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Failure is for the privileged.

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I recently attended the 4th annual CrossRoads conference organized by Infosys Foundation USA. It was filled with some great speakers and panels, but the most profound moment for me was a single statement made by Kipp Bradford, “failure is for the privileged.”


I have written about failure before in The Over Promotion of Failure:

Almost daily I see posts on social media by educators promoting the benefits of failure. It often seems that there is a push to intentionally embed failure into instructional activities. This always rubs me the wrong way. Failure has almost universal negative connotations. It doesn’t feel good and sometimes it is extremely difficult, if impossible, to recover from big failures.

For the past several years we’ve been bombarded with advice about the “wisdom of failure.” Books by business giants and self-help gurus tout the importance of learning from mistakes. The problem with the focus on failure is that failure is a weak process when put up directly against its counterpart: success.

I want to be clear that I’m not against learning from failure. It’s certainly useful that humans have the rare biological luxury of being able to learn, non-lethally, from our failures — we can remember them, share stories about them, even laugh about them. And all the stories and lessons about what you can learn from failure represent real opportunities to do better. The problem is that none of the advice and literature on failure fairly compares learning from failure to learning from success.

We have to ask how abundant or common are useful failures compared to useful successes? If opportunities for learning are rare, it’s hard to make a practice out of them. Unfortunately, truly useful failures that change our thinking (as opposed to merely stupid failures that just confirm what we already should have known) are relatively rare. (

Mr. Bradford added another angle or perspective that I had not considered when he stated that failure for the privileged. This prompted me to see what others might have said about this. Here are some of my findings:

Not everyone “gets” to fail. If you are a student of color you have to be perfect. Think about the standardized test that plays an over-sized role in determining an accelerated or remedial course. You better not fail. Think about the rates of suspension and expulsion. You better not fail. Think about use of force incidents on campuses. You better not fail. Think about using a word the teacher doesn’t know. You better not fail. Think about hiding the fact your parents are undocumented. You better not fail. (Failing is a Privilege)

It also important for teachers to realize that failure in classrooms is an exercise of privilege. The effects of failure aren’t the same for everyone. For students who are marginalized in any way, failure has the potential to reinforce every negative image, bias, or stereotype they are facing. For students who struggle academically, failure can tell people they aren’t smart enough. For students who are marginalized socially, failure can tell people they aren’t cool enough. For students of color, failure can reinforce racist beliefs that they aren’t good enough. (When Failure is a Privilege)

Failure has become a trend in the past decade. As a society, we increasingly say “Failure is OK” or “Failure is essential to success.” But in this process of normalizing failure, we ignore the fact that failure affects people differently, and that privilege plays an important role in who is allowed to fail — and who isn’t.

“It’s OK to fail,” one professor told the class. “Students worry too much about their GPA.” And while I was never one to panic about grades, I did lose a key scholarship after finishing my freshman year with a 2.5 GPA. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many low-income, first-generation students — those who are in college only because of the scholarships that got them there. If those scholarships are lost, their dreams may be lost as well. More-privileged students don’t have those concerns. If they fail courses one year and require an extra year in college, they can afford it. (When “Failure Is OK’ Is Not OK)

While a first-gen/low income student is out there taking risks, their families may be struggling to put food on the table, All of this is assuming the student would have somewhere to live and at least be self-sustaining, which may not even be the case.  “It’s not like you have the luxury of saying, ‘If this doesn’t work out, then I can find another means of providing for myself pretty easily, or I have my parents to fall back on, or have some source of wealth to support me while I go through this very risky process,’” Rodriguez said. (The privilege to fail)

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

May 26, 2018 at 6:50 pm

Posted in Education

Tagged with , , , ,

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