the same time, when we see people who ask for money, or are out of shape and are not as financially well of as we are, we blame the individual and begin assuming that they have deficiencies in character and work habit that have led to their less than ideal situation.

 

A more healthy world view would be one similar to Gandhi’s. We would recognize that our success is not simply a matter of our own great decisions and actions, but rather the consequence of our choices within an environment that in many ways shaped the actions and options available to us. Our success or our failure would be dependent on the lives of those who came before us and the systems, norms, and culture they left behind. Shifting how we think about where self-responsibility fits with success can change the way we think of others, helping us see value in all people, and not just those who have achieved notoriety and wealth.

 

When we step outside the personal responsibility bubble we can begin to see that our actions and decisions matter a lot, not just for our own success but for the well being of everyone. We can begin to see that we had assistance from people and factors that we could not control or predict, and it helps us to become more connected with those around us.

Our Environment, Incarceration, and Societal Responsibility

In my last post, I wrote about Cory Booker’s reactions to meeting inmates at a prison when he was in law school. Having a chance to speak with inmates and ask them about their lives, the environments they grew up and lived in, and how they approached life in jail was very impactful for Booker. He began to look at people in prison as real people, and began to look at them beyond just the negative things they had done. In short, he began to see a more full picture of who the people he met were. Reflecting on the experience Booker wrote, “I could walk out of that place instead of remaining not just because of my own choices but also because of the abundantly privileged environments in which I had lived.” It was where Booker grew up, the support his family provided, and the schools Booker was able to attend that shaped his life and the choices he could make. Throughout his life he has certainly had to make smart decisions and has certainly had to work hard, but because he grew up in a more affluent part of New Jersey and because his family was able to provide for him (both financially and in terms of being role models) Booker saw a true avenue and opportunity to make the right decisions.

 

Many of those who end up in jail do not start out with the same advantages as Booker. It is not to say that we can excuse the crimes and mistakes they have made, but if we truly want to correct behavior, and if we truly want to put an end to crime throughout society, we must think about what we provide for others and what the environment is like where these individuals grow up, work, and live.

 

As Booker left the prison he thought about the people society has left behind and the decisions society has made to lock problems away in prisons. “I walked out of the prison free, and yet I was shackled to what I now knew,” Booker writes, “I was implicated. I couldn’t take my full measure of pride in our greatness as a society if  I was not willing to take responsibility for our failures.” In America we place a lot of responsibility on the individual and we celebrate individual achievement and success to a high degree. We are also quick to point out the moral shortcomings and negative traits in others that lead to failure. Our society is quick to celebrate individual accomplishments and we are able to view ourselves in the success stories of others, taking pride in one person’s accomplishments as a reflection of the potential within our society. When one fails however, we are not quick to latch on to their negative outcome and identify ways that their failure could be attributed to society.

 

Great  wealth is a result of a superior capitalistic society and freedom, when local sports teams win it is a result of community support and fandom, and when a new business opens up it is because our community is so vibrant and wonderful that we attract the interests of those who want to give us more. Failure on the other hand, is a result of an individual being unable to accurately read the economy. Crime stems from personal moral failures. And poverty exists because other people are lazy and don’t want to take jobs. This split in how we all share success but view failure as individual shortcomings is an inaccurate and shortsighted view of society.

 

Booker’s time visiting the prison helped him to see that how society is organized impacts the opportunities that people face. How society supports or abandons people makes it easy for some to make good decisions and generate wealth, and it places others in positions where crime and poverty are hard to avoid. It is hard to take pride in society when we leave behind so many people and focus all our attention instead on a relative few that achieve great success.

If You Could Not Fail

Before Senator Cory Booker had taken up politics, he went to law school and dedicated much of his time to civil rights and helping those who had the fewest resources. Throughout law school he had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do, and focused on helping people who did not have the means to help themselves. As every young person going through college, he was bombarded with questions about what his next steps would be and what his plan looked like. Booker did not have a clear path toward a large law firm, the way many of his colleagues did, since he was instead motivated by social issues and injustice in the communities around his hometown in New Jersey. Questions about plans and the future haunted Booker, as they have so many young people, until one day, his mother posed a question that changed his narrative.
In a conversation with his mother she referred back to biblical teachings and switched Booker’s thoughts of fear into perspectives of untold possibility. The question posed was not what would he do after receiving his degree but rather, “ask yourself what would you do if you could not fail? If you knew for sure you would be successful, what would you do?”
Booker writes about his reaction to his mother’s question saying, “It was a question that began to keep me up at night—not with anxiety but with energized thought. The question awakened my imagination again; it ignited dreams. What would I do if I could not fail?”
The question posed by Booker’s mom is an excellent shift in the way we think about the challenges and hurdles ahead of us. It is easy to get sucked into a space where we can only seem to focus on the negative possibilities of failure rather than the various forms of success that we may find along our journey. We often view failure as if it is a final end and a defining characteristic of our life, but in reality failure is just one of many experiences that we have throughout our lifetime, and we should not let it hold us from our dreams and pursuits.
When Booker’s thought process switched he recognized the power of the thoughts he was living with. He recognized how damaging his narrative about himself had become. “The most powerful conversations we have in any day,” he wrote, “are the conversations we have with ourselves.” Focusing on the negative and the fear of not knowing what his next steps would be had limited Booker and trapped him in fear. Shifting the focus to what he could do gave him new energy and inspiration to accomplish great tasks.

Things Will Go Wrong

The importance of anticipation and preparation for challenges is one of the items that author Ryan Holiday writes about in his book, The obstacle is the Way. In true stoic fashion, Holiday encourages us to step back and anticipate what challenges we might face along our path, and plan ways in which we could overcome our obstacles or the challenges ahead of us. Holiday also highlights the importance of understanding that our plans will not always go the way we want, and that it is important to handle negativity and failure in a calm and objective manner. Setting up this idea he writes, “the only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.”

 

No matter what, our plans to do not take place in a vacuum and we are always dependent on other for our success. The more people we involve in our plans, the more opportunities for things to go wrong, but at the same time the more people included, the further we can go. What Holiday explains in his writing is that we should expect situations and demands to change, meaning that our actions and endpoints will also change. Our plans may seem extraordinary, but they may not always be realistic given the actors and expectations we have, and we should be willing to adjust accordingly in reaction to the real world around us.

 

When our plans completely crash, Holiday offers additional advice. “And in the case where nothing could be done, the stoics would use it as an important practice to do something the rest of us too often fail to do: manage expectations. Because sometimes the only answer to “What if . . . “ is, it will suck but we’ll be ok.” When we fail to reach our goals and when our plans do not work out the tempting thing to do is blame someone else and make excuses for why things went wrong. Holiday instead encourages us to move forward and understand that we are still ok. Rather than letting ourselves be wrecked because a plan failed, be it as small as the rout we plan to take to the movie or as large as our plan to get a new job, we should recognize that nothing has truly affected us, and it is simply our mind that decides whether we are impacted at all.

The Impermanence of Failure

Throughout much of his writing, author Colin Wright tends to focus on our thoughts and the ways in which we react to things.  He frequently writes about self awareness and the ways in which our interpretations of our situations affects our thoughts and reactions. By becoming a more aware person and being able to control our thoughts we are able to have more positive reactions to the world around us.  In his book Considerations he writes, “Very seldom does failure have permanent repercussions. Unless you allow it to that is.  Many of the negative consequences of an action tend to result not from outside forces, but from our own negative thinking.”

 

I think this quote shows the power of self awareness and the power of controlling our thoughts. When we are able to recognize how we are thinking and feeling about any given event, we are better able to control our thoughts and shift them in a positive direction. When we are able to do this, we are in many ways able to chose our reactions and the ways in which we act.

 

To me the part that stand out the most from this quote is the last few words about negative thinking. By building self awareness and focusing in on our thoughts we can reduce the amount of negative thinking in our lives in all situations. Recognizing how your are thinking and acting allows us to see when we are over emphasizing small problems. For me, being able to recognize when I am letting something unimportant impact me in a negative way has helped me feel better about myself and my situations on a daily basis.

 

When it comes to failure, recognizing what Wright is discussing can be huge, especially in our professional careers.  We tend to fixate on things we have not done well, and we do not remember the positive parts of our workday.  When we dial in on the negative we build self doubt and cling to fears. What Wright is showing when with this quote is that others won’t remember those failures as long as we will, so it is not worth lamenting over those failures. If we do not learn to control our emotions and thoughts then all we gain from failure is a negative self impression and fear. Practicing self awareness can help us shift those thoughts so that we do not hang on to a past failure and allow it to become  a roadblock as we move forward.