Let Us Fail

This past week I discovered a new joke.

What requires six signatures, at least two half-hour meetings, and is taking more than its fair share of my sanity? The Abbot Independent Scholars Program application!

I am applying for an Independent Project, so I have to fill out forms. Lots of forms. I have to have a lot of meetings and get a lot of people to vouch for the fact that I will not fail. But even once that is done, I still have to get the project approved by a committee. And they too have to agree that I won’t fail. The Abbot program isn’t alone in this. The process to become a CAMD scholar or a Brace scholar or even change classes is similarly byzantine.

I once tried to move classes. I was told that I would fail the class. I explained that I accepted that, that I had failed classes before, that if I failed I knew that it would be entirely my fault. But I would work hard and I would not fail, but if I did fail that was okay. Unfortunately, my persuasive techniques were not as persuasive as I had hoped they would be. I ended up being irritating enough to get into another class in which I was also expected to academically combust. I didn’t.

You see, the school is really afraid that I’m going to fail. They’re afraid that I’ll get a two or my project won’t be completed. I can see how that might be a bit embarrassing for them. But I think it’s also embarrassing, albeit in a quieter, much more bureaucratic way, how difficult it is for students to follow their passions and really push their academic limits.

The line between brilliance and insanity is, as history has shown us, very tricky to find. It may even escape enough people to tip a committee vote. I think that if a student’s belief in their ideas is strong enough to withstand being battered by numerous faculty members they should be allowed to pursue it, regardless of the school’s anxieties. They have the type of drive that will force them to watch sunsets or spend hours peering at minute pieces of electronic equipment. Something extraordinary will be produced by sheer force of will, but Phillips Academy must trust that we won’t get a two.

At best, and in this case the best case can be expected, students will deliver instances of shocking creativity and depth. There they will find and deepen their passions. They will deliver work that isn’t limited to ideas of what a high school student can achieve.

At worst they will fail. And that’s just fine. Failure teaches us our limits. Failure teaches us to recognize the effects of our actions. And failure should be practiced. It will come to all of us eventually so we should learn how to survive it, that we can survive it at all. Failure can be a good thing.

If we’re ever going to learn about things that are truly remarkable, we must be freed from the zone of comfortable success, a place where everything is easy and planned and assured. We must be allowed to fail.

Abigail Burman is a new Upper from Silver Spring, MD.