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Failing better

On not making people happy

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“People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.” Joan Didion, On Self-Respect.

I was told to go away and read Bernstein, so that’s what I did. It was a pretty painful experience; he is, frankly, a terrible writer, and there is something migraine-inducing in how his theories add layer upon layer of increasingly complicated mechanisms in an attempt to explain away the contingency, messiness and ultimately unknowable nature of the social world. But I struggled on through my frustration, drawing diagrams and taking notes, but without being really sure why I was persevering. This was the compass I had been given, and so I trusted that this was the route I should follow. I wanted to do what was asked of me and make my teachers happy.

It strikes me that trust is a fundamental element of education. The process of education is inherently unknowable. We don’t know exactly where we are going or how we are going to get there and the journey is different for all of us. The kind of learning in which we can identify a goal, fully understand what it entails to achieve that goal, and know exactly the steps to get there is not particularly meaningful; I might describe it as training rather than education. Gert Biesta describes this as the principle of ‘deconstruction’ in education – it is always open to otherness. And because of this element of unknowability, we put our trust in the process, and particularly our teachers, without quite knowing where it will take us or how we’ll get there.

Those of us who do well at education learn to live with the uncertainty of the journey because we know that sooner – or more likely later – our trust is repaid, and we will end up somewhere interesting and worthwhile. What must it be like for children who just can’t put their trust in the institutions of schooling or feel that they cannot trust those in authority? If you couldn’t trust the process not to leave you feeling worse than when you started, why would you even risk the uncertainty?

But sooner or later we have to start trusting that we’ll find the way ourselves, or at least trust our instincts that  we’re heading in a good direction. Putting our trust entirely in our teachers means we never have to quite take responsibility for what we say; we wait until we have been given permission that we know enough, have met the required standards. We hedge our bets, taking out insurance policies against criticism by waiting for the nod that we have reached our destination and are permitted to speak. But this comes at a high price: which is failing to learn to trust or respect ourselves. This is what I take from Joan Didion’s quote at the beginning of this post. To have self-respect is to put ourselves out there, to take the risk, and, yes, perhaps get it wrong, leave something out or piss people off. To have self-respect is about not waiting for someone to give us permission to speak, speaking only when we are certain that our statements are bomb-proof or editing out any possible offence so our statements are acceptable to all. To have self-respect is to resist fashioning ourselves into a mirror in which everyone sees something agreeable. Though it is easier said than done in a world where our public performances can be tracked, coded, decontextualised and used against us, it’s important to give ourselves permission to say something, to take the risk of being an idiot in public, to invest ourselves without  mortgaging our ideas to our teachers.

Ultimately, I must trust that actually, I do have a pretty good idea of where it is that I’m going. Yes, I have things to learn. Yes, I don’t exactly know what my destination will look like when I get there. But if I put my trust only in my guides and not myself, if I wait for their permission before owning my work then I will not learn to trust my own judgement. To have the kind of self-respect Joan Didion talks about is to risk seeming naïve, to say things I might change my mind about, to trust my own instincts about where I’m going.

Having this kind of self-respect means next time, hopefully I can resist dutifully spending weeks ploughing through interesting but ultimately distracting detours like Bernsteinian theory. Time to take the risk of actually investing myself in this venture, in the full knowledge it might fail. Failing better, all the time.

Thanks to this post at Marginal Utility for bringing the Joan Didion quote to my attention; I am planning a later piece on how we use data about ourselves that draws more substantively on the points made in that article.

The photo of Joan Didion is from here.

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