When my boys were little I often took them hiking north of Yosemite on a trail I particularly liked. This trail crossed a small creek at one point, and there a huge pine had blown over to form a natural bridge. We would often cross the creek on this pine, especially during spring runoff when the water was high and dangerous.
One day we were on our way across when my older son, who was just then beginning to understand how dangerous it actually was, looked up at me and said, "Daddy, what if I fall off?" I squeezed his hand reassuringly, to let him know Dad was there, and replied, "Don't fall off."
This story elicts knowing smiles from parents because it is a metaphor for how we often think about the path to professional life for the kids, especially in school. What you want most for your child, at least at the beginning, is that he or she not fall off the log. Good parents focus on this matter like a laser---with the familiar consequences of pre-schools requiring recommendation letters, high school tutoring in excess of actual school, and parents regularly telephoning students at university to make sure they are doing their homework.
There are also darker things. In Palo Alto, where I raised my family and know what I'm talking about, psychological abuse was commonplace, as were beating and drugging the kids to improve school performance. I know personally of two stress-related teenage suicides. The administration at the University of California at Berkeley had to install plexiglass shields at the top of the Campanile to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.
Despite our most extreme measures to prevent it, however, students do occasionally fall off the log, just as we ourselves do, and for the same reasons: failing occasionally is a necessary consequence of reaching beyond one's present means and abilities, whatever they are. At least some of these failures are symptoms of the creative power of a culture. Everyone knows that a sure-fire way to succeed is to have low aspirations. This is why extremely artistic people so often seem to have had troubled academic careers. Galileo, for example, was a university dropout, as was Bill Gates. Claude Monet's father despaired because his son led the dissolute life of an artist rather than becoming a banker.
It is also why strong societies have second chances. Time and again a Korean university student will come up to me and tell me the following story: I became interested in science and technology late. I did not score well in exams I took when I was younger. I dream of making a great discovery or contributing something of lasting importance, but feel I am shut out. What can I do? I always answer that I'm doing my best to help, for I had a similar experience and know what it's like. Deep in my head a voice then whispers, here is the Nobel Prize these people want so badly.
No one knows the right balance of stress and liberalism that maximizes the growth of a country, so we have to guess. Just as Korea probably overemphasizes testing, the US overemphasizes independence and self-realization---with the result that it loses many more students than it should to waywardness. This is one of the many reasons I feel unqualified to lecture people here about how to run an educational system. Nonetheless I feel that Korea would benefit from institutionalizing a few more second chances, and so routinely lobby for this.
I'm not the only one. A couple of years ago I went with some other Nobelists to Beijing and had an audience with the Education Minister. He said something especially memorable: they realized that their elitist education system was not growing the economy as much as it should, and their dream was find enough money to educate down into the upper 20% of the population. In other words, even in (formerly) communist countries it is the workings of an expanding modern economy that demand second chances, not just liberal thinkers.
Thus to the young man despairing of his poor test performance and staring down at the dark waters of the Han river swirling below, I say go home, get a good night's sleep, and try again. You are vastly more important than you know.
[Copyright 2004 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]