Edmundson: Failure is good
By Matt Kelly
Photos by Dan Addison
Go out and fail, you successful third-year students, advised English professor Mark W. Edmundson in his Fall Convocation speech.
During the ceremony, President John T. Casteen III acknowledged those from the faculty who had won teaching awards in 2005 and conferred intermediate honors on 375 third-year students who had been in the top 20 percent of their class with a full course-load during their first two years. Fifteen architecture students, 83 engineering students, six nursing students and 271 students in the College of Arts & Sciences received intermediate honors.
Edmundson, who has written books on teaching and reading and is currently at work on a tome about Sigmund Freud, talked about the role failure plays in success. He cited the tale of a pious man who prayed to God for years to win the lottery. After many years of beseeching, God informed the man that he needed to buy a lottery ticket. Failure can be that ticket to future accomplishment.
While Edmundson, the Daniels Family-NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor, cited some of his own accomplishments, he also noted his “ghost resume,” the collection of things that went awry — the book plans that fell apart, the brilliant writing on Tuesday that was incomprehensible on Friday and the things that did not work in getting his first book published.
“Failure makes success possible,” he said, urging the students to fail a little more.
He cited the examples of Malcolm X, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson as people who wrestled with failure, but left tremendous marks on the world. Poe, an early student at the University, produced an extensive catalogue of poetry, stories and critical writing, while “his life was a disaster.” Malcolm X, whose early life was that of a street thug, learned through reading while in prison, and emerged from jail as a major voice in the 20th century. Whitman, at 32, was “not good at anything,” having written bad temperance novels, forgettable newspaper work and failed as a teacher. But then he wrote “Leaves of Grass,” praised at the time by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a work of genius. Edmundson said Whitman, a male nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, may have exchanged glances on the street with Abraham Lincoln, a man who lost many elections but who prevailed. Jefferson, who founded the University, was brilliant but “deeply flawed,” according to Edmundson, especially in his dealings with his slaves.
In dealing with failure, Edmundson drew a lesson from football — you have to get up again, even when it is painful.
He disputed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contention that there are no second acts in American lives. “It’s all second acts,” he said, noting Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rebirth as a senator from New York and Donald Trump’s new career on television.
Education, he said, is a “dramatic second act.” Students, after being socialized by their parents and teachers and ministers, come to college and find new ways to talk about themselves. This was no insult to the parents who raised them, he said, but a matter of their finding their own voices.
He ended his list of failures with Saul Bellow, who started writing “The Adventures of Augie March” while in Paris, missing the sound of his native language. After writing 1,500 pages, Bellow thought the book might be “a flop.” Instead, it won the National Book Award for fiction in 1954.
“Succeed as much as you can,” he said. “But generate a remarkable ghost resume — start that band, write that poem, start that business.” Referring back to his opening remarks about the man who prayed to win the lottery, Edmundson continued, “Tickets are expensive but infinitely worth buying.”