Fail isn't a dirty word

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Concepts of emotional fragility have led to a retreat from the real world where children have to compete, says Stuart Waiton.

A few years ago, a group of Canadian psychologists published a satirical article about Winnie the Pooh entitled "Pathology in the Hundred Acre Woods". At first glance, the authors note, Pooh may appear to be a "healthy, well adjusted bear" but, on closer examination, he turns out to suffer from "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, binge eating, and borderline cognitive functioning; while Rabbit fits the profile of narcissistic personality syndrome; Owl is emotionally disturbed, which renders him dyslexic; and Piglet displays classic symptoms of generalised anxiety and Eeyore the donkey has low self-esteem."

Articles like this generally make us laugh: it's political correctness gone mad, we all cry, and then get on with business as usual - without realising that, in fact, the joke is on us.

A similar example of political correctness gone mad occurred at the Professional Association of Teachers' annual conference, where retired primary school teacher Liz Beattie proposed a motion to "delete the word 'fail' from the educational vocabulary and replace it with 'deferred success'."

My colleague e-mailed this news to me, knowing that I would choke on my lunch when I read it - but I wasn't the only one. Beattie's proposed motion was roundly ridiculed in the press. Ruth Kelly, England's Education Secretary, discussing it on BBC Radio 4's Today programme gave Beattie "nought out of 10" for her outlandish suggestion.

In the "real world", the idea that nobody can fail is indeed ridiculous and it appears that, within education itself, there have never been so many tests and exams to sort out the wheat from the chaff. However, at the same time, as some exam results demonstrate, failing is to a large degree becoming a thing of the past.

Similarly, the idea of "competition" has never been so problematic, with sports days becoming "fun days", while teachers are coming under increasing pressure to be "inclusive" and to make education "relevant" to all.

We may all scoff at the idea of eliminating the word "fail" from education - and yet, in the "real world", failing has become a serious concern. One explanation for this contradictory "real world" comes from the acclaimed American academic Christina Hoff Sommers - from whom the "Pathology in the Hundred Acre Woods" example is stolen.

Sommers has noted that, as in the UK, competition has become a minefield in US playgrounds, with even games of "tag" coming under a cloud and being banned in some schools. But this excessive concern with competition is not peripheral to an otherwise relaxed educational establishment: 64 per cent of education professors believe that "schools should avoid competition", according to one survey.

Competition, Sommers says, has become an underlying - and increasingly overt - problem within education, because children are ever more understood to be emotional entities who need support and therapy, rather than education and discipline. Like Pooh and his pals, whose behaviour can now be reinterpreted as pathological, children are en masse being analysed by professionals who interpret their behaviour as a reflection of emotional illiteracy and damage - something that competition will only further undermine.

This form of "therapism", Sommers argues, is further predicated upon the idea that children - and indeed adults - are essentially weak, and cannot cope with the stress that games like tag entail. Competitive games are therefore seen as creating a victim, "an 'it' which creates a self-esteem issue", she suggests.

Emotional fragility, despite Ruth Kelly's mark of nought out of 10 for Beattie, is a mantra here in the UK as well as in America. This helps to explain why professional footballers, for example, can continue to battle it out on the field of play, while sporting the ridiculous anti-bullying wrist bands at the same time - reflecting their own emotional sensitivity to the imagined plight of today's children.

We may still compete in the "real world", but we are increasingly being "educated" that it is at a price. Indeed, if the real world did not exist, one gets the distinct impression that "fail" would have been a word lost to the English language long ago.

Stuart Waiton is director of, where information can be found on its conference on September 20, "Cotton Wool Kids? Making Sense of Child Safety". Christina Hoff Sommers is co-author of One Nation Under Therapy, and will be speaking at the conference.

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