I’ve been reading John’s four-part meditation on rethinking failure and thinking about success. Like failure, success, is a judgment that is at its best transient, and at its worst corrosive. I’ve just returned from the Modern Language Association’s annual convention where stories of success and failure, to paraphrase Blake, breed like reptiles of the mind.
John’s back-in-the-day Ivy-league stories are of interest to someone like me, who had no idea what college really was, or could be, until he was well into his twenties. When I finally arrived on a college campus full of enthusiasm, trepidation and hope, I was unpleasantly surprised when I was told that the choices I had made had not prepared me for what I wanted to do. In fact, the admissions office at an ivy-leaved campus in Ithaca, New York, seemed to have little idea what to do with a person who had never taken a standardized test, and whose high school grades were markers of what people in schools most often construe as failure. I had never really thought of my experiences in school as a failure, though they were mostly unsatisfying. But here I was a person whose hard work and success outside of school had little to no resonance in the halls of academia.
If there were a lesson in this strange doubleness—a successful person categorized a failure in the higher mind of the academy—I’m afraid I had noidea what it was at the time. I was old enough, and had cultivated enough presence of mind, to know that I was not a failure; and so I set out to do what I wanted to do: study physiology, biomechanics and nutrition. After mornings of academic work at Ithaca College I spent my afternoons training with students at Cornell—first as a fellow athlete and then as their coach. Once I gained admission to Ithaca College (Cornell, I found, was not interested in a second look) I felt the pressures of academic success creeping into my life. I’m still quite proud that I did not fail organic chemistry. But that course did help me to come to terms with my lack of preparation for the academic fields in which I was studying. Thankfully, I also found myself among readers and writers who took a interest in me–and what I had to say. These were people less interested in failure and success. Their singular and inspired commitment, in short, was encouraging students like me.
The dialectic of failure and success, I have learned, is a way of thinking that is unfortunately magnified in the high-stakes and competitive domain of school. How many students and faculty in the academy are driven by fear of failure or haunted by the often hollow afterglow of success? How many of us, trying to stay alive in the academic world, diminish ourselves and colleagues and students by selfishly building careers instead of selflessly contributing to a community? In thinking about success I find myself asking a question that might help me circle back to the impulse of the work John and I are undertaking here: When might a failure not be a failure? Now that I have found my way into a professional life in school—a tenured professor laboring at the challenges that face anyone who is genuinely serious about the intellectual work of teaching—I too often feel the pernicious dialectic of failure and success lurking around me. I too often encounter students and teachers whose lives are constrained by the difficult moments we name failures and those fragile and transient moments we define as success.
Might staying alive require us to move from these arbitrary moments where we are most challenged or most fulfilled? The aspiration to stay alive in the academy might just demand the capacity to dwell less on judgments of failure and success and more on the capacity to move from where we are—or as Blake would have it, to alter our dogmatic opinions of ourselves and others by imagining a productive contrary to that confining opposition between failure and success.