Failure is a teaching tool

“Failure is not an option.”

That was the headline in a recent New York Times article on grading in the nation’s graduate schools. The long-dreaded F grade has virtually disappeared from grad school life, the Education Life article said. When course failure looms, students are usually given the option of withdrawing.

“You probably aren’t going to find graduate school transcripts with F’s on them,” said Robert Neuman, former academic dean at Marquette University.

Grade inflation is also widespread, the article said. Seventy-five percent of grades in master’s programs are A’s, 22 percent are B’s and 3 percent are C’s, according to a Furman University  researcher’s study. Less than 1 percent are D’s and F’s.

The explanation given was fairly simple: Schools are businesses and master’s program are lucrative, so keeping students is essential. A first-year student who drops out of NYU’s  graduate film school costs the school $150,000 over the three-year length of the program. Multiply that  too many times and you have a university in trouble, especially during this economic downturn.

I can’t say the article shocked me. I’ve been reading about rising grade inflation and declining academic standards for years. But still, I was surprised — and disappointed. I like the measuring rod approach to life, the world of high standards, achievement and accountability for performance.

I grew up in a home where failure wasn’t an option. Heck, not going to college wasn’t even an option. If you came home with a grade under 90, you were grounded until your grade came up. One of my sisters scored a 99 on the state high school exam in chemistry. My father, a high school chemistry teacher, was able to discover the one question she missed. My sister was reminded for years that the inventor of the Bunsen burner was – Robert Bunsen.

I suppose this background, coupled with biblical calls to develop one’s talents, explains my liking for competitive sports. The rules are clear, the standards are explicit, and accomplishment is measurable. You always know where you stand on the playing field and why. When the big guys at Braddock Park wouldn’t let me play on the main basketball court, I knew I had to work my up from the pebbled asphalt court filled with cracks. When I got a sharp elbow in the stomach at age 12 from a guy 10 years older, I got a quick lesson in meritocracy.

Failure on the court was always an option. Failure forces an immediate confrontation between your dreams and your talents. Michael Jordan likes to say he missed thousands of jump shots to become the great shooter he was. Many others miss thousands of jump shots and never rack up any court success at all. Sports force you to look honestly at who you are and what you can do. They prepare you for a world where results count.

 I don’t know what lesson grad students get from a transcript filled with W’s instead of F’s. I do know I hope they don’t become heart surgeons.

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6 Responses to Failure is a teaching tool

  1. John C Clegg says:

    P. Why are there so many apostrophes sprinkled in your expressions of PLURAL grades e.g. A’s….B’s…C’s…D’s…F’s…W’s… I see neither contractions nor possessives…Just plain old PLURALS!!! NO (‘) REQUIRED. Sr Mary Grammar from your elementary school is turning over in her grave down at the mother home of the fine Kentucky Dominican Nuns in Springfield,KY. And don’t give me a retort like the one Winston Churchill gave his speech writer who criticized Winnie for ending sentences with prepositions! Retorted Winnie: “It’s people like you up with which I can not put”. Let’s keep our English language “PURE”!!!!!!! JCC. 5/24/12

  2. John C Clegg says:

    P. And we must always remember what they call the student who finishes LAST in his/her medical school class: DOCTOR. :-) JCC

  3. Jason says:

    If there’s anything that’s good about what’s going on right now in 21st century America (a century that’s consisted of a power crisis in California, a possibly botched presidential election, 9/11, a decade’s worth of war, corporate fraud from the likes of Enron and Worldcom, an American City that fell into the sea, an oil spill into that Gulf, the worst American economy since the Depression, and plenty of anxiety spanning the American population from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement) is that if we survive as individuals and as a culture, it’ll be because we have learned from failure and overcome the resulting setbacks. In some graduate programs, failure doesn’t exist but graduate school is nothing compared to life’s real challenges at work, at home, and everywhere between. It’s the School of Hard Knocks and that’s where we will all learn.

  4. Janis Edwards says:

    A C in graduate school is technically an F. Students won’t get credit for the class in most programs. I have never heard of the situation described by this author, although his larger thesis is all too true when universities–even research I universities–are so into the consumer model.

    • Paul Clegg says:

      In the old days, there were “gentleman’s C’s,” which reflected not failure but a lifestyle.

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