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Why the lesson of failure can be just as vital as passing an exam

By Mary Kenny

Published 25/08/2015

High fliers: the sight of girls celebrating their exams is a recent phenomenon
High fliers: the sight of girls celebrating their exams is a recent phenomenon

Exam results time in August and we are treated once again to pictures of celebrating school pupils jumping up and down in exhilaration as their results come out. In the greeting card shops, you can purchase congratulatory items for those kids who have sailed through their exams with flying colours. "Congrats!" they announce. "Great news! Good for you! Well done! Fantastic!" And "Yay! Congratulations! You did it! Bravo!"

If we really believed in equality, wouldn't they also produce consolatory cards for those who fail their exams, and who just don't make the grade? "Think you're a dunce? Never mind - Winston Churchill was, too." and "Cheer up! Steve Jobs never made it through college either!"

But exam failure isn't a cause for celebration, and perhaps it never was. Striving for exam success has been part of life here for a long time - it is always seen as a passport to a decent job, as valued for young women as for young men.

But public celebration of exam success is relatively new: the jumping up and down for the cameras; the public hugging, kissing and partying are relatively recent.

Turn back the pages of yesteryear, and while university conferring degrees were honourably portrayed (and young lawyers qualifying in their periwigs surrounded by proud parents), school-leavers would not have been the subject of feverish felicitations on passing their exams.

And older people - while not wanting to seem cranky or churlish - sometimes feel that these gushing scenes of exam congratulations nowadays are slightly overdone.

I've also heard some cynics note that the media seems to focus on pretty young girls, rather than gawky young male geeks with acne.

Are such responses a little tinge of "generational jealousy" among the older crowd?

And are they thinking, "Nobody made such a fuss, in our day, when we got five or six honours in the Leaving"?

Sure, parents and families were pleased, and maybe even proud, but it would all have been much lower key.

People might have thought that swanking about the numbers of honours gained was bad form, or even vulgar: modesty and humility were beaten into us as virtues, and warnings against "pride - the father of all sins", so dire that anything that came close to boasting would have been frowned upon.

"Nobody likes a bighead," youngsters would be told. "Pride comes before a fall."

There was also a fear of spoiling young people. If you praised the young too much, you might "turn their heads", which could be catastrophic.

Perhaps there was a touch, too, of what Australians call the tall poppy syndrome: be wary of seeming too much of a tall poppy, of displaying too much excellence, as tall poppies are apt to be cut down.

Indeed, cutting you down to size, and taking you down a peg were regular practices in character formation. These attitudes weren't confined to this side of the Irish Sea.

When my husband won a scholarship to Cambridge in the late 1940s, it was met with little ado: he walked out the door of his parents' home to make his own way to university, and "cheerio, Dick", was as much as any family members could muster.

"Mustn't fuss," was the watchword.

The revolution in child-raising has changed all this. Modern education strives to be encouraging, positive, and quicker to praise than to scold. And added to such changes in educational values, everything is more hyped-up in an age of instant electronic communication. Boastfulness isn't seen as a character flaw in the era of the selfie and self-promotion: look where it has got Donald Trump.

In one way, it's lovely to see young people in celebratory and optimistic mood as they leave their school days behind and embark on the next stage of adulthood. Yet there is a note of caution from some educationalists who observe that over-praising academic success does not allow young people to fail, as they sometimes must.

In America, Jessica Lahey's best-selling book The Gift of Failure makes this point; closer to home, the Master of Wellington College, Sir Anthony Seldon, says that the over-emphasis on celebrating exam success doesn't make space for those students out there who may fail, and may even benefit from the lessons of failing.

Perhaps, after all, the greetings card industry will get around to issuing that message, with a Sam Beckett coda: "Congratulations - you've failed! Never mind - try again, fail again, fail better!"

Belfast Telegraph

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