Successful Failure: The School America Builds

Successful Failure: The School America Builds

Successful Failure: The School America Builds

Successful Failure: The School America Builds


"This is an intelligent & provocative book about qualitative research. It conjoins a compelling discussion of the theoretical assumptions of interpretive methods with illustrative studies of schooling & education. Readers can count on a challenge to tried & true ways of thinking, both about education & educational research. Many will find themselves changing their minds." Reba N. Page University of California "The vivid examples of students' displays of intelligence presented by Varenne & McDermott challenge us to think & act toward students in new & different ways." Hugh Mehan University of California at San Diego


It is easy to identify and criticize the American school preoccupation with failure, for the evidence is abundant that too many people leave school scarred. The more difficult task is to come to a point where one can think about education and schooling without necessarily thinking about failure or success as categories for the identification of children. In this book we show how limiting these categories are, and we build the case for a new way of thinking about education and schooling.

Somehow the people of the United States have organized a terrible problem for themselves: They have made individual learning and school performance the institutional site where members of each new generation are measured and then assigned a place in the social structure based on this measurement. Learning has become an instrument for so much else than education that the vocabulary commonsensically used to talk about learning and education cannot be trusted. It is a vocabulary of individuals succeeding and failing that continues to hide the common situation. It takes hard intellectual work to clear the decks for only a moment. This is the task we pick up in this book.

In this preface, we state the case against the language of success and failure and then confront the difficulty involved in building a new language for talking about children, education, and schooling. The same rhythm appears through the book. We ask readers to visit almost any scene in the United States where what is commonly known as "education" is to be found. There they will find people busily doing this or that but almost always doing one fateful thing: determining who is the most successful. Sometimes the emphasis on relative success is intense, and the competition for grades or other rewards is ubiquitous. Elsewhere, particularly in settings where many have had a long history of designated failure, the search for relative success may be muted or hidden. In either case, there are always students worried about how they are doing relative to others. There are always parents and teachers worrying about students worrying. And there are always professional educators and researchers worried about the adequacy of the testing and its effect on everyone. Worriers worrying about the worries of others. There have been easier worlds in which to be either a student or an educator.

The measurement of individuals in competition with other individuals is an essential part of life in American culture. It is a source of entertainment on television quiz shows and sporting events, but mostly it is a source of worry, particularly around everything that has to do with schooling, most particularly at times of major transition, from entry into preschool to the search for a "top" graduate or professional school six-

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