Callum Borchers' Blog

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Losing the freedom to be average, not the freedom to fail, is the real threat

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Rather than raise the bar of excellence, Americans seem content to lower it. (Photos from Wikimedia Commons)















The following essay is a response to Michael Goodwin’s video about the freedom to fail.

“I just have a lot on my mind,” Grant told me, which was sort of like an Olsen twin claiming to have a lot on her middle. Grant is the third of my seven younger siblings, and he has autism. On that disorder’s broad spectrum, he falls somewhere in the middle: Neither a savant nor a simpleton, Grant had long been enrolled in mainstream classes but always needed academic assistance.

Now in 11th grade, Grant worried he would not receive a high school diploma. He had failed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, a prerequisite for graduation, a second time. My perpetually relaxed little bro was suddenly stressed to a degree I’d never seen.

Grant’s situation divided my sensibilities. I applauded the state’s effort to combat the culture of social promotion described by Michael Goodwin in “New Threats to Freedom.” No longer could compassionate, or exasperated, teachers dress unqualified students in caps and gowns; every kid in the state had to pass a standardized test. But was Grant — who worked harder than most of his peers — really the kind of student the Department of Education meant to target when it conceived the MCAS?

Goodwin argues that “losing the freedom to fail really takes away the opportunity to succeed.” But the real threat is not losing the freedom to fail but rather losing the freedom to be average.

A brilliant senior on graduation day doesn’t resent a handicapped classmate — or even a slacker — who collects the same scroll she does.  That they did not fail does not cheapen her accomplishment.

What she does resent, what does degrade her sense of achievement, is that so many of her ordinary contemporaries somehow finished high school with extraordinary grade point averages similar to her own. The boy beside her doesn’t know the difference between affect and effect, but he, too, earned an A in English class. The girl two rows back isn’t sure which Roosevelt held office during World War II and remains convinced that water occupies a square on the periodic table, but she, also, made the honor roll.

More often than they push through students who ought to fail, our schools artificially bolster the GPAs of students who ought to carry 2.0s. If the former is social promotion, the latter is social inflation. It is the bar of excellence, not the bar of passage, we have lowered too far.

Americans don’t need to revive failure to promote success. Overcrowded prisons and high unemployment rates testify to the robust health of failure in this country.

Instead, we need to defibrillate mediocrity. Our unwillingness to identify the middling members of society subverts our ability to celebrate the truly superb.

“Without failure, we can’t know what success is,” Goodwin contends. “There’s no way to measure it.”

Without mediocrity, there’s no way to measure either.

Grant passed the MCAS on his third try. He got his diploma but didn’t go to college. He works at The Home Depot.

Seems pretty average to me.


Written by callumborchers

March 26, 2011 at 10:19 am