Rationalizing Sisyphus

Rationalizing Sisyphus

The words of one of the bleakest authors on the human condition adorn coffee mugs and motivational posters, his hopelessness twisted into inspiration for those on the neverending search for the right formula for success. This is a great misunderstanding.  Perhaps he would find this all ironic, but to Samuel Beckett there was no solace in failure, no celebration of failure as a stepping stone to success.  Rather, there was an acceptance of the Sisyphean struggle to translate the human condition beyond the intangible.  Beckett’s engagement (to the point of obsession) with failure was due to an inextricable belief that failure was permanent in his condition.

This is not Samuel Beckett as sold to us by Elon Musk and Richard Branson and Timothy Ferris, quoting the initial lines of Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho as mantra:  “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  The historical Beckett, for whom failure was not a roadblock on the path of progress but rather an individual road of personal potholes, has been diluted to the self-help Beckett, who vanquishes the failure villain in the name of individual exceptionalism.  

Why are we interested in celebrating failure, a word whose education connotation is linked to a negative finality?  In recent years a growing chorus have sought to engage the failure rhetoric of Silicon Valley within the structure of education, believing students lack resiliency because our current structure coddles them.  In popular media this argument sparked in a 2012 Chronicle of Higher Education article from Wheaton College’s Paula Krebs, where Krebs notes a moment of personal epiphany found through viewing a poster of the Beckett abstraction. Her pining for humanities majors to be more like computer science students is a call for the humanities to embrace failure as an ideal, in the same way she idealized the computing world’s “endless road of failure.”  

This interest in good failure reaches beyond entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley; Stanford’s Carol Dweck posits her growth mindset theory as the ability to see failure as part of a natural process rather than a permanent state, and from this lens the University of Pennsylvania’s Angela Duckworth has developed metrics on grit, or the ability to persevere through failure.  These movements and ideologies have seen mainstream engagement yet stand in contrast to a history of educational literature.  It is not that educational literature devalues struggle or perseverance; there are numerous educational terms and concepts and ideologies to explain such phenomena: iterative-based learning, process, trial and error, design research, problem-based learning, etc. However, the ‘Fail Like Beckett’ discussion of failure as a positive in education ignores these theories and examples, choosing to appropriate the negative term in a positive fashion rather than using positive practices to denote the same thing.  

By foregoing established research on struggle-as-learning to rather frame the experience as failure, what are we saying about our cultural perception of education and its obstacles?  Casting the problems of education as an unwillingness to negotiate failure untethers society from its role in creating an untenable educational structure.  The problem is complex, and one not solved through self-help exercises.  Longtime educator Joe Bower has connected the rise of grit conversation to an extension of inequitable practices rather than the growth of accessible spaces for equity; grit as an historical approach to equity results in a system of rewards and punishments that focus on the individual rather than the system.  In this system, focusing on grit as an attribute hides the landscape our schools are in, where many students fail to have their basic needs met anywhere but the school walls.  Educational psychologist Alfie Kohn sees the structural focus on how students are doing rather than what they are doing as antithetical to the failure celebration; when society measures education in terms of achievement and performance how can we say we want process?  Both Bower & Kohn’s thinking is aligned with the theories of psychologist Jerome Bruner, for whom ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ are merely informative and not to be rewarded or punished.  This discussion, of how failure manifests within an educational structure, is longstanding and addresses broad root concerns of equity, access and psychology.

Where Bower, Kohn and Bruner’s arguments have failed to engage the cultural zeitgeist is in invoking the personal, the anecdotal.  And the failure motif as celebrated through tweets and updates and TED talks is highly anecdotal.  Richard Branson has dropped the Beckett mantra into speeches as if it was his own, only to later attribute to Beckett while saying, “but it could have just as easily come from the mouth of yours truly.”  The stories of Branson, of Musk, of others are of personal triumphs over personal obstacles, and we hear the story from the other side of the battle, from the space of success.  This is a spirit of meritocracy and a furthering of a self-help society, but it also is a personal reaction to the external problems of society; if people were allowed to fail rather than be coddled/helicoptered/given a trophy, things would be for everyone else like they are for me.  Rather than considering the structural or sociological elements that create inequality and struggle, the onus is put entirely on the individual or their meddling parents.  Rather than engaging the existing philosophy and science on the subject, we have misappropriated a quotation from an obscure text addressing how an inability to adequately utilize words to convey the human experience is indicative of epistemic failure.  We have turned the complexity, struggle and (dare I say) grit of Beckett’s work into a tweet-length epistle one could easily fold into a Baz Luhrmann-produced graduation speech.

There are many ways to celebrate struggle and perseverance in the education system.  And we can work to incorporate multiple modalities into reframing the educational experience, by changing and expanding the objectives and participation in education to the purview of problem-based learning as well as supported risk-taking.  Failure, however, is wholly personal; the personal nature is why Richard Branson can celebrate it, why Samuel Beckett could wallow in it, and why we should not develop a rhetoric around its positive attributes for adoption in a formal education system.