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Nothing can succeed quite like failure

For as long as anyone can remember, America has embraced such pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap maxims as “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

People are still willing to learn from their mistakes. But something has happened to failure.

Citing everything from bank bailouts to the coddling of our kids, a growing number of conservative social critics worry that a society obsessed with fairness and self-esteem has forgotten the true value of falling on your face.

Lately, they say, we don’t seem to want to let anybody fail. When brokerage houses, car companies and mortgage holders wobble, we can’t print up the billions fast enough.

Such aversion to failure is hardly new, critics say. It has been incubating in schools and youth sports for years.

Just look at the trends. Some schools have stopped giving Fs, some T-ball and soccer teams don’t keep score, and self-esteem programs make sure young ones feel good about themselves no matter how bad their performance. Trophies, given out like cups of water, are more meaningless than ever, while some high schools honor a dozen valedictorians, and colleges complain about “helicopter parents” who rush to the rescue at the first sign of struggle.

Lawrence Kudlow, an economist and syndicated columnist, says we’re on the wrong track.

“Is it possible in America today that no one is allowed to fail?” he wrote. “You know, Phil Gramm was right. We are a nation of whiners. No one wants to believe that failure is an option anymore. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? Or learning from your mistakes? Or going through transformative difficulties that just might change your life and your behavior? But it seems like failure is off the board nowadays.”

While the biggest banks are simply too large to fail, most economists say, bailouts in general send a bad message.

Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote in National Review Online: “Our culture forgot that there was once a utility in failing. Failing reminded us of what works and what doesn’t – and how we must learn to avoid the latter. Instead, in our new economic purgatory, no firm, company, state, city or individual ever quite goes to financial heaven or hell. A Bear Stearns or Chrysler neither succeeds nor fails but just sort of endlessly exists.”

As tough as it is, critics say, outright failure may be the only pill bitter enough to shock us into changes necessary for ultimate success. And so what if someone does fail?

Abraham Lincoln failed many times. So did Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Before she became a multibillionaire, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling failed so miserably she was homeless. Successful people consistently report learning more from their failures than their successes.

But how, critics say, can we learn from our failures – be it with Fs in school, losses in T-ball or bankruptcy of our biggest businesses – if nobody can fail?

Not everyone has forgotten the importance of failure. In fact, American Honda Motor Co. has created a microsite advertisement on the Web that specifically touts failure as the key to the company’s success. In 8 minutes of video, Honda engineers, designers and executive take turns talking about their embarrassing personal and corporate missteps. Several times the word “Failure” flashes on the screen in large letters, driving home the message: If you’re not failing, you’re not trying. And if you’re not trying, you’re not growing.

And when it comes to our kids, anti-failure advocates say, there’s a good reason to limit the chance for failure _ better learning and improved self-esteem.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., failing school work no longer brings a failing grade. Students instead receive an “H” for “held.”

School superintendent Bernard Taylor, a former superintendent of the Kansas City School District, told ABC News that failing students have several choices, including retaking a course, doing additional work or agreeing on another plan with teachers.

“If the choice is between letting kids fail and giving them another opportunity to succeed,” Taylor told the network, “I’m going to err on the side of opportunity.”

At the Fowler School, a middle school in suburban Boston, students who don’t do their homework used to be given a zero. Today they’re given a chance to complete their homework at lunch. If they don’t finish it at lunch, they can finish it after school. If they can’t get it done after school, they can bring it the next day.

Assistant Principal Jeff Mela said the change has helped students complete more homework by being encouraging, rather than punitive.

“Zeros can be devastating,” he said. “Not only to a student’s average, but to their self-esteem and confidence.”

The Fowler program is called ZAP, or Zeros Aren’t Permitted.

Business experts have another name for it: coddling. They worry that the program gives students extra chances they won’t get in the real world.

When it comes to limiting failure, that’s hardly the most radical idea.

Alfie Kohn, a leader in progressive education, has argued for years that children would learn more if schools abolished all competition, grades and homework.

“Giving students letter or number grades leads them to think less deeply, avoid challenging tasks, and become less enthusiastic about whatever they’re learning,” Kohn wrote on his Web Site. “Similarly, making children work what amounts to a second shift after having spent all day in school not only proves frustrating, but also turns learning into a chore. Surprisingly, claims that homework enhances understanding or promotes better work habits are contradicted by both research and experience.”

Callom Jones, a certified public accountant and personal financial specialist from Overland Park, Kan., said protecting kids from hard work and failure may sound nice but ultimately does more harm than good.

“If you don’t fail, you’ll never experience the exhilaration of winning,” he said. “And if you don’t fail, you’ll never learn that to get where you want to go you have to push yourself to get better. Those are critical lessons that failure teaches us. If you remove failure from children’s lives, they’ll never learn them.”

The same argument can be used on the corporate level.

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer recently wrote in that as well-intended as the bailouts were, they’re only perpetuated a fundamentally flawed status quo.

“So far, at least, we are simply rebuilding the same edifice that just collapsed,” he wrote.

Jones and others blame liberals for always trying to shave off life’s sharp corners.

“The liberal side of things, which controls a lot of our children’s lives, has opted to go for equality of results instead of equality of opportunity,” he said. “Imagine a kid, no matter how hard he works to succeed, imagine what happens to his motivation if he always has the same results of somebody who doesn’t work as hard as he does. It’s going to sap it. So what are you doing? You’re conditioning the motivation out of people who would be high achievers, and you’re teaching others that they don’t have to work hard to get what they need.”

In other words, he said, failure is not an option. It’s a necessity.

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