Overpraise is everywhere, and universities are not immune

Relentless celebration is diluting genuine achievement, affecting students and staff in different ways, writes Peter Larcombe

February 22, 2017
Gold medals

There is now a strange but real acceptance of overpraise and hype as normal features of behaviour. Pervasive constants in society, they seem set to stay with us.

First encountered and internalised by small children at nursery or infant school – and reinforced at home by many misguided parents who think (correctly) that this is just the way things are, and who see (incorrectly) nothing wrong with them – they can bring about a misplaced sense of amour propre that remains throughout the formative years.

This all feeds into a must-do barrage of shows, presentation evenings, exhibitions, leavers’ days, prom nights and such like – the sheer number of events meaning occasions to acknowledge attainment and mark significant moments become wearingly devalued, dislocated by fatigue from what they should be and purport to represent.

“Let’s celebrate!” What? Everything?

The “let’s celebrate absolutely bloody everything” culture accompanies our children’s existence as a background fanfare to what from the outside looks too often like little more than endorsed self-glorification and licensed bragging, arguably influenced by fatuous television programmes and social media platforms that offer up quasi-achievements of the self-obsessed to be gobbled up on a daily basis.

Surrounded by an incessant pantomime of shameless attention-seeking, how can young and impressionable minds grasp the idea and appreciate that being average at something is actually OK?

How can they develop reliable methods of self-evaluation, and useful techniques to assess personal ability, that allow for mediocrity and the odd failure? How can the compass of self-esteem be set to give accurate readings, remaining both purposeful and relevant to the formulation of sensible goals and a natural degree of resilience in life?

I venture to suggest that, slowly but surely, the public psyche is moving towards a permanently altered state as fledgling adults enter the workplace – later to be replaced by the next wave of over-excited identikit versions of themselves – infused with an inexhaustible desire for hyperbole as every scrap of “triumph” and “excellence” (however minor or tenuous) is extolled and lauded.

And what of academia?

Such a deleterious fault-line in behaviour has been seriously absorbed by Generation Z, and its importance should not be underestimated. For one thing, university educators are required to accommodate it, and our role is changing in the process.

Growing up amid a cacophony of dubious jamboree and puffery, the default dispositions, temperaments and personalities of a good portion of those beginning university are already part-skewed, understandably programmed to follow lines of thinking that act as emollients to counter life’s harsher truths. These may then manifest themselves within their work as academics struggle to maintain teaching standards and resist compromise in the face of sometimes unrealistic demands.

Satisfying the emotional needs of students is also a necessary part of the job these days, it would appear – lest we be deemed negligent in our ever-expanding care of duty and list of obligations – but it can unfairly take staff out of the comfort zone of instruction. Sufferance is communal, too.

As lecturers feel the strain, so do well-being services whose workloads have increased exponentially in recent years as the self-imposed requirement for students to visibly achieve in study (as well as socially, of course) reveals itself as a pressure point, embedded firmly within their collective subconscious.

For many the hunger for “celebration” and “reward” is ever-present, driven by basic human instincts associated with esteem, validation and approval; they seem a bit messed up with it all, to be honest (and one wonders how much UK economic uncertainty and other unsettling worldwide events are perhaps unknowingly taking a toll on them).

Marketeers lead the way

To make matters worse, we are not helped by our own surroundings, in which academics – along with students – are exposed to the disease of regulated ballyhoo and deceptive sensationalism.

Now more than ever, the marketing machinery is never far away from us, tasked to publicise anything that resembles student “success” (on which we are constantly assigned to report) and wringing dry every last bit of plaudit-ridden “good news”.

The same applies to staff accomplishments, and it’s all rather embarrassing at times. The clamour to shout loudly at every possible opportunity diminishes what we do in certain ways, and some of us engage rather unwillingly on this point of principle. I’m all for trumpeting the very best of students and staff, but not on a semi-industrial scale; “less is more”, surely, in this respect?

Do we LIE?

Self-promotion through such things as student employability statistics, National Student Survey scores, entry tariffs, open day and graduation addresses, league table rankings, alumni stories, research pamphlets, press releases, media “star” exposure, outreach activities, and so on – it’s all part of today’s culture.

No university can afford to opt out, of course, as every other institution is a willing participant and determined competitor in a tertiary education market that embraces government-induced autonomy and strengthened strands of privatisation. We are the authors of our own future, we are told, and the heat is on, week in, week out.

The mandatory expectation that higher education staff subscribe to a nationwide Game of LIE (Legitimised Institutional Embellishment, as I jokingly like to call it) is made clear, and to query the whole ethos of unabashed and deliberate grandstanding, exaggeration and subtle intellectual embroidery is merely to put oneself forward to be wrongly charged with a churlish and downbeat “glass-half-empty” attitude.

The trouble is, when everyone is making so much noise no one can be heard anyway.

As for me, I’m happy enough to wait for those intermittent feelings of quiet satisfaction when I produce anything even half-decent in my technical research, but I make sure they are kept to myself.

Peter J. Larcombe is professor of discrete and applied mathematics at the University of Derby.

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