While I deeply venerate our forefathers Abraham and Isaac, I find it difficult to relate to them. Abraham, at the age of 75, gives up everything he is familiar with in life to follow God to an unknown land, and is willing to sacrifice his only son. Isaac is obedient and trusting, willing to be sacrificed to the God of his father, a pious soul who never left the Holy Land. But Jacob—the third and last of the forefathers—this a man to whom I can relate. Jacob is a man who struggles and makes mistakes.
In his youth, Jacob is reckless. He purloins his brother’s birthright and blessing, a terrible mistake that causes him untold misery when he has to flee his home to avoid Esau’s vengeance. In his travels he gets involved in various plots which end badly and necessitate his constant flight, always requiring his escape. When raising his own children he makes terrible parenting errors, showing favoritism and spoiling his son Joseph. This misstep results in years of heartache, and almost costs him the life of his beloved son. Throughout his life Jacob struggles with nearly every situation he encounters, and even struggles with an angel of God. The stories of Jacob’s struggles are found in the Torah portions we read now in synagogue.
I can relate to Jacob because I can relate to someone whose life is filled with mistakes. In his confrontation with the angel, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, meaning, The One Who Struggles, and it is not by chance that we are called the People of Israel because, as a people, our fate is to struggle.
Error and struggle are elements that are deeply human, which is why they are relatable and why they are our destiny. Error and struggle are the ways in which humans learn, and the ways in which we figure out how to navigate the world. This is the deeper meaning of errare humanum est —To err is human: Not merely that it is natural to make mistakes, but rather that making mistakes is what defines our humanity.
It is in this context that we should understand the debate in education as to whether mistakes are good or bad. Recent literature enjoins us to embrace error, to celebrate when our children encounter conflict, fall when they play, fail when they try. These mistakes build resilience, or Grit in the new parlance. And while this is true, no one likes to see their children fail, or come home with a skinned knee, or a poor grade on a test. Failure may build character, but it is not fun.
And so, I would suggest a different paradigm—To Err is Human. I believe the best approach is to regard mistakes as neither an absolute good nor evil but rather as a natural part of life. We are wired—for better or for worse—to understand the world and absorb information through trial and error. When we get injured and hurt, it is how our bodies signal us to avoid certain situations, places, or people. When a student struggles with a math problem, fails a spelling test, or receives a poor grade, it is the way the human mind signals where to work harder, concentrate effort, or direct attention.
The best way to engage our children around grades in school is in this dispassionate spirit of human understanding. A good grade indicates to our children that their efforts have been rewarded, their strategies have been successful, or that they have natural gifts in certain areas. Similarly, middling or low grades are the best way we have to help students recognize where they need to focus, seek support, or change strategies. Report card time is an opportunity for us to help our children to find paths to success, and to understand their common humanity.