The Right to Fail

Originally posted 15 years ago on July 17, 2009, it rings truer now than then. So, here we go again with modest modification. 

Clarion calls for the rights of every stripe fill the air on our university campuses across the nation. This is as it should be. There are those demanding the rights of the pregnant mother, the unborn, the international student, the home folks, people of various sexual persuasions and orientations, the short, the fat, the ugly, the tall, the skinny and the beautiful—every kind of right you can imagine. Everyone must have rights.

Maybe the only right that has gone out of fashion in the past few decades is the right to fail.

I have exercised this cherished right on several occasions. I once failed calculus and, in the exercise of that right, experienced a kind of liberty coupled with embarrassment and humility, that many are denied. Once I was judged to have failed at my job and relieved of my responsibilities; this too was an experience of varied dimensions but, in the end, a growth opportunity of rare potential.

Once, while talking with a family and a prospective student, I was told with obvious chagrin by the mom when I inquired about the class standing of the prospective student that “the school no longer ranked students.” The Washington Post says that’s a good step. She wanted to discuss this idea with me and, after a few minutes, suggested that possibly his high school wanted all of its graduates to be “in the top half of the class.”

I quietly concurred with her assessment. Grade inflation, open admissions and the diminution of performance on various measures, subjective and/or objective, drive away the right to fail. On many university campuses, the average grade is a B. It is a lie.

We open the barn door, and as that nag of failure escapes, the stallion of success bolts too.

We want to live in a Ray Stevens world – you remember, “Everything is Beautiful.” A fine song maybe, but a crippling way to live because sometimes, in some settings, under some circumstances, everything is not beautiful. Sometimes, everything goes to dust right before your eyes, and no one, under any condition, should ever be denied the exercise of this basic right.

It’s just not fair. Of course, there is a way to turn any failure into success, but I will not discuss that in this venue; rather, I would like you to reflect on the possibilities.

For an institution to remove the possibility of failure, i.e., being in the bottom half, is to deny someone access to a motivating force of performance; the removal of a fundamental right and the potential to be a “victim” of failure. You see, there is the problem. The victim of failure.

I know more people who have succumbed to the perceived benefits of success. I see too many empty eyes in those deemed successful by some standard that has relieved the individual of the possibility of failure.

Sheer emptiness.

That is a long way from calculus, but a short drive from the idea that students should not be ranked or should not be told, “Sorry, you did not score high enough; you missed the mark.” Where is the crime in this, and at what cost do we deny that right?

A school or a university where everyone succeeds is not a place of learning and is of very low value. It is an apparition. John Steinbeck sums up the risk of failure, the seeming success of safety, nicely in East of Eden:

“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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