Potemkin Villages

Jeff GuideAnother 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



  1. Jeff,

    Although I’m not sure that I would have chosen news items from Sochi—due in part to a feeling that the situation presents stakes and consequences on a scale that is entirely different from college admission—your point about presentation, identity, institutions, and power, seems to be heading in a productive direction.

    I must say that I am generally sympathetic toward your position but would push back on the way in which it is framed. For one, I’m not sure that the foundation/façade dichotomy is the most apt given that a structure has other forms of support and that aesthetic features can also be functional. The more significant thing of note here, however, is the way in which your binary seems to suggest that the foundation is good as opposed to the bad or fake façade and I am not quite sure that this is the most productive way to think about this particular phenomenon.

    Although there are other texts that come to mind, I immediately jump to Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life to help explain the way in which identity can be fluid and seemingly contradictory. In his book Goffman draws upon the theater as metaphor in order to discusses an idea of “front stage” and “backstage” presentations—simply put, there is a particular way in which we tend to act when we think other people are watching and there is a certain (and often different, although not necessarily) way that we act when we think we are unobserved. The idea here is that the “façade” is not a fabrication that is entirely conceived in order to mislead or misrepresent but rather an aspect of a multi-faceted identity that gains salience at a particular moment in time (and for understandable reasons). For an updated version, we can also refer to danah boyd’s It’s Complicated and this review from NPR (http://www.npr.org/2014/02/25/282359480/social-media-researcher-gets-how-teenagers-use-the-internet), which notes:

    “I have to simultaneously deal with professional situations, friends from the past, friends from the present all in one environment and I don’t share the same thing in those worlds. For me it’s a world of context collapse,” says boyd.

    “Context collapse”: boyd isn’t sure whether she or a fellow social scientist coined the phrase, but she refers to it a lot. She says, like adults, teenagers are figuring out how to present themselves in different contexts. One of the chapters in her new book is all about why teenagers seem to behave so strangely online. “They’re trying to figure out the boundaries with regard to their peers. So what is cool? What is funny? What will get them a lot of attention good or bad?” says boyd.

    As they get older, says boyd, they want to look even cooler. Sometimes that’s reflected in the name they use online. “So you’d see people being like ‘carebear3344’ and then they’d realize that they’re no longer 13 and talking about Care Bears is no longer cute. So they have to write something more sophisticated. So then we pick up a Jack Kerouac reference and all of sudden somebody’s Darma Bum,” says boyd.

    Using the either/or thinking that your foundation/façade analogy works to further the schism between who students must be for school/college and who they are in their “normal” lives and we can see further examples of this division in the realm of social media (see your fellow blogger’s post: https://wacac.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/protecting-the-classof2015-social-media-readiness/). Furthermore, if the “façade” is to be interrogated, we must also ask how we are complicit in the process—not, as you suggest, by merely beautifying the campus and putting our best foot forward—in the very way in which the college application process for selective and highly selective schools dictates the kinds of behavior that are considered worthy of merit and how this has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the population of applicants. If we are to apply a label like “façade” to the behaviors of students, we also need to take a huge step back in order to consider the ways in which the profession is complicit (or not) in encouraging students to present themselves in a particular kind of way and to think of themselves in a certain manner. Although we might argue that we are always looking for students who surprise us, I would counter that laudable activities continue to exist inside a range of behaviors that we legitimize (for sensible reasons) and it is this pressure—which is perpetuated by the admission process—that suggests the feasibility (or necessity) of a façade to students and families.

    In your final paragraph, you also write, “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.” Foundations are, as you note, great for students as they develop skills that will assist them in life (and here your post touches upon that of another blogger: https://wacac.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/is-college-really-the-best-four-years-of-your-life/). The trick, however, is that understanding the need and benefit of developing a foundation is a question that differs from one that seeks to investigate the existence of façades in the college admission process. Even if we continue to see foundations and façades as two separate things, I would consider how a façade can be used a form of scaffolding for students in their developmental process; left unexamined and unsupported, the façade might fall down in this case, but we can also consider that sometimes the façade represents a valuable step in the process of experimentation as a student attempts to solidify an identity or study skills.

    So although I definitely agree that we should carefully consider the way that we talk to students about college and the ways that we encourage them to think about the subject, I believe that the interplay between appearance/presentation and identity is more complex than is given credit here.

    -Chris Tokuhama

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