Failure is a course needed in schools

By Michelle Landrum

University of Houston Professor Jack Matson wants his students to fail.


Didn’t you always suspect professors had this sort of hidden agenda? Well, Matson isn’t as malicious as he sounds—he wants students to fail for their own good and creativity.

Since 1985, Matson has taught a course designated by the university as “Innovative Design for Civil Engineers.” No wonder students fail, right?

Wrong. The object of the course, as explained by Matson to the Chicago Tribune, is to design things that are “ugly and stupid” rather than “innovative and useful.”

This is not a joke.

Matson’s idea—and a clever one at that—is to break the mold of analytic conformity by intentionally making idiotic things. All of this in the name of creativity.

He calls it “intelligent failure” and it’s a brilliant idea.

Matson is a breath of fresh air in education. After more than a decade of responding like Pavlov’s dogs to classroom bells, filling in scantron bubbles and raising your hand for everything from answering a question to going to the restroom, we could use a little free thinking.

Matson even has a “Dress For Failure Day.” Thumbing his nose at every interview book that mandates a blue suit and red-striped tie, the professor wore Mickey Mouse ears on the most recent day.

A little bit of Matson’s concepts should be applied at all schools. It makes education human, personal and interesting.

Teachers and students alike lament the sort of rote learning where you absorb knowlege like a sponge, only to regurgitate it back at test time.

Two days later, all you remember is that you did take a test on something, but the specific facts—and more importantly, the concepts—are gone.

Failure is a natural part of risk-taking and creativity students often neglect when trying to follow the crowd.

How many times at the outset of a paper, project or exam have you thought about taking a risk, trying an innovative approach that might mean a brilliant answer, or a ridiculous failure.

How many times did you take the safe route?

Many students have been tracked into college since high school days. Faced with the choice between college-prep and vocational classes, most of us were probably pushed like cattle into the college-prep route without even thinking about it.

But along the way through high school, college and even grad school, there’s the ever-present fear that you’ll screw up and wreck the rest of your life.

In high school, kids wanting to go to college worried about their GPA, ACT and SAT. They strove to be part of the National Honor Society, student government and every other club they could list on their college applications.

Things get a little better in college, but the fear of one wrong step, one poor grade translating into lost job opportunities remains.

Matson’s approach teaches students that life doesn’t end with one failure. In fact, coping with failure—dusting yourself off and learning by your mistakes—is a crucial lesson of life.