What Schools Really Teach: The Paralyzing Fear of Failure

December 18th, 2010

I recently finished reading John Taylor Gatto’s book, The Underground History of American Education, and came to an amazing realization that affects me and nearly everyone else I know. Though he doesn’t say it directly in his book, I learned that the fear of failure in our society is taught in our schools. This is not an accidental byproduct, but instead is built into the design of the system.

Here is how it works. Students are separated from their support networks, mainly their parents. They are lumped together with other students, but yet they are separated from them through age-based grades, caste classes like “Enriched/Gifted,” “Mainstream,” and “Remedial.” Furthermore, they are separated from the other students within their classroom through draconian rules against fraternizing. This places each student in a completely unsupported position, where they are put on the spot to answer questions correctly on the ever more frequent tests and assessments.

All of these tests are given high importance by the teachers and school administrators. The school also places a lot of pressure on parents to give these tests the same high importance as well. This pressure is pushed on each student to answer all questions correctly or else it will affect their grade. And their grade is Very Important because it will affect them for the rest of their life through various ripple effects (as if employers care what grades you got in the seventh grade, or even in high school).

This constant pressure-cooker that is focused with laser-accuracy on each student through the school system is designed and very successful at crushing the will of the student. Students find that they make mistakes. They learn that those mistakes are signs of personal failure, reflected on their grade. Perfection is the focus of all tests, yet the student is forced to attain this moment of perfection on their own.

The result of 12+ years of this (16+ years if the student goes to college) is they have a very strong fear of failure. They find that if they try something, they might fail and society has no place for failure. They lose sight of their will because they learned long ago that if they strive to try something, they will fail. They learn they are not good enough to go out on their own, make mistakes, and learn from them. They learn they need to have a teacher, supervisor, boss, overseer nearby to tell them what to do and how. As they grow older and more experienced, they learn that they need to have a scapegoat to blame failure on when they cannot hide that it happened. They learn to Cover Their Ass.

Homeschooling doesn’t have this system designed to crush people’s will and spirit. It allows children to make mistakes and learn from them without the pressure of the system bearing down on them. Instead, they are allowed to try new things and make mistakes knowing that the failures are forgivable.

I’m not saying students should not learn to do well and instead blow-off and ignore mistakes. What I’m saying is that mistakes will be made and they should be allowed to experience that. With my children, when they make a mistake, I show them how they went wrong. Whenever possible, I try to guide them to realize for themselves what the mistake is and how to correct it. Then I tell them to correct it to make it right.

Our society, through its pressure-cooker compulsory mass schooling programs, teaches students that they make mistakes and they don’t have the personal power to make them right. Students learn that they are not good enough to succeed because they make mistakes.

When the power to correct mistakes and to right wrongs is stripped from people, they tend to become fearful to try new things and to take chances. They learn that failure is a permanent condition and that they are doomed to it because they are not perfect. If you don’t believe me on this point, just try to get a job after a period of unemployment.

We need to teach our children (and each other) that they have the power, given to them by the Gods, to right wrongs, correct mistakes, and grow from them. We need to show them though our actions and our words that the journey of life is a long and winding road. It is not a line leading steadily upward on the path of “success.” The winding nature of it is what gives life meaning. If we didn’t fail often, then our successes will not have meaning.

For those of us who are older and are struggling to overcome the paralyzing fear of failure, remember that we are all learning and growing. In the eyes of the Gods, we are always children, always making mistakes, with the diving power to correct them and learn from them. Take a chance. Do something crazy because it seems like a fun thing to do, even if (or because) it doesn’t make logical sense by the rules of society to do. For some inspiration, I recommend watching the awesome Jim Carrey movie, Yes Man, or reading Daniel Quinn’s novel, The Holy.

The best cure for Fear of Failure Paralysis is to forcibly break it and do something. Learn about your Will, take the Fool’s step off the cliff, and trust the Gods to catch and guide you.

6 Responses to “What Schools Really Teach: The Paralyzing Fear of Failure”

  1. Laura Says:

    Very interesting. Now that I think about it (and I have good cause to- I am a student, myself!)this seems to be very true in most public school systems. The only exception I have seen in my personal school experience was the small, private-style high school attended for a short time. There were only around 20 students to a class, which gave the teacher much more freedom to work with a student to LEARN from his or her mistakes, rather than to take it as a failure. I think smaller class sizes could be useful in this area.
    I also think the parent can do a lot of prevent this “Fear of Failure Paralysis.” If a child is taught at an early age that it is entirely ok to make mistakes, so long as he or she corrects them and learns from them, and that this kind of mentality is reinforced during the school-age years, this can be effectively avoided.

    Very interesting post! Thanks!

  2. siannan Says:

    how true.

    and you’re not supposed to think by yourself, even in subjects like philosophy, what you are expected is just to repeat what people called “great philosophers” have written.

    I think (as far as I have seen, which is little), that American school is more “permissive”, I saw that children could talk without having to ask teacher to be allowed to talk, ask question… In France you are not allowed to talk without raising your hand and being asked to talk by the teacher.

    I do believe that being self confident is more important for a successful life than most things you learn at school. and it is a pity that school doesn’t teach that (at least to most students).

  3. Rachel Says:

    Not only does this make sense-it’s true. I am a student and know very well the idea that the most important thing in your life between the ages of six and twenty four is supposed to be the all important grade (as said by the school districts and parents). You are directly judged at school and at home by your grade. If you get good grades all the time (a’s and b’s) you are called a teachers pet and shunned by your peers, and if you get d’s and f’s you are called stupid and shunned by your peers. The teachers do little to stop that, they even encourage it by saying things like “now now children, dont do that to jhonny, hes in the remedial class, and wont understand anything except for that youre hurting him”. and if your parents see a bad grade (if you usually bring home good ones), they beat themselves up with all the “where did i go wrong?” and stuff. . and if you ever skip a class on biology to go out and hike, birdwatch, rockclimb and learn in your own ways-thats unforgivable. mistakes cannot be corrected, but you can get “extra credit” if the teacher deems you to stupid to do the work so they give you crossword puzzles instead. ^^the wonders of society these days. bleh. but good article, it brought out a good point

  4. Ruthann Stice Says:

    I do miss your post, they are all inspiring.

  5. Morninghawk Says:

    Thank you for your kind words. My job situation is starting to improve, so I hope to be able to post more soon.

    Blessed be.

  6. Celtic Crystal Says:

    Indeed…good points. Even in our culture, which has its roots in the English system, you can see where students are not thought to think, to create or to innovate….its not encouraged at all….and then they wonder why our youth cannot think for themselves (at least here they do…Caribbean)
    But we are far from having the home school option

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