I am currently reading “When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin” by Mick Wall. I won’t go into much of the detail of the book but the message presented around the four members of the group is that most of them did not have the best experiences in school and that, in at least two cases, the statements written on their reports by their teachers were profoundly dismissive. Now, it is of course entirely possible the that the Led Zep lads were, at time of leaving school, incapable of achieving anything – except that this is a total nonsense as it is quite obvious that they achieved a degree of musical and professional success that few contemplate, let alone reach.
You’ll often read this kind of line in celebrity biographies – that semi-mythical reforging of the self after having been judged and found wanting. (From a narrative perspective, it’s not all that surprising as it’s an easy way to increase the tension.) But one of the reasons that it pops up is that such a statement is so damning that it is not surprising that a successful person might want to wander back to the person who said it and say “Really?” But to claim that such a statement is a challenge (as famously mocked in the Simpsons where Principal Skinner says that these children have not future and is forced to mutter, with false bonhomie, ‘Prove me wrong, kids, prove me wrong.’) is confused at best, disingenuous and misdirecting at worst. If you want someone to achieve something, provide a clear description of the task, the means to achieve that task and then set about educating and training. No-one has ever learned brain surgery by someone yelling “Don’t open that skull” so pretending that an entire life’s worth of motivation can be achieved by telling something that they have no worth is piffle. Possibly even balderdash.
The phrase “You Will Never Amount To Anything” is, in whatever form it is uttered, a truly useless sentiment. It barely has any meaning (isn’t just being alive being something and hence amounting to a small sort of anything?) but, of course, it is not stated in order to achieve an outcome other than to place the blame for the lack of engagement with a given system squarely at the feet of the accused. You have failed to take advantage of the educational opportunities that we have provided and this is such a terminal fault, that the remaining 90% of your life will be spent in a mobile block of amber, where you will be unable to affect any worthwhile interaction with the universe.
I note that, with some near misses, I have been spared this kind of statement but I do feel very strongly that it is really not anything that you can with any credibility or useful purpose. If you happen to be Death, the Grim Reaper, then you can stand at the end of someone’s life and say “Gosh, you didn’t do a great deal did you” (although, again, what does it mean to do anything anyway?) but saying it when someone is between the ages of 16 and 20? You might be able to depend upon the statistical reliability that, if rampant success in our society is only given to 1%, 99% of the time, everyone you say “You will not be a success” will accidentally fall into that category. It’s quite obvious that any number of the characteristics that are worthy of praise in school contribute nothing to the spectacular success enjoyed by some people, where these characteristics are “sitting quietly”, “wearing the correct uniform” or “not chewing gum”. These are excellent facets of compliance and will make for citizens who may be of great utility to the successful, but it’s hard to see many business leaders whose first piece of advice to desperate imitators is “always wear shiny shoes”.
If we are talking about perceived academic ability then we run into another problem, in that there is a great deal of difference between school and University, let along school and work. There is no doubt that the preparation offered by a good schooling system is invaluable. Reading, writing, general knowledge, science, mathematics, biology, the classics… all of these parts of our knowledge and our society can be introduced to students very usefully. But to say that your ability to focus on long division problems when you are 14 is actually going to be the grand limiting factor on your future contribution to the world? Nonsense.
Were you to look at my original degree, you might think “How on Earth did this man end up with a PhD? He appears to have no real grasp of study, or pathway through his learning.” and, at the time of the degree, you’d be right. But I thought about what had happened, learned from it, and decided to go back and study again in order to improve my level of knowledge and my academic record. I then went back and did this again. And again. Because I persevered, because I received good advice on how to improve and, most importantly, because a lot of people took the time to help me, I learned a great deal and I became a better student. I developed my knowledge. I learned how to learn and, because of that, I started to learn how to think about teaching, as well.
If you were to look at Nick Falkner at 14, you may have seen some potential but a worry lack of diligence and effort. At 16, you would have seen him blow an entire year of school exams because he didn’t pay attention. At 17 he made it into Uni, just, but it wasn’t until the wheels really started to fall off that he realised that being loquacious and friendly wasn’t enough. Scurrying out of Uni with a third-grade degree into a workforce that looked at the evidence of my learning drove home that improvements were to be made. Being unemployed for most of a year cemented it – I had set myself up for a difficult life and had squandered a lot of opportunities. And that is when serendipity intervened, because the man who has the office next to me now, and with whom I coffee almost every morning, suggested that I could come back and pursue a Masters degree to make up for the poor original degree, and that I would not have to pay for it upfront because it was available as a government deferred-payment option. (Thank you, again, Kevin!)
That simple piece of advice changed my life completely. Instead of not saying anything or being dismissive of a poor student, someone actually took the time to say “Well, here’s something you could do and here’s how you do it.” And now, nearly 20 years down the track, I have a PhD, a solid career in which I am respected as an educator and as a researcher and I get to inspire and help other students. There’s no guarantee that good advice will always lead to good outcomes (and we all know about the paving on the road to Hell) but it’s increasingly obvious to me that dismissive statements, unpleasant utterances and “cut you loose” curtness are far more likely to do nothing positive at all.
If the most that you can say to a student is “You’re never going to amount to anything”, it might be worth looking in a mirror to see exactly what you’ve amounted to yourself…