The Freedom to Fail

Yesterday, the Library of Congress announced the appointment of Philip Levine as the new Poet Laureate of the United States. The job of the Poet Laureate is "to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." (Taken from the website of the Library of Congress.)

Prior to that announcement, I knew little to nothing about Philip Levine, although his name was familiar. But the news came to me yesterday while I was lamenting the quality of my children's exposure to arts and culture, at least any arts and culture that doesn't make my ears bleed. So when, on our way to Shakespeare camp this morning (yes, I do see the irony there), our local public radio station, KQED, aired an interview with Levine, I turned it up. I wanted my kids to hear this guy talking about poetry. I'm sure my intended audience was more attentive to his/her electronic devices, but I turned it up anyway. I paused to explain to my captive audience what a Poet Laureate is, and was greeted by blank stares.

But I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the interview. I liked what he had to say about teaching at Fresno State, where he has been for 30 years:
"I've got these students, who are capable of learning, gave themselves the freedom to learn because they gave themselves the freedom to fail."
He goes on to say that at other, more prestigious schools at which he has taught, like Yale and Vanderbilt, "students had a lot of trouble being told that their poems were no damn good." It seems that education, for these high achieving students, is more about being brilliant already than about expanding one's mind and possibilities. (You can access the whole interview here.)

What an important concept to keep in mind. Amidst all our striving towards excellence and achievement, it's easy to lose sight of real learning. We can forget the importance of failure in shaping our minds, our hearts, who we are, and how much we grow, in intellectual and in more personal or creative endeavors.

While we may want our children to work hard enough to go to a good college or university, what we want for them even more is the freedom to fail, the freedom to find more and better paths for their creativity and innovation to flourish. Maybe in art or poetry, maybe in engineering, maybe on a soccer field or in a medical lab, maybe in their personal pursuits or in common cause for others.

Maybe in family life and raising children, too. Maybe parents need the freedom to fail, in order to grow and get better at crafting children, the way a poet crafts his poems. Perhaps it's not about being perfect already, but about keeping ourselves open to the possibilities before us, to directions we aren't expecting to go.

Leave it to a poet to remind us how our hearts and minds expand. Thank you, Mr. Levine.

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I'd like to help Mr. Levine out in his new job of raising poetry awareness. So please, find a poem to read today. Read one by our new poet laureate, or click on over to The Writer's Almanac and explore Garrison Keillor's poetry-promoting effort. Write one of your own! (I write poems, but they're really just shameless thefts of great works for my own petty purposes...not really what I'm thinking of here.)

Let's all let a little poetry into our lives, and see where it takes us. I'm guessing it will be somewhere pretty great.

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Exactly - we're not supposed to be perfect parents, we're just supposed to keep showing up and keep trying.
Laurel said…
You should read NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. There is a whole chapter on how we need to let kids fail and learn from their mistakes. Our culture is so focused on making sure we don't hurt their self-esteem but we are finding out that kids who have great self-esteem don't try anything new because they are too afraid to fail.

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