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College students need lessons in failure

Friday, November 6, 2009

Disgraced ex-New York Times reporter Jayson Blair talking to college students about ethics?

What's next? The former head of Lehman Brothers on financial risk management?

Such was the blogosphere's snarky tone last week when Washington & Lee University in Virginia announced Blair would speak today at a journalism conference there.

But if the cheap irony of a famous fabulist lecturing on ethics was too much to resist, perhaps it could also prompt colleges to think more seriously about something they often shy away from: the value of exposing students to, and preparing them for, failure.

For some people, like Blair, failure is spectacular and public. For others, it's just falling short of expectations -- in their careers or personal lives.

But you won't find many examples of either type among the guest speaker announcements of college bulletins. Instead, you'll find a parade of winners -- titans of the arts and commerce and politics, many of them alumni, returned triumphantly to campus to inspire the next generation (and, implicitly, to demonstrate to customers the college is worth up to $50,000 a year).

They may well talk about past failures on their eventual path to success.

But rarely is the podium held by someone who just failed.

That's understandable -- but too bad. Teachers say failure is something so-called Gen Y students want to hear more about.

"They are very concerned with failure," said Rich Honack, a lecturer at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and expert in generational cultures. Current 20-somethings "have always succeeded. They've always gotten trophies when they go out for a sports team. They've always gotten A's. Their parents have told them be the best and protected them from failure."

But in a way that makes failure all the more terrifying.

Visitors to Kellogg, a top-tier business school, often are grilled about the times they messed up, Honack said. When former General Electric CEO Jack Welch talked to students, they were especially curious how his career recovered after, as a young chemical engineer, he blew the roof off a factory and almost got fired.

But of course Welch went on to become one of the most successful CEOs ever. Honack couldn't think of any outright failures who'd spoken lately on campus.

Anthony Kronman, author of the 2007 book "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life," said the high-achieving students in his freshman Great Books class at Yale are often most riveted by the flawed characters in their readings.

In Thucydides' "History of the Pelopennesian War," they are most drawn to Alcibiades, a fifth-century B.C. Athenian politician who made too many enemies and squandered his talents. Less interesting are the heroes (though in ancient Greece, even the heroes had no shortage of failings to discuss).

Kronman, who has also taught ethics at Yale's law school, thinks there's a benefit to talking about failure from an academic and personal distance. He's skeptical the in-person presence of those who've come up short adds much.

"When you bring someone back who's screwed up, it's very, very difficult to prevent the event from becoming an uninstructive 'mea culpa' and a quest for some kind of redemptive validation," he said. That's natural, but complicates "an honest and useful assessment of what went wrong."

It's also no surprise most people who've messed up prefer to talk about other things. When Eliot Spitzer, driven from New York's governorship in a prostitution scandal, speaks next week at Harvard, his topic will be "What Should Be the Rationale for Government Participation in the Market."

Still, there are people who have publicly wrestled with their own failings. On the Web site Slate.com last spring, writer Timothy Noah lamented how many new college graduates were getting commencement advice from the accomplished but boring. Success is admirable but uninstructive, while failure is far more informative -- and interesting.

"People typically have a much easier time recounting, in often vivid detail, where they screwed up in life than they do explaining what they did right," Noah wrote.

He advised colleges to ditch the usual commencement suspects -- Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Colin Powell. Instead, invite speakers like media critic David Carr, the author of a brutally self-critical memoir of the harm he caused others with his substance abuse. Or Katha Pollitt, a columnist and poet whose memoir unflinchingly recounts a disastrous love affair (Noah: "Worthwhile message: Don't let love make you stupid.").

Of course, it's an exaggeration that college students are sheltered entirely from exposure to failure. Service-learning is booming on many campuses, like Notre Dame, where the former longtime president Father Edward Malloy teaches a class for first-years who come to know and hear the stories of homeless people.

But while such experiences may teach valuable empathy, few students at a top school like Notre Dame expect ever to be homeless themselves. A failure students can truly relate to hits home in a different way.

Such is the value of hearing from Blair, who perhaps can help students understand better the pressures they will feel trying to break into the highly competitive news business.

"There is always going to be pressure to cut corners," said Edward Wasserman, the journalism professor at W&L who invited Blair. "I suspect what we're going to find is that he got where he was through half-steps, small steps, rather than a huge leap into completely impermissible behavior."

There are corners of collegiate life where it's impossible to hide from failure. In one such corner, success inevitably comes, on average, just half the time -- college sports.

In his 2006 book "Excellence Without a Soul," former Harvard University dean Harry Lewis recounted an encounter with a bespectacled young dean from one of the college's residential houses. The dean asked Lewis if it was true the university planned to admit fewer athletes. Lewis replied it was true, though he was surprised the man was interested. He didn't seem like a sports fan.

"That would be terrible," the dean told Lewis. "They add so much to the House. They are the only people here who know how to lose."


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