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The Perils of Perfectionism Part 2: Arnold Schwarzenegger

I’m going to open here with two videos, one from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, and another from Sir Ken Robinson, a British creativity expert now living in the same state.

What does Arnold Schwarzenegger have to do with perfectionism?

I think we can all agree that Arnie is someone who reaches for the stars. As a young man, he came to the United States from Austria and made himself famous by becoming a body-builder. He then got into Hollywood, made a lot of action films and eventually married into a branch of the Kennedy clan. That marriage gained him entry into the world of politics and 2003 he become the governor of California. He’s an American success story; he was an immigrant with big dreams and, through a combination of hard work and good fortune, he made them come true.

So what’s my beef with him? It’s one line, from the middle of the clip, that chafes. Arnie is standing at a podium in full command, with his booming voice and imposing figure. Then he starts his speech by saying: “Words without action is just poetry.”

I want to ask: Just poetry, as in just Shakespeare? Just Sappho? Just T.S. Eliot? And just poets like those talented American ones, Frost, Cummings, Williams?

The fact that Schwarzenegger is uttering these words during the speech he’s giving to open his “think-tank” – the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the University of Southern California — should be sending shivers up the spine of anyone with even a limited capacity for self-reflection. Someone needs to take the Terminator aside and explain that action without reflection is just instinct. Maybe Arnie should ask his former housekeeper and mother of his extra-marital child about this. I suspect she would have a thing or two to say about Arnie’s capacity for acting on instinct, as would a lot of the inmates at another famous California institution: the San Diego Zoo.

So let’s turn our sights elsewhere and take in a more enlightened view of the arts. This video is of a TED talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006. It’s a five minute compilation of the highlights; the entire talk of 20 minutes is more informative and entertaining. I’ll be posting it at the end of this article.

I like how Robinson defines intelligence because he does so in a global way. Here’s what he says:

We know [this] about intelligence: One, it’s diverse, we think about the world in all the ways we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement. Secondly, intelligence is dynamic. If you look at the interactions of a human brain…intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn’t divided into compartments. In fact, creativity, which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value, more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.

As someone who has taught literature for the last twenty years, I know Robinson is right. For example, I know that the teaching of literature — an art that asks us to picture things — encourages, or at least allows for, complex brain activity. This is something I allude to when students consistently return to a literal interpretation of a text, an interpretation that diminishes its richness and texture. Overall, I try to show them that these kind of interpretations, which focus mainly on the plot or a single idea, are difficult to force onto textual entities carrying complex and meaningful messages.

This literality is what exasperates me when I deal with students who believe that asking for an “evaluation rubric” is one way to get a better grade. These are the students who will say things like: “But I haven’t made a lot of grammatical errors, my essay is properly formatted in the MLA style, and I answered the question. Why did I get a 75?” They are usually indignant when uttering these words and this is when they demand a reckoning with the help of a rubric: they want a document that says: “Here are the ingredients for a literary analysis. Fulfill them and you will get a good grade.” They want back-up to prove they’ve done everything right and it’s my fault for not recognizing it.

And this is when I try to explain that style, that elusive trait we all recognize but may have a hard time describing, is what can make the difference between a grade of 75 and 85. These are the times when I try to explain that style — in my opinion — is something that happens when those different parts of the brain talk to one another; it’s what happens when a student uses more than linear and literal pathways to analyze a text.

In other words, good writing style is what happens when a student accepts that reducing his or her thinking to A = B = C is not going to produce a good essay. It’s just going to produce an essay where one idea after another is expressed in a way that does not seem particularly coherent. If I have to explain, I will show them a sentence pattern like S-V-O, subject-verb-object, and say, “Okay, how would you feel reading an entire essay written with sentences that only use this pattern?”

Here is an example: The dog ate his food. The cat ate her food. The dog’s owner provided the food. The cat’s owner provided the food. The neighbour watched the dog’s owner. The neighbour watched the cat’s owner. The neighbour’s neighbour watched the dog’s owner. The neighbour’s neighbour watched the cat’s owner. Ad infinitum. I may also pull out a 90s range essay, ask them to read it, and then let them decide for themselves if their grade of 75 is unfair. Sometimes showing them an example of good style is the only thing that works.

One of the reasons I like supervising the writing of essays is that I can be there when students are struggling. I can tell them the chaos that comes before a breakthrough is a sign the creative process is at work and if they feel “all jumbled up” it’s probably a good thing. They rarely believe me, of course. Many of them are busy with another template altogether. They stubbornly hang onto that A = B = C way of seeing things and, counter to their own best interests, are just too anxious to have faith and let it go.

And then they hear ideas like “words without actions is just poetry,” and they can safely conclude that poetry is not important. In their heads they are busy planning that trip to Mount Everest, or something like it, because they think a clearly defined goal like climbing the world’s highest peak — even when it means risking their lives — stands for something truly substantial. In an analogous way, making that climb is far more important than, say, figuring out what Shakespeare really meant when he asked, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

However, I try to tell them they’re wrong and that poetry is important. If they can figure out Shakespeare I say, they can figure out a lot about life, including why they might feel the need to take on a challenging physical feat, why they might feel the need to conquer Everest. Shakespeare explores themes of ambition and heroism in many of his poems, plays and characters. Understanding him always brings us closer to understanding ourselves.

So it doesn’t help when people like Schwarzenegger — that former body-builder who is putting his name on a think-tank of all things — comes out with dismissive comments about poetry. He should try reading some. It might give him a clue about why his wife might not want him back.

I’m going to end here with an exercise I give all my students. Here are three words: berry, drink and horse. What is one word that ties all of them together?

This is an exercise in abstract thinking — the kind of thinking required to put together a meaningful literary analysis. If you want to know what I’m doing in my classroom, this is it: I’m trying my darndest to increase my students’ capacity to think abstractly. It’s a lot more important than Arnie thinks.

I will provide the answer to the exercise in my next post.

Here’s the full version of Sir Ken Robinson’s talk:

Tags: Arnold Schwarenegger, Sir Ken Robinson


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