TITLE:Schooled by 'American Idol'
SOURCE:The Chronicle of Higher Education 1 Mr 16 2007 supp
COPYRIGHT:The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this articleand it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.

    Fox TV's American Idol recently kicked off its sixth season, and despite its longevity, it's more popular than ever. Perhaps it's worth pausing as educators to think about some of the pedagogical significance of this remarkable reality show. American Idol is an old-fashioned talent show, reinvigorated with contemporary technology to include audience voting. Much of the interest of the program comes from watching the talented finalists hone their pop-singing skills and create a fan base of their own. The awarding of this year's Oscar for best supporting actress to Jennifer Hudson (booted out in the final round of Idol's third season) and the Grammy nominations for Carrie Underwood (2005's American Idol) have brought even more attention to this star-making machine.
    But the show spends weeks auditioning untalented performers. Only after that do the final stages pit the appealing amateurs who rise to the top against one another. The scenes of homely kids wailing off pitch before sneering judges borrow from the disturbing reality-show penchant for humiliation as entertainment. But in those tacky moments, we can learn about how America views the acts of grading and evaluation that are a standard part of what we do in higher education.
    Indeed, the dramatic moment that follows each audition mirrors the dynamics of classroom grading, putting that familiar but anxiety-producing situation into bold relief on millions of television screens. Each judge delivers a verdict, up or out, and some explanatory comments. Even the ages of the participants echo the traditional college classroom: The singers are between approximately 16 and 28; the three judges are middle-aged and all experts in their field, popular music. Randy Jackson is a widely experienced bass player and a successful record producer in several genres; Paula Abdul is a veteran choreographer and recording star with a No. 1, multiplatinum album in her past; and Simon Cowell is a British record producer who piloted a similar show in England.
    We might think that Americans are eager to celebrate talented young people who can thumb their noses at the older generation and thus exorcise the lingering resentment so many harbor from being graded and evaluated in the classroom. But what American Idol reveals instead is a veritable hunger for realistic evaluation. Time and time again, contestants in the early episodes of this year's season whine obviously off key and then insist they are highly talented -- in spite of the judges' protestations. Most of those kids have not learned how to sing, but they have mastered the self-esteem and "attitude" so valued in our culture. The persistent dynamic of these episodes is expertise putting down untalented braggadocio.
    In a world full of people rating themselves highly, audiences seem to long for the enforcement of standards of taste and judgment. In a still influential and far-ranging study of taste and evaluation, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (Harvard University Press, 1988), the literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith demonstrated that all value statements are contingent -- that is, historically and culturally bound. True enough. But the audience and judges can still reach a mighty consensus regarding the efforts of out-of-tune, off-the-beat singers who forget the words of a song. Later in the season, disagreement will reign as the judges differ or the live audience protests Simon's critique. But the early episodes of American Idol establish that those differences in taste exist within a broad cultural consensus about musical benchmarks.
    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. In fact, in one episode Cowell challenged an angry, spurned contestant to go into a local shopping mall and find three people who would testify that he sang well (the contestant didn't succeed). It was as if a disgruntled student had shown his graded paper to a random assortment of his peers, only to find them endorsing his teacher's assessment.
    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.
    The three judges also reflect three different styles of delivering critical judgments. Cowell is the caricature of the mean teacher, and, while his appraisals can be astute, they are rarely constructive: He relishes telling people how bad their performances are and seems aggrieved to have had to endure them. Abdul represents the opposite extreme, ladling up her criticisms with plentiful supportive comments about appearance, style, and potential. Jackson usually offers some positive comments to soften the blow, but insists on genuine criticism to "keep it real."
    Teachers will recognize in those three caricatures the daily task with which they struggle: how to judge work fairly, but do so in a way that students, so geared to view anything critical as hostile, will hear and learn from the process. American Idol reflects a tension between a self-esteem-obsessed culture devoted to the validation of individual achievement and a hunger for genuine standards. The judges, like teachers throughout the education system, learn to walk that line.
    Eventually the audience gets schooled as well. In the early stages of the program, the judges determine the fate of the contestants. In the final weeks, audience voting (by the millions) makes the ruling. But the judges are still center stage, guiding the cultural consensus American Idol reveals even as it is being formed.
    Christopher Ames is provost and dean of the college at Washington College. His most recent book is Movies About the Movies: Hollywood Reflected (University Press of Kentucky, 1997).