The Flatiron Building of Midtown Manhattan—sharply chiseled into a point at the corner of 5th Avenue and Broadway—is considered by some architects to be a perfect structure. Towering bolt upright 285 feet into the skies above New York, this wedge-shaped Babel impersonation boasts two, long, isosceles sides that run parallel to their prospective streets before meeting at a line of symmetry. The internal framework is one of pure steel; the facade is strengthened by twenty-two stories of premium limestone and terra cotta. Even from far away the extensive detail of this building can be seen, as the design mirrors that of a Roman Column: a firm base at street level, then a lengthy central shaft and an outward reaching capital at the Flatiron’s highest floors.
All in all, a work of near-perfect perfection.
But apart from a glance and perhaps a few seconds of upward marvel from some citygoers, the building often blends in with the rest of the equally impressive skyscrapers. Perfection diffuses as the tourists and New Yorkers alike hardly give it a second thought as they cross the street, heading off down Broadway to catch a play. If you were not from the city or did not have a broad knowledge of architecture, perfect or otherwise, the Flatiron might just be something that you use to press the wrinkles out of a dress shirt.
But if you turn your attention to something as widely known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you might find a different story. A commonplace in the minds of many children, this structure is far more than notable; it is beloved. Imperfectly perfect. Families and connoisseurs alike plan vacations just to visit this uneven stacking of stone. Thousands of pictures show visitors pushing the landmark away from collapse, but never any farther, never back to bland straightness.
Yet unlike architecture, it seems human beings are bound to vastly different expectations. A man who has chosen a different, learning course for his life is frowned upon, and almost always conforms to the urgings of others to adopt a symmetrical state of living. There is rarely true encouragement of unique thought, but more often a pressured game of following the leader.
Mark Edmundson—English Professor at the University of Virginia, and author of a wide range of topics from “Why Write?” to “The Death of Sigmund Freud” and even “Why Football Matters?” —has witnessed this growing condition within society, especially amongst his students. He has observed, both in his UVA classroom and the students’ social interactions, a deep underlying current of socialization, not in terms of natural interpersonal interaction, but of altering one’s behavior to what society finds acceptable.
While socialization to some degree is perfectly healthy, allowing order to prevail out of what would be decadent chaos, Edmundson and many others see its modern manifestation as steadily reaching an extreme and turning into something with no rightful place in the lecture hall. Students feel the need to be perfect in everything they do. Perfect grades, the perfect amount of agreed-upon camouflage worn to match their classmates. They have been highly socialized by their peers and the critical world of social media, but also by their teachers who have insisted that students accept and agree with their philosophies under the threat of a lower grade. For many of these young adults, who have graduated from difficult and renowned high schools with stellar marks, a minus sign after their A or, even worse a B simply will not do. Professor Edmundson calls this phenomenon the “Culture of Perfectionism,” which has seemingly shoved mission statements like “I agree with everything that has been said so far” into the hands of a growing number of students.
In mid-September, before an audience of Professors, alumni, and students at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, Edmundson outlined both his worries and potential remedies. According to him, UVA and universities across the country need to reach students from beyond the superficial bottom line through a practice he calls “Teaching the Conflicts,” which happened to be the title of his lecture. To properly teach the conflicts, a professor must position opposing viewpoints directly to the students, so that there is an encouragement of free thought rather than a dogmatic myopia of a single forced opinion.
Edmundson lives his philosophy and shared the example of how when discussing the ideas of French philosopher Michel Foucault he juxtaposes them with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson so that the classroom can experience both sides of a debate and reevaluate their own beliefs. When a professor begins teaching the conflicts, an “opposing self” within the student mind is born, which grants them the ability to question both themselves and the works they have before them—examining what is being taught instead of simply regurgitating memorized Sparknotes or verbatim whiteboard scribbles.
Over 200 years ago William Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “without contraries [there] is no progression.” Edmundson hopes to tap into this mantra and convert academia into a space that fosters differing viewpoints, where “intellectual risk takers” are born and nurtured, and the importance of unique thought and engagement is not brushed aside for the almighty grade. “First we [must] read the texts, then we [must] let the texts read us,” Edmundon shared with his audience; and this means all the texts, all different ways of thinking.
Such a reform might take time to gain widespread traction, but the heart of the matter is that of utmost importance. The more young people strive simply for perfectionism, the more the world will dull and be leveled out by the “flatiron” of conformity. And by then there might never again be the chance to marvel at the beauty of true uniqueness, whichever way it leans.