THE American economist Robin Hanson has a story about how he used to turn up to Stanford University as a young man in the 1980s and take classes (in the fullest sense of the expression) without ever having applied for admission, paid tuition or announced himself in any way. He’d simply walk on to campus and drift into lectures with the other students.
I’m not sure how long he managed to keep up this little subterfuge but I do know that, as he became bolder, he broadened out its scope until he was eventually sitting in on courses across a variety of different disciplines, soaking it all in and contributing to discussions as and when he felt like it.
‘One professor,’ he says, ‘even wrote me a letter of recommendation based on my work for his class.’
It’s an entertaining anecdote (albeit a rather outdated one these days, given the levels of campus security most universities now have) but what’s he really getting at by telling it? Is he saying that there are always going to be ways of picking up a first-class education for little or no cost, if you’re imaginative and resourceful enough to look in the right places?
Kind of, but not really. What Hanson tends to talk about on the back of this story is something a little more fundamental than that: namely, if you can (hypothetically, at least) pursue your education for free, on your own terms, then what’s the point of going through the sausage machine of the conventional system?
Obviously, it’s a deliberately naïve and, in many ways, facetious question, but it also forces some much-needed perspective, especially at this time of year.
During the past week or two, our A-level and GCSE students have been discovering their fates, and the reports from our various media outlets have condensed the joy and excitement of results day into photo spreads and soundbites, as they always do. And yet it also begs the question: what of the other side? Where are the ones who do not want their pictures in the paper, and whose soundbites no one would feel comfortable hearing?
It’s a sad, and really quite harmful, flipside of the apparent meritocracy of school life that, for all the noise we make about the ones who succeed, we tend to say very little about those who fail.
In fact, the very word ‘failure’ seems to have become a taboo term in education altogether – mostly, I think, due to a well-meaning desire to mitigate the damage it can cause. But that isn’t the way to go. We need to embrace failure, and we need to show our kids how to do that too. And the earlier, the better.
Because, as most of us have come to learn in the years we’ve spent outside the classroom, our true successes are almost always built on a long and noble line of failures. Samuel Beckett’s ‘Try again, fail again, fail better’ should, for my money, be the motto that gets chanted in school assemblies every morning. I’d like to see Michael Jordan’s words given pride of place on the school gates: ‘I have failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.’
By not properly acknowledging failure, we are robbing it of its considerable positive power. What we should be doing is showing our most vulnerable and promising citizens that messing up their exams could be the making of them: it could be the slap that wakes them, that allows them to find the real stuff that’s going to propel them through life.
Why, then, are we selling them instead a vision of meritocracy that has such a nasty sting in its tail? By only celebrating those who achieve success, we’re leaving the rest to infer something that is fundamentally wrong: that there are winners, and there are losers, and if you happen to wind up in the latter category, we’d all appreciate it if you could take the back way out and be sure not to photobomb the pupils getting snapped by the press.
So is the answer not to celebrate success? No, of course it’s not. We need to shout it from the rooftops – it’s uplifting, it’s one of the timeless, most joyful songs of youth. I’m simply saying, let’s not spirit the others off the grounds while we’re at it. Let’s not send them slinking off into a future haunted by unattained standards.
Because the truth is that life is going to kick us all in the nuts at some time or another. And what the education system could be doing is helping us when we’re young and impressionable to recognise these cosmic low blows for what they really are: not a devastating end, but just another in the long succession of beginnings that will lead to success.