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The Pedagogical Significance of American Idol

I only watch the show because my wife forces me to, so if last night I was absolutely knocked out of the box by Sanjaya’s best-yet hairdo, brokenhearted by Melinda and Paula’s tearful meltdown of I-Thou intimacy, enchanted by Lakisha’s … Read More

By / March 14, 2007

I only watch the show because my wife forces me to, so if last night I was absolutely knocked out of the box by Sanjaya’s best-yet hairdo, brokenhearted by Melinda and Paula’s tearful meltdown of I-Thou intimacy, enchanted by Lakisha’s talent…well, I can't be blamed.

Anyway, American Idol is now respectable. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington College dean Christopher Ames plumbs the “pedagogical significance of this remarkable reality show” (yep. Direct quote.). See, Ames has had it up to here with grade inflation and indolent, ignorant twits who spew rubbish in seminar. And American Idol proves that the Red-state hoi polloi feel the same. Ames stops about a dime short of saying that the show has restored his faith in this country.

What lessons about popular attitudes toward grading and evaluation emerge from American Idol's auditions? First, a belief in genuine standards: We may at times disagree about whether a performance is good or bad, but extreme examples remind us that those differences in taste exist within that shared context of what counts as "in tune," an agreement about what ultimately is a credible performance…

Second, the show reveals a respect for expertise. Along with the estimable pop credentials of the regular judges, celebrity guest judges demonstrate how skill and training inform good evaluation. A similar respect for professorial authority characterizes the academic landscape. Amid all the attacks on higher education today, America remains a culture that puts great stock in expert opinions.

Third, the auditions reveal that individuals are often not good judges of their own ability. Again and again, the judges mirror audience incredulity at poor performers who think they are great. The simple reality that professors encounter all the time emerges with clarity: People aren't objective about themselves. But more than that, most people are not astutely self-critical or even open to constructive appraisal. Learning how to learn from coaching and criticism can be a challenge — and, ultimately, the most successful contestants (like successful students) do just that and improve notably in the course of the season or semester. We call it education.

Unfortunately, Sanjaya’s still around. So Ames is wrong. Great hair and a winning smile still trump talent every time.

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