Summary of “The Decision to Fail” (Bruno Bettleheim) by Sébastien Senneville


Bettelheim2Failure. What is failure? What are the reasons why students fail? Of course, it would be easy to point those students and say that that they did not put enough efforts in order to succeed. Too often, people tend to believe that if those students failed, then that means they somehow deserved it. However, can failure really be solely attributed to the children’s lack of effort, their refusal to do what it takes to succeed? Absolutely not. Bruno Bettleheim, in his work The Decision to Fail, explains why some students choose to fail, whether consciously or not, and gives examples of certain cases where students are influenced by other factors that push them towards failure. Bettleheim says that there are many reasons why some students are failing. He calls those elements ‘blocks’. In his article, he says that there are blocks caused by the way of life and education problems caused by the advancing technology, others caused by the children’s past life and current environment, and others created by the learning experiences themselves.

The first factor that might push students towards failure is the inadequate teaching and ways of life caused by the advance of technology. Indeed, this block is often associated with the children’s difficulties with learning how to read. Since that nowadays children spend many hours in front of the television or the computer, they are able to gain knowledge by ways that does not require them to do the difficult task of reading. Therefore, reading is seen as only a secondary mean to gather information, to learn. Moreover, ‘‘a less obvious block growing out of technological thinking may originate from the child observing an adult attitude regarding learning as a tool – something to be mastered and used only upon occasion.’’(Bettleheim,143) Therefore, children tend to try to imitate their parents; but, if their parents do not use reading at all or use technologies to help them learn, then the children will adopt a similar view. Thus, children tend to view learning as facultative, which will impair their school years.

Bettleheim also says that blocks can originate from the children’s past and current environments. Indeed, he says that most of the time, want to please their parents and maintain a good relationship with them. However, to maintain this relationship, children may consciously or subconsciously do what they think will help them maintain such a relationship. Indeed, ‘‘the child may not wish to do better than his parents because he does not want to make them seem inferior.’’ (150) Another instance would be that children might be afraid to learn, because that would make them feel like they are growing up. Therefore, by growing up, they think that they are getting closer to losing their connection and the protection of their parents. Children might have a untrusting attitude towards learning, which would in turn bring them closer towards failure.

Bettleheim considers the third category of blocks to be associated with the learning experiences themselves. Indeed, he says that some students see in failure a way for them to be unique, to be accepted by the others; ‘‘[the child] may thus arrive at the conviction that he can gain status only by being the worst. In this way, he attracts attention to himself.’’ (153) Another instance of such a block would be when children adopt a defiant attitude towards learning in order to get back at their parents or other authority figures. Children that want to retaliate sometimes choose to fail in order to bring shame to those around them.

Overall, Bruno Bettleheim, in his essay The Decision to Fail, claims that the causes behind learning failures are blocks. Those blocks are often linked to external causes, which eventually affect the children’s view towards learning. Therefore, it is important for parents and teachers to be vigilant and prevent such blocks, and to tend to children who are affected by them rather than looking at them and saying that they simply did not give the efforts required to succeed.

Work Cited:

Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Decision to Fail.”Surviving and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1979. 142-168. Print.