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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 321-328

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Review Essay

The Success of Failure

Henry Petroski

It is always more pleasant to talk about success than failure. The boss conducting performance reviews much prefers to tell staff members that they have done a good job than a poor one. It is less confrontational. The teacher-student relationship is not one of boss-employee, of course, but similar dynamics can be in play. Performance reviews naturally take the form of assigning grades. Time was, as every academic knows or suspects, when grades assigned were relative to the cohort known as a class. In college courses, only the very best-performing student or students got A's, the majority of the class got C's, and those who brought up the rear actually got D's and F's. Grading was never a pleasant experience, but awarding an honest distribution of grades was considered part of the responsibility that came with the privilege of being a professor. Accepting an honest grade was part of the responsibility of being a student. The student who tried unduly to influence a teacher's grade was called an apple polisher, or worse.

Over the past decades the institution of grading has become somewhat inverted. Students now grade professors, through what are called teacher or course evaluations, and some professors appear to crave good evaluations as badly as premed students crave A's. Some observers have accused the professoriat of kissing up to the students with more palatable syllabi, easier reading lists, more entertaining lectures, fun field trips, and higher grades. Over half the grades at some elite institutions are said now to be A's. With the anticipation of so many good grades, students rank all of their woebegone classes as better than average, and all professors as better than average teachers. Students feel good about their transcripts; faculty members feel good about their continuing appointments and promotions.

Individual failure, whether in the classroom or in the workplace, is an almost extinct concept. Judging performance has become . . . well, judgmental. [End Page 321] Curiously, though, over the same decades that this retreat from interpersonal criticism has become institutionalized, the criticism of technology sometimes seemed to have risen to a clamor, especially in the courtroom. The phenomenon has ebbed and flowed, of course, but the trend among litigious-minded critics, at least, appears to have been to assume that technology is bad until proven otherwise. It is as if technology were anthropomorphized as a student starting out in a course with a failing grade and the burden of proof to raise it to a C. And, in an odd twist, it is often students of technology who are assigning the grades--and generally poor ones at that.

Engineers see the technological enterprise from the inside. To them it is a process in which they are integral players, albeit ones who are but part of a team that in some cases can number in the thousands. Whatever their position, however, all engineers are keenly aware of the role of success and failure in the enterprise. It is a truism that no sane player wants the enterprise to fail. However, unlike in the personnel office or the classroom, in the engineering office failure cannot be declared nonexistent. The engineer lives and breathes failure, both implicitly through every design calculation and decision and explicitly through testing and experience. It is only by imagining failure, calculating failure, obviating failure, testing to failure, and acknowledging failure that engineers develop successful designs.

Because of its central role in the very process of engineering, failure is something that engineers think about with some sophistication. There is no responsible engineer who wants to give a new product prototype an A grade when it clearly is only doing C work. There is no sane engineer who will declare something a success when it is clearly a failure.

At the same time, real engineers realize, perhaps better than anyone else, that no person or thing is perfect, and so checks must be imposed on the engineers as well as on the engineered. Good...


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