Don’t Mind Me: ‘Try again... Fail again... Fail better...’

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

The latest Leaving Cert reform is calling for the pass mark for higher level subjects to be lowered to 40% to 30% . Patricia claims failing builds character and to dumb down the Leaving Cert is a mistake
THIS week, as always happens after scanning the latest Sunday Times ‘rich list’, I find myself suffused with class envy, and it’s not a nice feeling. I can’t even hide it. It’s like being covered in spots after gorging on sour grapes. I’m mortified!

THIS week, as always happens after scanning the latest Sunday Times ‘rich list’, I find myself suffused with class envy, and it’s not a nice feeling. I can’t even hide it. It’s like being covered in spots after gorging on sour grapes. I’m mortified!

The mortification is exacerbated by the fact that everyone else I meet is filled, not with begrudgery, but with pride and glowing admiration for the growing list of the rich Irish. For most of those fans, it’s a vindication of 1916 – if ever one were needed.

Also I note with particular resentment the fact that the 250 richest people in the country, according to the ST, have increased their wealth in the past year by over €7 billion. Am I being simplistic then in suggesting that if those patriots paid 50% of their extra earnings in tax and USC like the rest of us, they’d wipe out over half of the current €6 billion budget deficit? Then we wouldn’t have to fret about the fragile recovery when paying the proposed miserable two per cent wage increase to public servants whose incomes were cut by an average of 14 per cent during the recession.

Look, I don’t know why I even bother reading the rich list in the first place seeing that it causes me so much disgruntlement. It’s certainly isn’t because of a delusional aspiration to someday find myself in the middle of it, or could it be? All of which brings me to the subject of this week’s column – our reverence for success and our increasing aversion to, and fear of, failure.

From and early age, failure is no longer to be even contemplated. Actually I’m surprised they haven’t already wiped the word from the English dictionary seeing that it has become so politically incorrect for a teacher to even use a red biro when pointing out mistakes in school work, not to talk of putting an ‘F’ on the page. Thankfully therefore, the latest reform proposed for the Leaving Cert will make failing quite an achievement, which should come as welcome news to a whole new generation of cosseted kids and their anxious parents, who would prefer their achievements to be of the more positive variety.

The pass mark for higher level subjects is being lowered from 40% to 30% - which I think was the case back in the 1960’s because I’m down as having passed Honours Art, after getting only 32 per cent of the allocated marks. The annoying thing is that I’m convinced I had a very similar sense of perspective to that displayed by Vincent Van Gogh in the Yellow Sun Flowers and if someone had recognised it then I’d surely have ended up in the rich list.

The important thing, however, is that I didn’t fail, after chancing my arm at Honours Art when really I shouldn’t even have gone near the subject. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because failure was more acceptable then. Everyone was a fan of Beckett’s philosophy “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. . .”

Only some of us didn’t bother trying again. Most of us of course had never even heard of Beckett, but failing was commonplace and not so frightful, and I don’t know whether it was because standards were higher or because people were not quite as driven or as ambitious as they are now. Certainly no-one thought of wrapping us in cotton wool, allocating waivers when we were challenged and banning the F word from our lives in case it discouraged us from aiming high.

I met someone recently who has made an awful lot of money during his lifetime, although admittedly he still hasn’t made the rich list. He can’t be far off, that’s all I can say. His biggest boast when I met him was that he had failed the Primary Cert when he was 12. We were talking about our schooldays and the things we got up to and, to be honest, I had forgotten that the Primary Cert exam had ever even existed, but if I remember correctly it was a tough test in which you had to analyse and parse sentences and know the pluperfect tense of the potential mood of a verb. Failing, however, was always an option. Anyway, he made me feel like a loser, not because of his wealth, but because I had passed the Primary cert with flying colours instead of making a fortune.

I’m not sure then if I’d agree with the plan to lower the Higher Level Leaving Cert pass mark in order to encourage students to aim higher. How can such a move not lower the standard of the exam itself? Will it mean that a student with 30 per cent in Honours Maths will be awarded 25 bonus CAO points just for having a go, while another with an A1 in Ordinary level Maths gets nothing for not chancing his or her arm?

Will it help anyone in the end to make the rich list in the future? More importantly will this easier passage to success help any of our children to meet with triumph and disaster – as they almost certainly will in life - and be able to “treat those two imposters just the same”?