Asking the brightest to fail.
I was sitting next to a professor at Cambridge the other day. She’s a professor in Modern Foreign Languages but what she said had such relevance that I thought I should share it. ‘The students are terrified of failure’ she said. ‘My first job is to rid them of that!’
I was taken aback to begin with. It’s Oxbridge after all who demand the highest grades. If you haven’t got the bank of A*s or current equivalent, you needn’t bother to apply. But I also saw what she meant and at this time of UCAS form filling (and Oxbridge applications) I thought maybe we should explore it a little.
Failure is the domain of the arts subjects – in maths or natural sciences, failure is easily seen – an answer is transparently right or wrong, although the deliberation is naturally credited. But failure – fear of it and embrace of it – is particularly aligned to the arts. The arts subjects live and breathe on uncertainty. You take a historical analysis, a piece of art or literature, or indeed a belief – and then you ask the questions. The unsettling ones; the ones that give pause for thought. All arts are the opposite of fundamentalism; religious studies pre-eminently so.
So …. It is worth us – their teachers – realising that we are actually asking our best students to do not one but two things. Firstly we are asking them to know the facts – they must be able to trot out what MacIntyre said about virtue or how Aulen modified atonement. For a particular kind of person – that’s the easy bit. But then we’re asking them to understand those views to such an extent that they can see round the corner too. Somehow we have to inspire them to really feel these questions so that they want to rip into a viewpoint… with that most mature of skills; the ability to see where their argument might lead – and indeed how it might fail. And to do so with some hunger.
We’re teaching them to be intellectual acrobats – without fear of heights. And that’s a hard thing to be. But I think that’s what the professor was wanting; although I’m sure she was aware of the irony. How can you expect a student, whose whole life has been dedicated to writing the best essays, doing the best work, not to worry about failure? It’s a cruel ask at the last. But one on which education is founded. Education is built on the possibility of failure because that’s what prevents ideas from sliding into fundamentalism.
So when your students complete their UCAS forms it’s worth remembering that these universities have seen it all before. What they’re wanting, above all, is the hunger. A hunger that’s not afraid to fail because the asking is as interesting as the knowing. That’s maybe what they want. And maybe something that the best personal statements do show. Students come and students go – our job is to teach them to embrace failure. Only then can they authentically learn.