Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The American Idolization of Our Culture

There's a feel good story buzzing around the web about a kid who was put on the University of Michigan's admissions waiting list.

This ambitious youngster jumped in front of a video camera and sang his way off the list, apparently swaying admissions with his determination and "unique appeal." Yong's YouTube video had been viewed about 50,000 times when the admissions team caught wind of it.

I respect the go-getter attitude this aspiring Wolverine displayed, and I respect out of box thinking. But ... here's where I get a little Debbie Downer. The headline of the article I source above is, "Accepted: Unusual methods by wait-listed University of Michigan student bring success."

However the web url for this page is a bit more telling, to me. Whoever laid out this page saw this story like I see it: "http://www.annarbor.com/news/hes-in-unusual-antics-by-wait-listed-university-of-michigan-student-bring-success/."

The key word in that link is antics. Synonyms for antics include: clowning, tricks, stunts, mischief, larks, capers, pranks, foolishness, playfulness, horseplay, buffoonery ... you get the picture. The dictionary then offered this example of usage: She tolerated his antics.

The newspaper editor was more politically correct in assigning that headline; however, the web editor who named this page was apparently a bit more blunt. He or she allowed an editorial comment to slip through - not a big deal as very few people probably read url addresses. But telling, all the same.

From the story:

"Typically, the admissions office suggests wait-listed students send letters detailing new information and accomplishments to increase their chances of getting in. Thinking that a letter might not stand out, Yong made the video.

"I'm a student on your waiting list and I am dying to get in and I was initially planning to write the traditional letter saying like, 'Oh I really want to be a part of your school,' " Yong said in the video. "But I thought, 'You know what, talk is cheap and this is a great opportunity for me to show some of my strengths.' "

Yong could have written an essay, but decided talk is cheap. That summarizes my beef with this story, and with the manner in which Yong chose to distinguish himself. Talk is not cheap - an essay is probably the best way to demonstrate one's ability to grasp complex topics, display analytic thinking, and showcase overall communication abilities.

What, exactly, does a mildly above average song performance demonstrate?

Interestingly, all negative comments on his YouTube channel appear to be censored. I bet many of the removed comments suggest thoughts along the lines of, "What in the world does singing have to do with academic performance?" Or perhaps, "What deserving student did this kid beat out with a random Michael Jackson rendition?"

The news stories on this student make no mention of his academic track record. Says Yong, "Out of all the schools I looked at, I really liked the campus," adding that "he plans on joining an a cappella group." He's undecided at this point in terms of a major, but he really likes the campus. Hmmm.

Years ago our culture began mistaking celebrity for achievement. The question might be asked: To what extent did his popular video put pressure on the admissions staff? What if he juggled on camera? Or flipped an omelette, or stacked cups on video instead? Those examples are just as random (and underwhelming) as Yong's sales pitch.

I figured I didn't coin the term "American Idolization of Culture," and when I googled it, I found an article that drives home my point here:

"Once upon a time, ambitious folk could argue whether it was who you knew or what you knew that got you ahead. Today, both have been trumped by how many people you know and how many will vote for you online.

What's at stake is a little scary too. Last year in Washington state, a community organization sponsored a talent competition in which 44 local high schoolers looking for college money uploaded videos of themselves performing and asked the public to vote for 10 finalists. It wasn't at all clear what their acts had to do with their financial need, their scholastic abilities or their educational goals.

At some point, handing out rewards based on this kind of popularity contest starts to obscure the idea of quality, let alone merit." (emphasis mine).

What if Yong were an aspiring architect student and he drew a 3D model of campus using design software? Or, if he were a communications major and wrote a mock press release, announcing his admission? Maybe if Yong was interested in graphic design, and put together an online portfolio of his work ... any one of these examples would display actual skill, ability, relevance and thoughtfulness of approach.

Maybe next year someone on the Michigan waiting list will send in a competitive hot dog eating video. Or maybe a really tasty cheesecake recipe will sway the admissions staff.

One thing's all but certain: Admissions staffers at Michigan will be bombarded with videos next year, as the stage for accepting fluff over substance is well set.