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Nov 9, 2009 11:39 AM by Associated Press

Failure 101: A class students could use

Disgraced ex-New York Times reporter Jayson Blair talking to college students about ethics?

What's next? The former head of Lehman Brothers on financial risk management?

Such was the blogosphere's snarky tone last week when Washington & Lee University in Virginia announced Blair would speak Friday at a journalism conference there.

But if the cheap irony of a famous fabulist lecturing on ethics was too much to resist, perhaps it could also prompt colleges to think more seriously about something they often shy away from: the value of exposing students to, and preparing them for, failure.

For some people, like Blair, failure is spectacular and public. For others, it's just falling short of expectations - in their careers or personal lives.

But you won't find many examples of either type among the guest speaker announcements of college bulletins. Instead, you'll find a parade of winners - titans of the arts and commerce and politics, many of them alumni, returned triumphantly to campus to inspire the next generation (and, implicitly, to demonstrate to customers the college is worth up to $50,000 a year).

They may well talk about past failures on their eventual path to success.

Students want to hear more about it
But rarely is the podium held by someone who just failed.

That's understandable - but too bad. Teachers say failure is something so-called Gen Y students want to hear more about.

"They are very concerned with failure," said Rich Honack, a lecturer at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and expert in generational cultures. Current 20-somethings "have always succeeded. They've always gotten trophies when they go out for a sports team. They've always gotten 'A's. Their parents have told them be the best and protected them from failure."

But in a way that makes failure all the more terrifying.

Visitors to Kellogg, a top-tier business school, often are grilled about the times they messed up, Honack said. When former General Electric CEO Jack Welch talked to students, they were especially curious how his career recovered after, as a young chemical engineer, he blew the roof off a factory and almost got fired.

But of course Welch went on to become one of the most successful CEOs ever. Honack couldn't think of any outright failures who'd spoken lately on campus.

Anthony Kronman, author of the 2007 book "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life," says the high-achieving students in his freshman Great Books class at Yale are often most riveted by the flawed characters in their readings.

In Thucydidies' "History of the Pelopennesian War," they are most drawn to Alcibiades, a 5th-century B.C. Athenian politician who made too many enemies and squandered his talents. Less interesting are the heroes (though in ancient Greece, even the heroes had no shortage of failings to discuss).

 

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