Teaching Students Failure by Failing Them

You see a sort of indignation–almost what can be described a sense of entitlement–on various ‘smart’ sites. I recall a discussion on the popular economics blog Noahpinion in early 2014 (cannot find the link, but I remember the post) where an econ PHD student complained about the weak job market and what he perceived as a pervasive ignorance and injustice by society against his own personal plight, as well as the plight of other unemployed and underappreciated PHDs and graduates, as if society is systemically neglecting these smart people.

As some have noted, college is an artificial environment, in contrast to the ‘real world’. In college, effort, which is like a currency, is exchanged for grades and praise. Upon leaving college and entering the workforce, this system of exchanging effort for grades is terminated, and graduates are often left in a state of disillusionment: “I did all the right things, got good grades, but I’m failing,” or “why are people who seem less intelligent are more successful,” and so on.

In school, often there is a linear relationship between ability and grades: you answer all the questions correctly, write the paper to the teacher’s specifications, etc., and you are awarded a commensurate grade. But this all ends when graduates are thrown out into the ‘real world’, and suddenly ability and results cease being so strongly correlated. You can do all the ‘right’ things at work, and instead of being praised as you would in college, the boss is unappreciative or another employee takes credit. Or you send in your resume and it’s ignored despite being qualified for the job. Or if you get a job, the pay is insultingly low relative to your credentials.

Schools, in theory, do an adequate job teaching specific ‘foundational’ skills (such as reading, writing, and arithmetic), which are useful for applications where correctness and precision are critical (such as aerospace engineering or surgery), but schools don’t teach more ‘vague’ things such as how to cope with unfulfilled expectations. Yes, if one is going to design an airplane, there is little margin for error–if less than 50% of the parts work as they should, you ‘fail’ (the plane crashes, the patient dies, etc.), but for many jobs the demarcation between failure and success is less obvious. For jobs such as sales, investing, and marketing, 50% is not a failure but a success, depending on the circumstances. For example, if you’re selling a $100 product and only 10% of leads buy it, and each lead costs you $5, you are profitable despite a 90% failure rate.

So what can be done about this problem. How can schools, especially colleges, do a better job acclimating graduates to the unfair and often unpredictable realities of the real world, where being correct doesn’t always pay. One sadistic idea is for a professor to ‘inverse grade’ term papers (this would only work for non-STEM subjects, where there is a certain degree of subjectivity), so most, if not all, of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ quality papers would be awarded ‘C’ and ‘D’ grades, respectively. And the ‘D’ and ‘F’ papers, such as in the case of plagiarism (like using one of those overpriced and obvious term-paper writing services), would be awarded a ‘B’ or better. There would be much protest by the first group, and the dean would never allow such a plan, but it would be the closest to replicating the post-college world, and would be a sudden cold dose of reality. The professor would tersely dismiss such protests ‘tough luck, it wasn’t good enough,’ with no further explanation provided, and the ‘F’ group, upon thinking they got away with plagiarism, will be in for a rude awakening when they try to turn in a plagiarized paper on another professor.