Fail Early, Fail Often

Spring break is behind us, even if the weather doesn’t yet look like that, and we’re headed on to the graduation season.

At this time of year, it is quite natural to think about career prospects after college – and indeed, much of the press on higher education during this season turns on the employability of various courses of studies of programs. In this discussion, however, I think it is worth noting a recent and interesting article by Jeff Selingo, editor of the Chronicle for Higher Education: Wanted at Work: Take More Risks in College.

Citing a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about risk-averse employees, Mr. Salingo argues that:

A college campus should be the perfect place to teach risk-taking to the next generation of workers, but many of the gambles that colleges students take these days happen outside of the academic environment. We don’t create enough settings in college for students to fail, certainly to fail with grace (this is a problem across our education system, of course). Indeed, failure in college is largely seen in a negative light—it’s no wonder students don’t want to take risks when they get to the workplace.

He’s right. College is, or ought to be, an environment that encourages experimentation. But in the highly competitive and technical environment of today’s job market, it is often difficult to imagine willingly risking one’s future to engage some fanciful notion of ‘experimentation.’

My favorite theorist of higher education, Algo Henderson, said that we ought to structure the total environment of the college so that we use “the normal life of the college community for experimentation in democratic methods and improved ways of living, for developing more substantial activities and more refined avocational and other interest, and for securing greater discrimination concerning values.” (Vitalizing Liberal Education, p. 183)

I’m often asked why Honors students are required to complete service hours, hold a leadership position or attend cultural events.  This is why.

The fact that the contemporary workforce, and by extension, the contemporary college student, tends to be risk-averse does not come as a surprise. We’re coming out of an extensive economic downturn that was caused by irrational exuberance for risk. The job market has been terrible for years, and the competition our students face today is far beyond what we faced in previous generations.  In that brutally competitive environment, we can hardly blame employees–and students–for staying in their comfort zones.

The Honors program at Ferris exists to challenge students intellectually, while providing resources and support and encouraging service and leadership for the common good. In one sense, all of that can be summarized in one simple statement: to incentivize intellectual and cultural experimentation. And of course, incentivizing experimentation requires providing the soft ‘cushion’ for failing gracefully.

We require students to take classes they normally wouldn’t take. We ask them to volunteer for community organizations they normally would not. We require them to join a Registered Student Organization, and ultimately hold a leadership position, when it is clearly less risky not to.

And that’s the great power of the Honors Program at Ferris: Ferris offers a top-rate career-focused technical education, while the Honors program provides a supported environment for taking intellectual, cultural or leadership risks necessary for character development.

Over the course of this semester, our students have been involved in exactly the kind of service projects that broaden ones’ cultural and moral perspectives. During the month of April, we’ll be running brief stories by these students explaining what they work on, and why they do it. But for the moment, let me highlight just a few:

  • Jenna Grimm and Janelle Dykstra, traveled to Louisiana to help tear down and fix homes that had been flooded.
  • Brendan Doyle has tutored and coached a weight lifting program and powerlifting team at the local highschool for more than 80 hours so far.
  • Kelly McCarthy traveled to Guyana in South America to provide the local population with health care services.
  • Alyssa Uganski traveled to Lousia, Kentucky to build ramps for disabled citizens and various other home maintainence and improvement projects.
  • Jenna Ladd volunteers as a wrangler at Cran-Hill Ranch, and went on an Alternative Spring Break trip to Atlanta, GA where she worked with the homeless population.
  • Michelle Dunn and Emily Pietrowicz have spent, combined, almost 75 hours volunteering at the Animal Rescue Center of Mecosta County.