Psychology of graduate education: Failure avoidance

Dean Dad argues that “the whole prestige hierarchy/pyramid model – basically an inverted funnel – is based on weeding people out. If you buy into the model early and set a goal of succeeding within it, the entire educational process becomes a game of failure avoidance.” In other words, that the whole system of evaluation, promotion, and hierarchization between students and institutions leads people to concentrate merely on rising to higher and higher levels of membership, which, psychologically, appears as an orientation exclusively directed towards not screwing up. The corollary feeling is a pervasive “fear of failure,” he argues. And “at the end of the process, you wind up with a greater-than-average proportion of hyper-critical shrinking violets.”

I’m tempted to make the stock scholarly comment that it’s more complex than this. Which it is, though I certainly have bad moments in which I observe myself (or others) being as unconstructive and hypercritical as this model would predict. But there’s a really important part of this argument that I think deserves to be thought about more. Dean Dad contrasts this model of frightened, hypercritical education, prevalent at “snooty liberal arts college[s],” with a community college model of education, which assumes that everyone is more or less capable of educational success. I don’t know about the psychological details of this contrast. But there’s something brilliantly sociological in the argument that a hypercritical state of mind is the product of a harsh regime of assessment and weeding out, and that different regimes of assessment would produce radically different fears, risks, levels of self-doubt, and overall psychological situations.

One thought on “Psychology of graduate education: Failure avoidance

  1. Another fine post I missed…! There’s some Max Stirner quote about teachers, something like “having been licked into shape they now lick others.” I think that’s a pretty good assessment of a lot of my experiences in higher ed. Have you ever read Jacques Ranciere’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster? He makes a pretty similar point to this.
    Also, I can’t recall if I showed these to you, but these are two posts I wrote a long while back, just as I was going back to university, one right before went and one right after, I was trying to get clear on elements of the dynamic you discuss here.

    take care,

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