Potemkin Villages

Another winter Olympics has come and gone. There was much talk about the preparation Russia went through on its way to hosting the games and in wanting to put its best foot forward as a world power.  I should qualify my comments by saying that I did not compete in the Olympics.  Many people mistakenly assume that I’m some kind of Olympic athlete (easy mistake to make). While I don’t curl competitively, I do spend a considerable amount of time honing my shuffleboard skills at our local pub.  So there’s that.  It is accurate to say that I do enjoy the Olympics. The event is a melting pot for everything from obscure athletic competitions to Pink Eye (props to Bob Costas).  The reviews on Russia as host have been mixed.  I will try to practice diplomacy on this point as I know that I have a huge Russian following for this blog series and I don’t want to say or do anything to make current matters more tense.  Like I said, the reviews have been mixed.  However, most seem to agree that Russia cleans up nicely for “company”.

The whole idea of preparation for the Olympics–by building temporary facilities, sweeping weaknesses under the rug (or out of the cities) and hiding your disenfranchised–reminds me of the college application process.  It also reminds me of the political principle of Potemkin Villages.  It’s a term used to literally describe fake villages.  It comes from the Russian Governor of the late 1700’s, Grigory Potemkin.  The story goes that Mr. Potemkin arranged for fake or mobile villages to be built along the Dnieper River.  These villages were facades complete with fake peasants to populate them.  The villages were assembled to impress Princess Catherine as she visited the New Russia and to assure allies of Russia’s preparedness for war.  When the passing dignitaries floated beyond the villages, the villages were disassembled under the cover of nightfall and then reassembled farther down the river for a new audience the next day.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Have you ever witnessed students putting up Potemkin Villages?  Have you yourself ever been the architect of one of these mobile villages? Have you seen a college put up such villages?  Okay, enough questions.  The point is that, at times, we are all complicit in this process.  I feel like we have two choices in our work with students.  We can prop up facades or we can strengthen foundations.  Every time that a student crams for a test and then immediately does a brain dump, they prop up facades.  When a student thoroughly covers material, meticulously researches secondary sources and thoughtfully raises questions, they strengthen foundations.  I have so many students who are carefully assembling and disassembling Potemkin Villages.  They expend so much effort constructing the appearance that something is what they would like it to be. Rest assured knowing that children have not cornered the market on this process. I remember being a young counselor and feeling the pressure to fake it until you make it.  The same principle can hold true in our counseling.  When we entertain discussions on prestige and its importance, allow students to glide across the surface with questions like “name some good colleges” or merely focus on what a college is looking for rather than what the student needs, I think we prop up facades.  A foundation builder asks what you can contribute.

My friends on the college side can do the same thing.   I mentioned that Russia cleaned up well for company.  I remember the same thing for college visits when I lived on that side of the desk.  Tour scripts?  All-star tour guides?  Stats that include the height of the climbing wall while excluding the average class size or the teacher to student ratio?  Our society has experienced a shift in what we value when it comes to the education of our students.  In many ways, this shift has led to diminishing returns and skyrocketing costs.

Here’s the thing about facades: they will come down.  It may not be today and it may not be before students have been admitted.  But they will come down.  I admit that it’s much easier to prop up facades.  They are simple, aesthetically pleasing and often convincing. Foundations take time, energy and investment–and sometimes you can’t even see them. But try to build something lasting without one. I’m reminded of the words of President Kennedy (insert Boston accent here): We must do things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

By Jeff Morrow