When I was young, I was incredibly interested in the Civil War. To be honest, it is still my favorite war to study because there were so many interesting personalities on both sides of the conflict and a variety of motives that add a level of depth to this conflict that goes far beyond the battlefield. Of course, almost every war has those layers of interest, but the Civil War has always stood out to me as one that I sincerely enjoy learning more about.
The Union suffered from dreadful command in the first half of the war. Even though they were largely fighting the war in Confederate territory and had much better equipment and supplies for many conflicts, they could not seem to win the day because the leadership failed time and time again.
To the contrary, the Confederate Army, behind the leadership of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson among others, consistently outmaneuvered the Union and dealt blow after blow to their powerful adversary. Really, until Gettysburg, and one of Lee’s worst tactical decisions, the Confederacy did not suffer any heavy defeats.
The tide began to turn however as Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Union Army. The conflict continued and pushed the Confederacy further and further south. Eventually, this of course led to the Confederate surrender and the Union victory.
Obviously this is a very broad brush picture of the Civil War, but it is important to remember that even though there were plenty of setbacks for the Union in the first half of the war, they eventually found a way to be successful. They eventually found the right general to lead the army using basically a sledgehammer strategy to continually pound the Confederate Army into surrender as the South could not sustain very many heavy losses.
The North understood that failure was not necessarily fatal, but President Abraham Lincoln was also not content to allow ineffective generals in command as evidenced by the rotating door before Grant. Setbacks and failures happen, but you have to make corrections and move on because failure does not have to be the end of the story. Once you figure out how to make it work, you can still have the ultimate victory in the end.
I mention this story because of a recent article in the New York Times entitled, “On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus,” by Jessica Bennett. Bennett highlights the fact that many college students simply do not understand how to deal with failure. Bennett quotes Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist at Smith College who said, “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”
Part of the lesson from what I see here is that perhaps more young people should learn about the Civil War, but the lesson is obviously more broadly applicable than that.
We’re raising a generation of young people who literally do not understand that they are not always going to be perfect. For some reason, it is not acceptable to be just satisfactory; people want to be perfect. Naturally, our high schools are reinforcing that perspective as a recent article in USA Today by Greg Toppo points out. “Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen. In 1998, it was 38.9%. By last year, it had grown to 47%.”
If you continue propping up the perception that everyone is virtually as good as they can be in regards to academics, they are going to have a hard time when reality hits and they simply cannot handle the level of work that is demanded by highly competitive colleges such as Smith as mentioned by the New York Times.
I totally understand that we don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves and self-esteem is of course a fragile thing. However, part of me thinks that high school ought to be the time when these realities begin to set in. If these realities are starting to hit during college, that is a difficult transitional time for many people. For most, it is the first time living away from home and they have probably parted ways with most of their longtime friends to come to a particular university.
With so many changes, it is hard to run into another very difficult reality that you might not be as brilliant as you thought you were. In high school, at least you still have some type of support built-in for many people who are still in their own communities with family and friends. Having the social connections helps to reinforce that sense of value even if you find that academics are a little bit more challenging.
This is a tough topics for so many people as evidenced by the New York Times article, but we need to keep in mind the lesson we can indeed learn from the Civil War. Some things are not going to work out. You are going to meet failure at some point in something. However, that doesn’t mean that you are going to fail at everything, and you need to find the way to make it work. I am convinced that everybody is good at something, and it is just a matter of finding that Ulysses S Grant strategy if you want to ultimately come to your final point of success.