A high school diploma used to mean something. Not a whole lot, but enough that you could read, write, compose a coherent argument, and see something through to its conclusion. In other words, the basic skills needed for any entry-level gig. Once everyone started being coddled through despite lack of their capability to accomplish even these simple tasks, a high school degree as determinant of utility lost a lot of its lustre. Everyone seeking those entry-level jobs decided they needed a way to prove their capabilities beyond the average job so they spent $25K to get a university degree, only to find that no more effort is required, and that with enough hectoring and guilting of professors, again, anyone can get through. And now everyone thinks our salvation will come from grad school.
We're spending more and more money to get onto a playing field that hasn't increased in value at all. How did we get here? In short, we experienced a cultural disconnect from the meaning of failure, and now we're paying the price.
Failure sucks. It's painful, depressing, embarrassing, something you'd never wish upon anyone. And considering that, it's understandable that people want to shield kids from failure, whether that means giving every kid a trophy, adjusting curriculum so that you can get a degree pretty much for showing up, or pressuring teachers into bumping up your grades so you can get into that grad school you want. And we tell ourselves that this is a good thing.
When I worked in the travel industry, one week out of every spring break season was Michigan High School week. You didn't need the designation though, it was obvious when you had everyone completely out of control drunk (even moreso than on a typical spring break week) that more than a few of these kids were not experienced drinkers, and that they didn't know their limits. I thought it was a great argument for lowering the drinking age in the US, because just about everyone I've ever encountered started drinking in some form or another a few years before the legal age. For most of the people I went to high school with, it was around 15-16, and if (okay, when) we had that first night when we drank way too much, we could call our parents and they'd take care of us. It'd be painful, embarrassing, and awful, but we had a support system to get us out the other side. In the states, they don't start until 17-18, and the reason those two or three years make a difference is because as we finish high school and start to move out of our parent's houses, the support systems we have at our disposal dramatically diminish. It's not so easy to call for help when you're a few hours away from your parents.
I'm including this digression for a reason: everyone screws up in life, whether they drink more than they should, strike out in the big game, or fail a math test. It happens to all of us. And we know that when it happens to us, it's our support systems that are going to determine if we make it out the other side or if things are going to get really derailed. By insulating our kids from failure and risk and all the potential pitfalls that exist in the real world for as long as possible, we reduce the amount of support and assistance they'll have access to when things first go wrong for them. Worse, by delaying failure we increase the likelihood that things are going to stay wrong when they go wrong, or that we'll spend tens of thousands of dollars to realize that we don't really have the skills employers are looking for.
In short, we need to stop insulating our kids from failure and assuming that if we don't expose them to it, it'll never exist to them. We have to be willing to accept, support, and move past failure, but that's not the same as pretending it doesn't exist and taking extraordinary measures to ensure our kids don't face it until they're less well-equipped to handle it. It's like assuming that not telling students about sex will protect them from STDs... we rightly recognize such an idea as insane, but how is our approach to failure any different?
Education isn't the only place where a completely irrational approach to failure is handicapping our success, but I'll get into a discussion of government next time.