herald

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Failure should be an option for your budding genius offspring

This Christmas, one in six Irish families will face the fact that the students they waved off to college in the autumn are about to drop out. It's the dirty little secret of post-second level life. The figures are even higher for computer science courses, the ones that will supposedly propel us all into a smarter economy.

A shocking one in four students will leave before the end of first year. Conversely, vocation courses, including medicine and teaching, have the lowest drop-out rates.

Faced with their offspring's 'failure', some embarrassed parents will hide the truth from relatives, hope that the student will change his or her mind and try to convince them to hang in until the summer. Their fears are not being helped by a society which increasingly doesn't allow for failure, and where descriptions like 'average' and 'ordinary' have become the remit of the supposedly second-class, the second-rate.

The student in many cases may be covering up the problem of the unwritten essay, the exams that he or she did not sit, the results print-out which remains hidden from parental view. And when the truth comes tumbling out, all bravado will evaporate. It will feel like they are the only ones, the only ones who did not make it through first year, the 'failures'.



bravado

When I first started lecturing, I thought early intervention would be the panacea. Spot a student in trouble, get involved, keep them in college. So when 'Muireann' stopped handing in weekly assignments and started skipping class, a chat on the corridor seemed in order.

"Sorry about that," she said red-faced, "I'll definitely be in next week." That was the last I saw of her that term. So emails were duly sent, the first expressing concern, letting her know that help was available, the second a warning that she was in danger of failing the course.

They went unanswered. And then one day, we ran slap bang into each other on the stairs. Before I could say anything, 'Muireann' placed her hand on my arm and said: "It's not you, Kate, it's me." That simple sentence summed up the problem. She needed to confront her difficulties and I needed to butt out.

But in a world where parents think they can protect, guide and, let's face it, control their offspring, college has become the new frontier. A small but vocal group of mums and dads, who believe that they can interfere in the same way they did at primary and secondary level, is not shy about picking up the phone to voice their concerns.

Yes, there are issues around privacy, but what do you do when the parent is ringing you at the express request of the young adult? One lecturer in medicine described his dismay when an irate Cork mother rang to complain about the fact that her daughter had not got first- class honours. "A First isn't a given," he explained, "it requires a tremendous amount of work across a lot of subject areas." "My daughter accepts that she did not do as well as she could have done," the angry mammy countered, "but I want to know what your role is in all of this, are you going to accept your failure to bring her up to that standard?"

Another Irish academic had a call from a mother who said her son wanted to give up economics, even though it was a core part of his degree. "But if he can't give it up, he'll fail", she wailed when told the university could not allow that.

Faced with the barrage of parental phone calls, some colleges in the US have opened parental support offices. Post-college employers are dealing with parents sitting in on interviews, negotiating salaries and benefits, ringing HR if their kids are not promoted.

Last week, billionaire Bill Gates berated American colleges for their drop-out rates. They should, he said, invest money in seeing how they could keep students on their courses.



invest

At a conference in Limerick earlier this year Education Minister Ruairi Quinn advised students to be "critical consumers", to shop around for better lecturers and courses.

There is a mood out there that says if universities did a better job, no one would fail. But where do we draw the line at support and help? Should we be pushing people over the line, simply just to get them there? Do you really want to drive over a bridge built by an engineer who scraped a pass directly due to grade inflation? Or have your medical examination carried out by a doctor who bullied his way to qualification?

Not allowing for failure, denigrating the hard work that's needed for true success, is not just an Irish phenomenon.

At a conference in the UK, one of the topics under discussion was whether universities should be introducing structured work experience in order to help graduates get a head start in a fragile economy.

Two academics who had organised internships as part of their coursework told me about their concerns. "It's the parents' expectations that are the problem," said one.

She gave the example of how she had set up a placement in one of the UK's top companies for a student on her course. It all fell apart when the student's father rang the CEO to personally berate him about his staff's treatment of his son. Twice on his first day in the office the son had been handed back written work which was considered not up to scratch. So the father said his boy would not be returning -- he had not spent years paying for a good education, and building up his son's confidence to see some 'jobsworths' cut him down to size.

The second lecturer had gotten a frantic call from an employer; her student intern had not turned up for her second day at work and the employer was afraid that she had been abducted on the way to her early morning start. When the college rang the home number, a laid-back mother answered saying that her daughter had decided to "give up". She wasn't learning anything, the work was boring, and mummy agreed.

Wanting to be fast-tracked into management directly from college is not a new phenomenon.

Many of the problems young people are facing come from the disconnect between the success they believe they have to attain, and reality.

The pressure to be 'amazing' means that underneath that confident exterior lurks the fear that you are not an undiscovered 'talent', but just 'average', really, much like the rest of us.

Try telling young adults that 'average' and 'ordinary' are okay and just wait as their faces crumple, in some cases it will be with pure relief.

A friend once ruefully confessed, "everyone else's children are geniuses except mine." She may have had a point. While working on a TV programme for RTE, a psychologist on the panel told me a colleague of hers had interviewed two distraught parents the day before. They had brought in their son for assessment.

"He's an average, normal child," her colleague assured them after tests. The father looked dumbstruck, the mother close to tears. This was not the answer they had been looking for. "They thought he was a genius," the psychologist said. "My colleague should have told them that genius rarely skips a generation."



TRIUMPH

Over the past weeks, young Irish entrepreneurs involved in digital start-ups have been talking to some of my students. In each and every case they have spoken about their 'failed projects' and what they learned from them, how keeping going was the real triumph.

So for those parents coping with crises by student offspring, failure should be an option.

If you can help them to deal honestly with a situation they are unhappy in, allow them to be independent, change courses or careers, to drop-out, repeat, to accept their limitations, then you are doing well as a parent.

There are far too many students seeing college counsellors because of anxiety and depression. And their problems are more often than not related to overly high expectations.

As for 'Muireann', yes she did finish the course and got her degree. It might make for a happy ending to say I attended her graduation, and wiped away a tear as I watched her proud parents see her walk up to get her parchment. But the truth is, it wasn't about me, it was about her.

>Kate Shanahan is a journalist, TV producer and lecturer in DIT at the School of Media

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