Category: Literature

Inspirational culture and the celebration of failure in education

Carl Hendrick

Speaking on the art of direction, Terry Gilliam said that the difference between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick is that while Spielberg gives you comforting answers, they’re not very clever answers, whereas Kubrick gives you something you have to really think about. For Gilliam, Kubrick’s work articulates a more recondite truth about humanity that doesn’t patronise its audience with platitudes and banalities but instead celebrates ambiguity, complexity and rejects the comforting, media friendly sound byte.

Spielberg’s work has its place of course and provides just as valid a form of entertainment as anything else. Sometimes “not very clever answers” are exactly what we need, but when those answers overreach their scope and are posited as a deep and inherent truth about life and offered as a maxim for how to live our lives, we risk conflating the truly profound for the pseudo profound. Inspirational culture is characterised by this conflation, telling us that the world is a lot simpler that is actually is.

This week there have been a series of ‘inspirational’ messages aimed at comforting students facing difficult exams. One of the central messages is that failing these exams doesn’t matter and that what really counts is “dreaming big” or “going on adventures.” Other messages advise students taking their SATS not to study over the weekend but instead “ride a scooter” or “eat Haribo and ice cream.”

While well intentioned, these statements conceal some concerning messages. They give students comforting, easy answers to difficult questions and implicitly tell them that instead of confronting difficulties, and being OK with confronting difficulties, they should instead be entertained all the time and be unconcerned with consequences. These messages fetishise failure as a means of growing, but failure doesn’t mean dismissing challenge and difficulty. Real failure means trying your very best at something and learning from the experience come what may, not “dreaming big” on a scooter all weekend.

Many inspirational messages not only patronise children with overly simple answers but also reveal a deep ignorance about the very real challenges many of them face. A lot of inspirational culture seems to come via highly successful individuals from wealthy backgrounds who fetishise their own failure with evangelical zeal, but failure is relative. What if you are from a second generation immigrant family with English as a second language? Is it in their best interest to eat Haribo and ice cream all weekend rather than giving themselves every opportunity of academic success? For many purveyors of failure, the consequences of flippantly failing the SAT exam as an adult and posting it on social media are on a different planet to the kind of consequences many kids from deprived backgrounds will face. Failure is relative and not all failure is good. I’m reminded of Donald Trump’s “inspirational” message earlier this year claiming that things had “not been easy for him” and that his father had given him a “small loan” of a million dollars to help him get started.

And while we’re on exams, a curious claim this week was that the SATs tests were were too “middle class” and “would have had no relevance to inner-city children or ones with no or little life skills.” Are we to take from this then that we should only teach kids that which they are interested in or already know about? Isn’t the point of education to broaden the minds of young people and introduce them to the vast expanse of human achievement and the natural world? Surely we want children to be intellectually curious, to have an ever expanding thirst for the best which has been thought and said, and to be exposed to a world beyond the limits of their time and space.

Failure has become the cri de cœur of the inspirational movement. A Princeton academic recently published a ‘Failure CV’ to wide acclaim which lists among them, a series of failed research funding proposals. However, rejections from doctorate programs at Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge are a world away from the prospect many children face if they fail key exams up to 16. All failure is not equal, and to propagate that is ill-judged, to celebrate it is irresponsible.

Inspirational culture implicitly tells the reader that they are too stupid to understand actual complexity and that they can do their thinking for them by summing up deep philosophical problems like failure in a pithy phrase or inspirational slogan on social media. We shouldn’t patronise children with the facile platitudes of inspirational messages (many of which are merely cynical opportunism,) we should be honest with them about the consequences of failure, both good and bad. We should equip them with the bravery to accept irresolution, challenge and difficulty and not provide them with the simple answers of inspirational culture. Failure may be an option for some of us, but not for all of us and for some kids, the consequences are far greater than others.


Bakhtin, Wordsworth, Eric Cartman and why Google Should Replace the Dictionary.


The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
in such a jocund company:

– William Wordsworth


“That’s F’ing Gay as hell.”

-Eric Cartman

Earlier this year I was teaching ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth and when I came to the line “A poet could not but be gay,” I put the book down, looked at the class and waited for the inevitable giggling to ensue.

In a Bakhtinian sense of course these pupils were not engaging in an act of sedition so much as responding to a socio-cultural signifier in the form of the word ‘gay’ which has been radically transformed since Wordsworth employed the word. For Cartman and many kids today the word ‘gay’ has a negative connotation, for many (idiots) the word represents a moral transgression yet for many others it is a proud badge of identity. Where then does the ‘meaning’ of this word lie? All this got me thinking about how the notion of a monologic definition of a word is fast becoming obselete and that at a time when student literacy is reportedly worse than ever we surely need a better framework for students to access meaning than the dictionary.

For Bakhtin, the ‘word’ is not where the locus of meaning resides. Words are imbued with meaning depending on the speaker, the tone used or the prior relationship between the speakers. The determining factor is the context around which the word or utterance is created which is why I have such a problem with giving students dictionary definitions of words. If they do not have the frames of reference with which to comprehend them, then what use are they?

Bakhtin writes that

When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style. (p.87) 

Another example of this is when I heard one of my students utter the phrase “uhhhh, that’s peak!!” Although I understood the word ‘peak’ in terms of its dictionary definition I had no clue what the hell she was talking about and thus had a lessened understanding of my students. I was captivated by the possible alternative meaning of ‘peak’ and asked them to explain it to me. It was subsequently explained to me as meaning ‘severe’ or ‘harsh.’

Every time I hear students use language in this way I always make a point of asking them to teach me their meaning of the word and the right context in which to use it. I have actually spent whole lunchtimes in my classroom being ‘taught’ by my students alternative meanings to words such as ‘soggy’ and ‘moist.’ This particular process proved very confusing for me and required multiple explanations of the word in different contexts. The nearest approximation I could find for the word ‘moist’ was pathetic. (For some reason negativity is equated with dampness.)

Instances like this really made me reflect on how difficult it must be for students to construct meaning with a limited vocabulary, who are not exposed themselves to an expansive vocabulary or who have come from another country. Add to that the fact that words are in an increasingly rapid state of flux depending on their temporal and spatial parameters and also the limitless contingency of the internet of you really have to look at the validity of dictionaries today in the English classroom. Bakhtin writes:

“In any given historical moment of verbal-ideological life, each generation at social level has its own language; moreover, every agehas as a matter of fact its own language, its own vocabulary, its own particular accentual system that, in their turn, vary depending on social level, academic institution…and other stratifying factors.” Bakhtin (1981d, p.290)

So last week I tried an experiment with a year 10 class. (14 year olds) I thought instead of using the monologic exchange of dictionaries to ‘expand’ their vocabulary. I would try and create a broader contextual framework for students to construct meaning and more importantly to get them into the habit of teaching themselves and ‘owning’ the word.

I gave them a chapter from Jonathan Franzen’s new book that I hoped would not only give them access to new words but also stimulate their thinking. One word that came up for a student was ‘resonance.’ The said student asked me what it meant and I resisted the urge to tell her and asked her to use the internet as an experiment to see if she could determine the meaning herself.  She of course then went to and go the following definition:

Resonance: The quality or condition of being resonant.

Brilliant. She now didn’t know two words. Why define a word for someone who doesn’t know the word with a variant of the same word they don’t know?? So I asked her to not focus on the word but focus on words around the word and try to create meaning by using a combination of different Google searches such as ‘That idea resonates with me.’ or ‘The book had a real resonance…’ etc. And I also asked her to be persistant and to do at least 10 searches and try to build up a ‘gradual meaning’ of the word instead of the solitary and (for her) confrontational dictionary definition of it.

The results were amazing. Within a few minutes she had not only completely understood the word through seeing in a dialogic exchange with texts she could relate to, but could now apply it in her own vocabulary and had learned it in a way that had far more consolidation than the monologic exchange a dictionary provides. More importantly, she also felt better about herself.

Ot of this experience, I decided I would create a series of lesson starters aimed at improving students vocabulary called ‘Dialogic Dictionary’ where instead of giving students dictionary definitions of words, I would instead subvert that process and give then 10 instances of the word in context and then leave a blank space at the end where they then have to write a standard dictionary definition in their own words, and then a final task where they write a sentence using the word incorporating an instance in their own life where the new word applies. Anyone interested in this, or (in the spirit of Bakhtin’s dialogic principle) anyone with ideas to improve this please email me.

The danger of course is that ultimately you will end up like this. 

Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.