Where Do Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, I published posts about “Success” and “Failure” in schooling that have a chance of becoming my next project (see here, here, and here). I asked for comments and received very helpful ones. I have continued to work on these concepts by exploring a set of questions that are becoming the spine of what may  (or not) turn out to be a book

I seek answers to these questions:

1. What is “success” and “failure” in schooling?

2. Where do these ideas of “success” and “failure” come from and how do they spread?

3. Who defines “success” and failure?

4. What does “success” and “failure” look like in practice?

5. So what?

I am now trying to answer the second question. I have drafted my answer in the next few posts. I have not included citations here but have them listed elsewhere. If readers want to know sources I used for a particular statement or quote, please contact me. I welcome your comments.


Where do concepts of “success” and “failure” in schooling come from?

Notions of success and failure in contemporary society are anchored in a market-driven democracy where core values of individualism, community, and equal opportunity have shaped the American character. In 1931, a historian captured these core values in what he called “The American Dream:”

The American dream that has lured tens of million of all nation to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as men and women, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere, though very imperfectly even among ourselves.

Less than a decade later, a Swedish sociologist and his team studying “The Negro Problem” in the U.S. identified these same values as the “American Creed,” embedded in principles drawn from the founders of the nation, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution. Subsequent social scientists came to similar conclusions about basic American values. These values–individualism, community, and equal opportunity–espoused in the Creed and the Dream, then and now–have been in tension with one another.


Individual Americans seek to achieve personal success in a highly competitive economic system embedded in a democratic government. They want higher social status, and a better life for themselves and those they love. In following their personal interests and passions, they want the freedom to choose–excuse the cliché–come hell or high water. And even if they choose unwisely and fail, so be it.

As one team of sociologists–identifying themselves as Americans put it three decades ago:

[W]e are united … in at least one core belief, even across lines of color, religion, region, and occupation: the belief that economic success or misfortune is the individual’s responsibility and his or hers alone.

One national survey (2011) found that nearly six-in-ten Americans say pursuing one’s goals without state interference is more important than the government making sure that people are not needy.

No surprise then that generations of fathers and mothers have taught their sons and daughters basic lessons: Work hard. Make smart choices. Learn to compete. And rewards will come. American child rearing practices aimed at making children into independent adults who could take care of themselves in a highly competitive world while making  wise choices has been the ideal for middle and working class Americans.

The growth of individualism began early in the early years of the nation.  Foreign travelers visited America often. French aristocrat Alexis De Tocqueville and a colleague toured the United States for nine months in 1831 and in Democracy in America, Tocqueville commented about individualism as an American character trait:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.

And a decade after Tocqueville, a born-and-bred New Englander, Harvard graduate, poet and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay on “Self-Reliance.”

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thous foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.

Fast forward to Andy Grove, longtime CEO of Intel who in 1999 extolled individualism in managing one’s career:

Your career is literally your business. You own it as a sole proprietor. You have one employee: yourself. You are in competition with millions of similar businesses: millions of other employees all over the world. You need to accept ownership of your career, your skills and the timing of your moves. It is your responsibility to protect this personal business of yours from harm and to position it to benefit from the changes in the environment. Nobody else can do that for you.

No surprise, then, in a nation where the individual rights and choices are highly prized that the word “self” gets used often in our culture as in: self-interest, self-sufficiency, self-help, self-discipline, self-made, self-educated, self-absorbed, self-actualization, self-esteem and so many more.

Part 2 takes up the other core values of equal opportunity and community.




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10 responses to “Where Do Ideas of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Come From? (Part 1)

  1. Hello, Larry.

    Thank you for this post as the timing is quite perfect. Recently, I have been reading economic reports about the progression of change in international education systems. According to an analysis conducted by McKinsey that details how the world’s “most improved school systems” keep getting better, a defining factor of moving from a good to a great system (e.g. Canada, Singapore, Finland, New Zealand) is the level of collaboration amongst educators to benefit the greater good. Teachers in excellent systems hold themselves accountable through a commitment to their students and consider it their professional responsibility to collaborate with colleagues to ensure a high level of pedagogy throughout the school.

    That said, if collaboration is such a critical part of success, and the American system is rooted in a sense of individualism (I keep thinking about your comment that policy fails the moment that teachers close their doors), then what might help to shift education – and educators – away from a seemlingly singular focus on individualism to also embrace the values of community and equity?

    I hope all is well.

    • larrycuban

      Part 2 of this series of posts takes up the value of community. Part 4 takes up school’s role in instilling these values. If you have time, Beth, let me know what you think. Thanks for comment.

  2. Methinks this column and the next one might have a place in my lesson plans when we read The Great Gatsby.

  3. educationstate

    Important to recognise that these are ideals and values Americans are born into rather than ideals and values that are American per se. These ideals and values are found in other countries, and potentially they can be changed (and so not necessarily un-American to think they can).

  4. Theodore Lobman

    Lots of value conflicts in American culture including among those you feature. Others with deep roots and famous promoters: strict, behaviorist approaches to learning and social control vs. nurturing and developmental and weighing effort vs. achievement. These conflicts exacerbated by low tolerance for complexity and ambiguity. Conversation across divides reduces conflict, if not builds consensus. How to get it in a world of value bubbles?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for comment, Ted. Talking and writing publicly about these value conflicts month in and month out is a way that I have chosen.

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