In praise of struggle

Sorry for the delay in blogging…I’ve been working on a piece that touches on Net Neutrality, but after beating on it for two days I still don’t have it in a form that is both true to my feelings and unlikely to get me sued. So let me move to an alternative topic instead…struggle.

Struggle often gets a bad name; one often hears of parents saying “I don’t want my children to struggle like I had to.” My Mom used to say this; of course she was a Depression baby and knew firsthand what it was to struggle just to live. My favorite story from my Mom: “Saddest day of my childhood was the day Grandma told me our pet rabbit escaped. But that was also the first night in months we had chicken for dinner!”

Part of the problem is that struggle has several slightly different shades of meaning. From dictionary.com:

1. to contend with an adversary or opposing force.
2. to contend resolutely with a task, problem, etc.; strive: to struggle for existence.
3. to advance with violent effort: to struggle through the snow.

Looking at the definitions, the first connotes an active adversary, while in the latter two cases the adversary is not trying to make things difficult; rather it’s a statement that some things are, in fact, difficult.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s was an excellent example of struggle against an active adversary (though there was much passive resistance to change as well). The struggle for Civil Rights was noble, but no one should have had to go through it, and I suspect those who did would hope their children would not have to go through the same struggle.

But the reason I’m thinking of struggle today is that I’m struggling through writing object-oriented code in Python to fuzz an OpenFlow controller. The reason this is a struggle is that I don’t know Python, I don’t know how to write object-oriented code, and I don’t know the OpenFlow protocol. But clearly this falls under the second definition of struggle: none of Python, object-oriented programming nor OpenFlow are actively working against me (though the OpenFlow protocol spec could have been written more carefully).

Here’s the question: should my Mom feel bad that I’m struggling today? I think not. If I succeed, I will have earned knowledge about three different technology areas that I didn’t have before. And that’s on top of having actually accomplished my task of creating a tool. But what if I do fail? (Spoiler: it’s gonna work, otherwise I wouldn’t be blogging.) I argue I still benefit from…wait for it…having struggled. Failing once does not mean you’ll fail always, and as long as you’re not a fool about it, failing teaches you that some pursuits in life just aren’t your forte. For example, I will never be a Java programmer, and I know that from having failed at several attempts to learn.

Interestingly, we accept this interpretation in the world of sports. Imagine the following conversation:

Tiger Woods: My drive feels off, and I’m hooking the ball every few hits.
Coach: Well, I looked at tape, and you’re over-rotating your left foot on the backswing.
Tiger Woods: Cool, now that I know what I’m doing I’ll be fine.
Coach: Yep Tiger, that’s an A for effort!

I’m sure our fictional Tiger Woods feels good about himself, but the real Tiger Woods would instead go out and hit 500 more drives, evaluating each one until the flaw is gone. In other words, the real Tiger will struggle through the problem, and societally we expect him to…that’s what it takes to be the best.

Let’s look at the flip side:

Forest Lyons: Man, I hit the ball 500 times a day, and I still slice half my drives.
Coach: Well you used to slice all of them…you just need to keep at it!
Forest Lyons: I don’t know…it’s just so frustrating.
Coach: Don’t let it get you down! You can do this!

Would you ever hear this at any competitive level? Coach should be saying it’s time to take up bocci. This doesn’t make the attempt to master golf worthless: it doesn’t mean you can’t play golf for personal enjoyment, nor does it mean you can’t be a good bocci player.

I ask you to compare this to the current state of education in America. We don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, therefore we don’t want anyone to fail, therefore we don’t ask anyone to struggle.* As someone who has both university teaching and industry training experience, I can tell you that our students/trainees may be happier for not having to struggle, but we aren’t helping them become better thinkers or better doers.

* First world problems caveat: I’m well aware that the curriculum as it stands now remains a struggle for many students, but often school is the least of these unfortunate students’ problems. I am referring to the institutional will to implement a rigorous curriculum where even some motivated students may not be successful.

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