Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Culture of Perfection

If you flip on the radio these days, it is hard not to hear a song about how perfect or special you are. There has been a sudden surge of pop songs promoting this idea. This is evident in such songs as Pink's "Fuckin' Perfect," Katy Perry's "Firework," Ke$ha's "We R Who We R," and even Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." Everyone is encouraged to think of themselves as perfect exactly as they are. No change required.

I don't mean to be a downer, but is this really the best message to send to our already overly confident young people? Yes, I understand that many of these songs have been directed toward the gay community and have served as a response (or maybe just good marketing) to the media coverage of gay suicides last fall. Were those kids confident? No. Does bullying happen? Yes. Does this need to be addressed? Of course. Our world, however, doesn't have to be so black and white. The only options aren't suicidal or perfection. The issue is that while I like many of these songs (except "Firework," which is just a shitty song period) and they are fun to dance to at the gay club, I wonder about the message of "you are fine just the way you are," because most of us aren't (even you Lady Gaga, but I love you anyway).

I've thought a lot about this in terms of the job I have. I teach a freshmen writing course at a for-profit school. A majority of my students can barely write. This is not an exaggeration. Many are at a very low reading and writing ability, yet most have an attitude that they are just fine the way they are and many are not open to criticism of any kind. This isn't something new. Many teachers have discussed the issues involving the "every student is special" movement, which has been going on for quite some time. If you are constantly told you are special and perfect, what is the motivation to learn?

The notion that everyone is special has also led to another common narrative that students will pull out anytime they see fit. Over a year ago, I had a student who refused to the meet the word counts on all of the assignments. The word count for most of my assignments are 300 to 500 words. She would write 150 or 200 and she kept losing points for doing so. She finally emailed me to say that she understood it was my opinion that the assignments should be longer, but she disagreed. She went on to say that she was really busy (a job and a family) and didn't have time to write anymore and that she would not change. I wrote her back simply explaining the demands of the school and how much time is required and that if she didn't have time to complete the assignments properly perhaps this wasn't the best time to return to school. This caused her to pull out what I like to call "the people like you" narrative. This is when students believe they are being attacked and that the attack is proof that they will succeed in life. She wrote me a long email back in all caps saying it was people like me that would make her succeed and that I was trying to keep her down, but she would not be kept down. Again, this was all over trying to get her to write 300 words. In the end, she plagiarized and failed the course.

In my experience, people need some more honesty in their lives. I'm not saying bullying or hate speech is the answer, but we have a population of people that see no need to change or grow and this is very concerning. We actually aren't all perfect. I'm not perfect. I work very hard to be a better person, a better teacher, a better writer, a better reader, etc. I've learned best from those willing to critique me and give valuable feedback.

I know some of you are reading this and saying, but it's just some pop songs. You are right, but these pop songs are everywhere and get ingrained in our brains and society. It also doesn't just stop with these songs. As a whole, we have become very cautious about giving honest feedback to each other. Everyone is afraid of hurting someone's feelings and anyone willing to give some critique of a situation or an assignment or a poem is often seen as an asshole. I touched slightly on this topic when I wrote my blog post about writing bad reviews.

The world is a cruel place and not everyone is cutout for everything. I would rather let a student know that he has some major writing issues than send him on his way only to see him crash and burn later.

Last night, I was watching the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is about street art (and so much more) and at the end one of the guys says how he used to think everyone should make art and he encouraged them to do it, but now he doesn't. To fully understand the context of that statement, you will need to see the film, but his point also works out of context. Not everyone is an artist. Not everyone is a writer. Not everyone is a poet. Not everyone is a scientist. Not everyone is a doctor. That's not to say we shouldn't, up to a point, encourage people to try things, but this over praising of mediocre or bad work is getting us nowhere. It is actually dumbing down our culture and making everyone think they will simply succeed in life because they are perfect for simply being born.

I'm all about empowering people, but I also believe in being honest. We can be positive and encouraging without simply slapping a "prefect" label on everyone. Our society needs to get better at taking criticism and learning from it. Of course, I understand that "you're fucking fine and I'll help you get better" doesn't make such a great song.

-Stephen (Working On It)


  1. I think these pop songs, whatever problems there are with them, can serve to be empowering. They're about finding your good qualities and expressing them, not about being wantonly overconfident.

    That's at least how I've interpreted them, and Firework + Born This Way have worked as excellent pick-me-ups on a bad day.

  2. Cody,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree the songs can be empowering and I enjoy most them like I said, but they are a product of a bigger issue and are tied to it. I'm not suggesting we stop listening to Lady Gaga, haha. Thanks for reading!

  3. I just want to say that I really, really, really strongly agree with you. It's one thing to send the message to your children as they are growing up that being gay or female or disabled or whatever doesn't make them "less than," that they perfect just the way they are, and it's another thing to have the attitude that no one could possible have anything to teach you. I see this with my students a lot too. Do you think they let med students perform brain surgery on the first day of class? No. No one is born knowing how to do that and if they suck at it, they will fail, because they will kill someone if they're treated like they're perfect students and never learn how to improve. Difficulty and rigor are GOOD THINGS. Why doesn't this translate to the humanities more?

  4. Thanks V! I'm glad I'm not the only one seeing this. It does seem like "difficulty" and "rigor" get demonized in teaching nowadays. Everything suddenly needs to be fun or use a bunch of technology. School is hard work and should push you. My favorite professor from undergrad was the professor who pushed me the hardest and expected the most from me.

  5. I read this over a few times before deciding to comment. My first reaction was that these complaints, valid as they no doubt are, are the sort of complaints that only educators make. People who are dedicated to learning. Just to keep it in perspective, while I agree on many levels, I can't help but remember that the human species survived and thrived for millennia of social progress with or without literacy and/or bad grammar. There is more than one kind of intelligence, more than one kind of learning.

    Which leads me to my real point, which was to riff off of V's excellent comment about skills.

    The analogy of different skills is a good one. The brain surgery comparison would be a good one to present to a class full of recalcitrant writing students. Present things as comparable skill sets that have to be honed and learned, and perhaps students will understand the larger picture, and WHY it matters.

    You're right in that not everyone has equal talents for everything. The difference between talent and skill, though, is simple: A natural-born talent needs to be practiced and honed to reach its full potential. That is what craft teaching all about. Unfortunately, all we can teach is craft; we can't imbue someone with talent that isn't there, and we can't teach inspiration. One of the biggest problems of teaching creative writing is that all you can teach is how best to use your craft in the service of your writing—but most young people don't have enough experience under their belts to really have anything yet to SAY.

    And, difficulty and rigor, it seems to me, are good things mainly when they are applied towards desirable, valued results; in other contexts, they're just masochistic. Ask any recovering perfectionist or survivor of OCD.

  6. Art,

    As always, thanks for reading and commenting. I think you and V took my main points to different places and levels. I'm not only talking about education, but rather a culture that tells everyone they are perfect and therefore encourages no change in any aspect of their lives. I used education as an example, but it can be applied to many things.

    I think you make some valid points. I do want to note that I don't teach creative writing and what I'm talking about is basic composition skills which are geared toward career-based students. These are skills that are vital to being successful in the world we currently live in.

    I'm also not fully convinced that anyone is born with a "natural-born talent," but that might be a topic for a different post.

    Thanks again for reading!