Texas Tech University

Success in Failure: Humanities Professor Shares Message with Wider Audience

By: Amanda Castro-Crist 

costica speaking into podium microphone

Ask an expert to explain his or her research and chances are there'll be a gap separating the knowledgeable from the novices. Many times, how large that gap is depends on the research and how tangible its benefits are. If people can hold a new or improved product in their own hand, they can usually get over their confusion at the science behind it.

When it comes to humanities scholars, who study subjects like philosophy, ethics and history, the research doesn't yield innovations like improved air bags or more efficient coffee pots. Instead, the benefits are intangible and happen over time – things like improved communication between people or an increase in empathy. Texas Tech University philosophy professor Howard Curzer said without that physical proof, people struggle to see the relevance of this type of research or work. The problem is often compounded, he said, when those who work in the humanities can't easily, quickly or clearly explain to someone outside of the field why the work is important.

"But Costica Bradatan can do it," Curzer said. "He takes the stuff in humanities and popularizes it. Then, people know how it works and how it connects to daily life. They say, 'Now I see why it's important.'"

The task of taking complex ideas and turning them into accessible prose for the average reader is precisely the work for which The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Public Scholar Program is designed. Bradatan, who will return to Texas Tech this fall as a professor of humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech, will work on completing his latest book, "In Praise of Failure. A Manifesto for Humility," after being awarded a $50,400 grant from the program.

"It's a prestigious grant, also extremely competitive, but if you do get it, it allows you to work full-time on a project of your choice," said Bradatan. "More importantly perhaps, and I found this particularly appealing, the mission of the grant is to support 'well-researched books in the humanities intended to reach a broad readership.' My project was precisely of such a nature: I almost thought, 'It was designed with my book in mind.'"

His work will be published by Harvard University Press in 2019. Though he's written other books, Bradatan said this one is different, specifically because it's designed to be written for a wide, non-specialist readership.

"This can cause some problems, of course, because I don't know who exactly the reader of this book is. But it also gives me an opportunity to experiment with narrative and literary techniques in a way that's not very common for a philosophy book," Bradatan said. "My biggest challenge, I suppose, boils down to this: how can one use storytelling for making a philosophical argument? How can you 'story' an argument in a way that's neither trivial nor boring?"

The idea for the book started with an essay on failure published on Dec. 15, 2013, in The New York Times. In the essay, Bradatan argues the importance of failure in a time of accelerated human progress and improvement.

"Suppose one day science solves all our problems: We will be perfectly healthy, live indefinitely and our brains, thanks to some enhancement, will work like a computer," Bradatan writes. "On that day we may be something very interesting, but I am not sure what we will have what to live for. We will be virtually perfect and essentially dead."

The ability to fail, the fear of that failure and learning how to keep from failing again all help decide the shape and destiny of humanity, he contends, and is something that should be preserved.

"Such a thing is worth treasuring, even more so than artistic masterpieces, monuments or other accomplishments," Bradatan wrote. "For, in a sense, the capacity to fail is much more important than any individual human achievements: It is that which makes them possible." 

When the essay was published, Bradatan had no plans of writing an entire book on the subject. He said that changed when he began receiving feedback from readers who said the essay helped them deal with their own failures, and he realized there was genuine interest in the topic.

"We all fail, and we fail all the time. Moreover, because of our culture's unhealthy obsession with success, we don't allow ourselves to deal with failure properly," Bradatan said. "We don't admit failure, we don't want to talk about it openly, sometimes we don't even recognize it when it happens. At the same time, we don't stop thinking about it. That's what makes failure such an interesting, even 'sexy,' subject."

The NEH grant isn't the first award Bradatan has received to help him complete the book. After being named a 2016-17 Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar, his research continued at Lille Catholic University in Lille, France, beginning in October 2016 and continuing there until June.

"I am making progress, but every day I discover new things I feel I need to know more about, so the pace can be infuriatingly slow sometimes," Bradatan said. "The NEH grant will help me write the book, as I will use it in the final stage of my project when I will need time for writing."

Honors College Dean Michael San Francisco said this is the first time a Public Scholar grant from the NEH has been awarded to a faculty member at Texas Tech. It's a prestigious honor that reflects positively on the university, San Francisco said, and one that is given only to about 8 percent of applicants.

"It provides a 'shot-in-the-arm,' as it were, for the humanities," San Francisco said. "This award brings singular recognition to the university and provides great national and international exposure to Dr. Bradatan's very good work."

San Francisco isn't the only one impressed with the way Bradatan thinks and works. He said Bradatan's other books, writings and work are highly regarded not just by his peers and his readers, but also by his students.

"Students respect and regard Dr. Bradatan as a thoughtful and intellectually challenging individual," San Francisco said. "His work is interdisciplinary and lies at the intersections of continental philosophy, comparative literature, religious and film studies. This approach lends itself to broad thinking and incisive reflection, which is valuable for us all."

Across the globe, students have benefitted from Bradatan's work. In addition to his work at Texas Tech and in France, Bradatan has taught or completed research at various institutions in North America, Europe and Asia. He also holds an honorary research professorship at the University of Queensland in Australia, where he leads a group of doctoral students. He said travel is a fundamental human experience.

"I'm often invited to teach or give lectures abroad, and I try to honor these invitations as much as I can. You can learn from meeting other people and seeing other places just as much as you learn from books," Bradatan said. "In the ancient world, where the written word didn't play the role it does today, travel was a fundamental source of knowledge – indeed, a form of education. I still hope we can reinvent the art of travel and I try to instill this hope in my students."

His method of interdisciplinary study allows Bradatan to spin a web that connects ideas from several areas of scholarly research. Curzer said Bradatan's work on failure is particularly important because by not dealing with failure properly, people face a load of other problems like anxiety, depression and physical health issues.

"It's like swallowing a nail. It gets stuck, your throat's bleeding, you're choking on it, you can't get rid of it and it haunts you for years," Curzer said.

But finding different ways to deal with failure can sometimes be more beneficial than constant success, Bradatan said.

"When you experience success you usually don't stop to ponder, you don't pay much attention to what's going on. You take everything for granted and move on," he said. "That's why success, however pleasant and desirable, at a deeper human level can make us superficial, insensitive, even arrogant."

Bradatan said when failure occurs, it forces a person to stop and examine their situation more carefully.

"It opens our eyes and it humbles us; we have to re-adjust and re-position ourselves," Bradatan said. "In the process, we gain something important, a depth of vision and insight that success doesn't normally provide. Failure can make us wiser – unless, of course, it crushes us."

Curzer said it's important to note Bradatan's book is not a pop psychology or self-help book. It's not about diluting scholarly ideas so the average person can understand them – a notion Bradatan himself calls a dangerous prejudice. It's about presenting these same ideas at their full potency, but translating them in a way others can comprehend.

By doing so, Bradatan can help them better understand why failure happens and be better equipped to handle future failings.

"People who read this can say, 'Now I have several different angles on this failure. Maybe it's not a failure; maybe it can be a jumping off point for some kind of success,'" Curzer said.

Being able to communicate like this with those outside the bubble of academia and humanities research makes Bradatan a public intellectual, Curzer said. Bradatan receiving this award and others to use toward projects that serve the general public sets an important precedent for humanities scholars, particularly at Texas Tech.

"Most of the time, grants pay for work that is scholarly. There's no place to receive recognition for popular works to the general public," Curzer said. "But it's an important part of the job and I'd like to hope that faculty and administrators value public scholarship and being a public intellectual. If we were used to speaking to the general public, and if we did it on a regular basis, we'd be better teachers, better scholars, better doctors, better scientists. We could understand our own fields better and faculty would be better off."