A Princeton University professor recently published his CV of failures as a way in which to inspire his undergraduate students with the dictum, ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try try again’.
It has received considerable attention, with some describing it as ‘beautiful’ while others deconstruct its meaning to suggest that a CV of failures could only have been published by a successful individual looking back, not forward.
My perspective on the matter is that not only is it a function of a successful individual but it is someone who has achieved an elite status, and arguably from an elite position in the first instance.
Like all CVs, many people leave out various holes or concerns relating to underperformance. But in this case, a CV of failures leaves out all the privileged starting positions, such as selective or public school backgrounds, or having been born and raised in professional or middle-class households with extensive holdings of physical, cultural and social capital. A CV of failures may magnify the idea of success in spite of the barriers to success, but it is meaningless if we do not take into consideration starting points.
The old dictum that if ‘you don’t succeed, try try again’ is certainly worth remembering for people struggling to get on to the ladder of success. However, the reality is that meritocracy does not exist. People do not jump up social class levels based on hard work and success in the way that might have done in the 1960s, and only as part of a post-war generation that experienced dramatic social, political and economic upheaval. Rather, at present, young people face downward pressures on social mobility. It will be the first post-war generation to become less wealthy than the generation before them. One can only imagine what this means for communities who have been struggling at the bottom, which includes working class groups, and immigrant and minority groups.
Therefore, a CV of failures is inconsequential if you are success, and you come from a background that not only inspired success but also generated the means for its success, which is otherwise denied all other groups. The status quo supports existing privileged groups, denying the talent and creativity of those individuals and groups in society otherwise denied opportunity or access to opportunity. Britain and other advanced liberal secular capitalist Western democracies are societies that do one thing well and without fail. Privilege is in the ownership of privileged groups that reproduce privilege for existing privileged groups.
What would be far more valuable is a CV of failures published by an individual who has come from the bottom and made his or her way to the top in spite of all the hurdles and barriers that have come their way. This would be inspirational to all the poor, dispossessed and marginalised groups in society who feel that their futures are most at risk because of the functionalist nature of the system. However, such a CV is a threat to elites and privilege groups whose aims are not to mobilise the poor and dispossessed, but rather to keep opportunity and wealth in the hands of the few, for the purposes of the few, and at the expense of the many.