“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
–Theodore Roosevelt, April 23,1910
As a teacher, part of my job is to play the critic. Some are too enamored with this role, bombarding a student with dissatisfaction as if words had no power. Some are too intimidated, grading in pink ink because red is now rumored to “damage self-esteem.”
First, let’s allow simple science to dispel this Red Ink Controversy once and for all. Red is proven to be the most salient color, which means our eyes naturally notice and pay closer attention to things represented with red. Stoplights and stop signs were not designed haphazardly; neither were the logos of all the most popular fast food chains. Incidentally, yellow is the second most salient color… Every time you pass under the Golden Arches, remember not to underestimate those clever ad execs.
Just as a gun is only dangerous in the hands of one untrained or unhinged, red ink is merely a medium. The true danger arises when a teacher misunderstands her objective as a proper, effective critic. Certainly I would not be doing my students any service if I were either too lackadaisical to have a standard or too cowardly to enforce it. Moreover, performers who are not made aware of the truth of their shortcomings feel they have no need to improve, thus encouraging complacency or apathy.
Roosevelt was not intimating that the critic is not necessary. She is just not as important.
When students offer up their best work, they are the men in the arena. They do the striving and the erring, devoting themselves to my assignment and believing it to be a worthy cause. They risk everything. I risk nothing. In the grand scheme of things, even the simplest effort dared bravely is worth more than any words I might choose to critique it.
If the standard is reached or exceeded, it is then the critic’s objective to make sure they feel that triumph of high achievement. By all means, reward them. Make a certificate online, place it in a WalMart frame, and present it in class. Cheer for them. Let those young people know that excellence is not only alive and well, but also very much encouraged and appreciated.
If the standard is missed, it is then the critic’s objective to make sure they feel that victory for having dared. By all means, correct them. Give them the 64 they deserve, but couch it with detailed comments on what was accomplished and what progress lays ahead. Give them hope. Let those young people know that you believe not only the best in them, but also the best from them in the future.
The objective for students—and pretty much the rest of us, too—is to learn to fear that permanent coldness of soul more than the temporary sting of defeat.