Rewarding Failure
by Paul Hazelden


I have many flaws, but probably one of the most serious is this: I really like it when the arguments people use make sense. It's a serious flaw, because so few of the arguments I hear these days do make sense.

I often hear a standard argument form that goes like this:

  1. A general principle
  2. A specific situation
  3. Therefore, the principle results in this

I've no problems with the form. It's not quite a standard argument taught in classic philosophy, but it's close enough for most people.

My problem is that the general principle rarely works as a general principle. It often seems to be chosen purely because it acts as a link between the situation and the desired result.

It's rather like the old 'definition of philosophy' parody: "the art of finding bad reasons for the things we want to believe anyway." It is generally an example of finding a bad argument to support what you have already decided you want to do.

Enough of abstractions. Imagine two people are applying for a job, and you have to choose one of them. You want to employ Fred, and Jim has red hair. So you employ Fred 'because' it is a bad idea to employ people with red hair. You get the idea.

What has this to do with rewarding failure? Because one of the common general principles I hear people presenting in arguments is that it is wrong to reward failure.

Common Sense?

The common sense position is that we should reward success and punish failure. After all, that will motivate people to do things properly, won't it?

Maybe not. Most people are motivated by success, at least to some extent. So why bother to reward success? The ancient Greeks used to compete in the Olympics for a laurel wreath - a brilliant symbol of success that (a) had no value, and (b) soon faded away. And who wants to fail? For many people, coming last is punishment enough.

The reality is that, much of the time, we do not reward success. In fact, we often punish it. Do the most successful companies get a Government grant for coming first? No, instead they get to pay more taxes. We tax company profits, do the better they do, the more we take away from them.

Punishing Success

In fact, much of the time we prefer to punish success rather than reward it. In the UK, the Grammar Schools were closed down because the pupils who attended them did better than the pupils in other state schools.

Of course, the argument was not usually put quite that way. Several other arguments were used.

Sometimes it was argued that Grammar Schools did better than the Secondary Moderns because they selected the best pupils. It was 'not right' that schools should be allowed to select. Why? No reason was usually given - it was just one of those useful general principles you pluck out of the air to 'prove' the correctness of your position.

Sometimes it was argued that Grammar Schools should not be allowed to select, because the selection was done on the basis of an exam (the 'Eleven Plus') which had been shown to be unreliable. Of course it was unreliable - every exam is. But if it was so unreliable, then the Grammar Schools were not actually getting the best pupils, so what was the problem? The less reliable the exam, the fairer the system, so why was the unreliability of the exam a problem?

And why should a degree of unreliability mean you stop using the exam? We don't apply this principle to any other exam. Job adverts still state what level of educational achievement is required. It can be useful even if it is not perfect.

Sometimes it was argued that pupils at Grammar Schools got a better level of education, and this was not fair so it should be stopped. But how do you ensure that everyone gets the same level of education? I'm not even sure what this means, let alone how you would achieve it.

To give everyone the same level of education, you must presumably sack all the really good teachers, because it is not fair that some pupils benefit from their skill, experience and energy. You must close down all specialist drama, music or science facilities, because it is not fair that some pupils benefit from facilities that other children cannot enjoy...

Sometimes it was argued that it was wrong to spend more money per pupil on the Grammar School students. Again, why? Surely it makes sense to invest most in those who are most likely to benefit from the investment. If you have to choose between spending a bit more money (it wasn't, after all, a large amount) on students with the potential to create dynamic new companies, invent new products and technologies, and brighten the lives of thousands by their creativity, or to invest it on students who were unlikely to do more than work in an office, warehouse or factory and watch TV - is the decision not obvious?

Sometimes it was argued that exams themselves were wrong, because people fail them, and it is bad to feel yourself a failure. But why should we deny people the chance to succeed? If there is no failure, there can be no success. And, whether you like it or not, employers want to employ intelligent, hard working and reliable staff - because you can't make a profit from employing the other sort. Someone, somewhere, sooner or later is going to decide that one person is better at doing something than another person, so why not do it with exams?

If the problem is that people feel themselves to be failures if they fail an exam, then let's work to change the way people gain their sense of self-worth, let's learn to value carpenters and plumbers as well as doctors and accountants. There are many useful changes that can be made, but pretending that people are all the same is not one of them.

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Copyright © 2004 Paul Hazelden was last updated 6 March 2008
Page content last modified: 2 July 2004
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