Dear Pomona College,
Let us fail.
By attending Pomona, we open doors for ourselves that otherwise wouldn't be available. We get access to the Career Development Office. We get access to small classes with some of the world’s best professors. We get an opportunity to change the way we think, challenge our ideals, and question the world. There’s no doubt that we are lucky to be here.
However, it’s equally important to understand exactly what doors we close for ourselves by attending Pomona, or any elite college or university. William Deresiewicz attempts to explore these options in his famed piece “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Although Deresiewicz directs his criticism toward the Ivy League, his discussion of failure is poignant, and applicable to Pomona.
At Pomona we are not used to failing. Nearly all of us excelled in high school, sacrificing sleep for a rigorous course load, varsity athletics, and volunteering opportunities. If we had failed much in high school, we wouldn't be here right now. Certain consequences come along with unabated success.
The problem with Pomona is that only a few of us actually do fail, even while we are here. A major contributor to this is rampant grade inflation. Typically, grade inflation refers to the increase of average GPAs at Pomona and across the nation in recent years. Receiving an A simply has become too easy. To put this into perspective, an article from TSL in 2010 quoted history professor Victor Silverman with the alarming statistic that “60 percent of grades given at Pomona are As.” Data regarding the Pomona College Scholar distinction seem to back up Silverman’s claim. Last spring, the cutoff for the award—which represents the top 25 percent of the class—was 11.857 on the 12-point scale.
As a whole, grade inflation isn't necessary senseless. The fact that grades are so high at Pomona reflects the intellect of the student body, and higher grades serve to help us with graduate school admissions and employment opportunities.
The problem with a Pomona education—and especially grade inflation—is that we are conditioned to fear failure. In the context of our school, failure means messing up, doing something wrong, getting in trouble. But shouldn't failure be seen as commonplace and a staple of long-term success? “I have not failed,” begins Thomas Edison’s well-known anecdote about his invention of the light bulb. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
The implications of a lack of failure became apparent soon after my arrival at Pomona. In my first meeting with my faculty adviser, he told me that athletes have an advantage over the rest of the student body because they naturally deal with failure on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Since many Pomona students cruise through high school and college—not to undermine the incredible rigor of Pomona classes—we infer that life after Pomona should hold much of the same. Never having felt failure, most of us don’t know how to respond when life isn't as simple as it is within the Claremont bubble. The resilience needed to persevere through failure can only be learned through experience. By coddling their students, Pomona serves to stifle the personal growth indispensable for future success.
A natural consequence of a fear of failure is resistance to taking risks. When failure becomes an altogether foreign experience in our lives, we tend to embark upon safe paths where we can avoid failure. Although risky decisions during college and following graduation have the stigma of being immature and quixotic, these are precisely the types of decisions that define our lives.
Pomona is in need of genuine reform to curtail these plagues of an elite education. Grade inflation needs to be reversed. If Pomona students want to embrace and battle failure, then A grades should never be seen as commonplace. As a whole, Pomona’s student body must consciously amend our lack of failure. Start by taking more risks. Whether it’s asking that special someone in your sociology class on a date or putting off graduate school for a job on a farm in Turkey after graduation, I’m sure that all of us will realize that we have more to gain than to lose by taking the risks that may lead to failure. We came to Pomona because we want rewarding careers and satisfying experiences. In order to get there, Pomona first must let us fail.