Freedom to Fail

The odd thing about grades is that they have never really been at the forefront of my mind.  I mean I’ve always tried to do well and acquire those good grades, but I’ve never had to sacrifice my own personal educational ambitions to get them.  I most often found myself learning what I’ve wanted to learn and working towards what I’ve wanted to work towards within the confines of class and what was being taught and always came away with high marks.  Last semester, however, was a different story…
I had two classes, Preaching and New Testament exegesis.  I’ll admit I didn’t make bad grades (they were above average), but they were grades that were well below what I was capable of if my intended goal was to make the grade.
However, I am not one to see the expense of thousands of dollars per semester worth merely coming away with a grade.  My goal is to learn, challenge myself and do things that I might not feel the freedom to do out in the real world when I get a job.  Because when I get a job and I try to venture into an unknown arena my failure might have ramifications beyond myself.  Thus, I see my time here at seminary as an opportunity to try my hand at different styles and approaches to things such as preaching and exegesis.
I can remember one particular instance where I tried to do this and failed miserably.  It was the last sermon I had to give for my preaching class and we had the option to choose either a 5 minute funeral or wedding sermon/homily.  I chose funeral.  Within that realm we could either do a funeral for an individual that we knew well or for an obituary of several provided to us by the professor.  I chose to do an obituary and the obituary I chose was one of a former prisoner who had a jailhouse conversion to the existentialism of Sartre.  I really went out on a limb for myself.  I know, for one, that I have not had to deal with death much and, when I attempt to conceptualize it, I come away thinking that I will not be affected by it much.  So I know that interacting with other people on the topic of death is an issue with me.  Second, I also know that I don’t know how to broach the subject of death or afterlife when the deceased has ascribed to a worldview and theology that is drastically different from my own, practically opposite.  Finally, I also know that when you’re a pastor you don’t get to chose whose funeral you get to do.
So, two issues working against me so that I can garner the ability to meet the need of the third issue… and like I said I crashed and burned.  I won’t go into specifics, but it would have been pretty much the worst funeral ever.
Now contrast this to another person in the class who did a marriage homily to close friends who were a gay couple.  No doubt its a difficult task, but not difficult for her.  Every sermon preached was on some issue of social justice.  They ooze social justice, which is great, but it makes them a “one trick pony” (please excuse the colloquialism, but it just fits so well).  Every text/topic picked and every sermon preached suited her present comfort of social justice.  It’s a crime against the educational environment sure, but what truly frustrates me is that they are seeking a Masters of Divinity and ordination in my denomination, of course it could be any denomination.  I for one would not desire a pastor if I knew that they just did what suited them, because I do not think I would see them as capable of changing to meet the need of a new situation.
Yet with the way that the TA and some in the class gushed over them I have a sneaking suspicion that they received an A…. I’m not envious, I know it seems that way.  I am more so frustrated at seeing how a lot of my denomination’s pastors go through their education.
It was the same issue with New Testament (NT), but here I caved; I went for the grade.  Evidently my writing was difficult to read, and I’ll admit some of my papers had convoluted and confusing writing, but some of the others did not.  I know at times my writing is difficult, but after a proof or two its only difficult if you’re halfway paying attention while reading. Regardless, towards the end of the year I simply quit trying to figure out the text as best and creatively as I could as just went with what I could write about as clearly and concisely as possible.  I might have received a good grade on the paper, but it felt like pile of crappy work, because the texts I was working with are brilliant, expansive and hold gargantuan amounts of meaning.
Having to ignore that was a tragedy, so I felt like I was forced to fail in that area so I could succeed in another.

Too often last year I felt the loss of freedom.  More often than in the past, I felt I had to tow the line so that my work would be accepted by my professors, or whoever was grading it, just so I could make the grade and get the M.Div that I’m seeking to be able to attain ordination.
This is a bad symptom of systematic education.  When education becomes an institutional service it needs to be able to function and survive as an institution.  This means that the educators who are paid to educate need to teach more students than they are capable of truly educating because the institution needs that many students’ tuition to remain profitable.  The educator then becomes a transmitter of facts  less invested in the lives and growth of the students, simply because it is too large a task.
This has an impact on the perception of failure.
Failure should be seen as an integral part of education.  However, it isn’t, because when someone fails, they receive a grade that shows they aren’t learning.  Failure can be a sign of this as it might reveal apathy or lack of ability, but it can also reveal resistance or growth.  Growth, the more positive of the two is, unfortunately, not really a measurable goal, it’s subjective and since it involves failing at times grading it is practically impossible.  Therefore, it cannot be considered a gradable quality alongside notions like concepts learned and ability to practice them.  So even if someone is growing as an individual and learning a lot, it might not be measured as such.  Growth does not necessarily translate into an immediate ability to display learned concepts or an ability to practice them.  Growth then, can come across as a failure to learn. It doesn’t always, which is why the other qualities are used and not completely thrown out.  They can show growth incidentally, but it is an indirect measurement.  I’ve often grown and not always failed.

But last semester I often felt as if I was perceived as failing, even though I knew I was challenging myself and growing.
Ah! Now we get to my issue with pride….
I definitely think there is a systemic problem with how the educational system measures learning and ultimately creates students who are good at passing, but not learning.  But if that were merely the case, then others perception of me as failing would be a non-issue.  No, what takes away my freedom to fail more than the institutionalized educational system is my desire to be perceived as a success by my peers and superiors.
So, even though the possibility is present, limited but present nonetheless, I have an incredibly innate ability to take what possibility remains away from myself.  Why?  Because, as I said, I want to be perceived as a success, but also because I need to get the degree to do the job I want.
Also, I don’t know how else to perceive my own success.  Sure, I can measure my growth, but challenging myself could either be challenging myself to grow, or just to see how well I could do, which is pure arrogance.  Truly knowing whether or now I am growing isn’t immediately knowable to even myself unless I am forced to reflect upon it.  So it is only in hindsight  that I will know whether or not I was challenging myself to grow, or to make myself feel better about myself.  The only way I truly know how to measure my learning is by the very standards I don’t like; the ones that have been engrained in me since grade school.  I know that often times an “A” means I have successfully grasped new material and am able to wield it successfully and a “D” or “F” means that I have not.  I have been trained to be delighted by an “A” and frustrated by a “D”, so I work for the “A”.  However, it is only later that I will be able to measure whether or not my education contributed to personal enlightenment or practical applicability.
This is why when I think back to all the books I “read” in high school and I want to read them again.  This is why I am now returning to the concepts I learned in my classes early in my major.  I read the books and I learned the concepts, but I did not allow them to enlighten me and did not learn their practical usage.
I succeeded in high school and undergrad, but I failed in the long run.  Perhaps I need to get over myself now in order to fail, so that I can truly succeed.

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