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David Brooks and the Tree of Failure

January 14, 2011

David Brook’s column in today’s NYT, Tree of Failure, is simply beautiful. When I read it, I thought not only of the terrible tragedy in Arizona, but also of my classroom, where I teach 40 wonderful young men and women who are trying (often with great difficulty) to learn to embrace failure, and redeem one another with collaboration. It is not at all easy. Most of my students say that they’d rather learn without making mistakes—not yet realizing that such a fantasy would rob learning of all its power and promise.

Here are some beautiful quotes from Brooks:

Every sensible person involved in politics and public life knows that their work is laced with failure. Every column, every speech, every piece of legislation and every executive decision has its own humiliating shortcomings. There are always arguments you should have made better, implications you should have anticipated, other points of view you should have taken on board.

Moreover, even if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be fully reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.

But every sensible person in public life also feels redeemed by others. You may write a mediocre column or make a mediocre speech or propose a mediocre piece of legislation, but others argue with you, correct you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward.

Each individual step may be imbalanced, but in succession they make the social organism better.

As a result, every sensible person feels a sense of gratitude for this process. We all get to live lives better than we deserve because our individual shortcomings are transmuted into communal improvement. We find meaning — and can only find meaning — in the role we play in that larger social enterprise.

So naturally, after a day where I didn’t get a single whirlygig submission (which could be viewed as a failure), and all my students seemed to enthralled with another snow day to check their email, I decided to pass this article along to my students, with the following introduction:

Hi All,
I saw this column this morning in the New York Times and thought it worth sharing with you.

Although it is ostensibly about the response to the tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona, I think the reflections here on the value of failure and the the redemptive power of communities is equally applicable to our class, and hopefully school and education as a whole.

I hope you’ll take a moment to read and think about it, and then post some reflections on the blog.

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