There’s a Paul Simon song called “Tenderness” in which the crooner tells his love, “there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.” Sometimes, in personal relationships, honesty must be tempered with tact and tenderness to soften blows and prevent unnecessary pain.
Education, however, is a very different story. Learning requires candor, bluntness. Whereas the ice queen in the Paul Simon song needs to temper her honesty with tenderness, most students at Yale need to temper their hesitation and fear of giving offense with honesty, plain and simple. The line between kindness and candor is a fine one to walk. It is called tact.
Often, white lies are not the best way to participate in a civilized educational environment. In writing classes and literary publications on campus, constructive criticism is the only reason to participate: without it, we’re all wasting our time. Yet we’ve all seen people awkwardly padding criticism with euphemism — “I think that this is really beautifully written, it just needs a little polishing” — or simply avoiding judgment altogether — “We’ll have to talk about your piece later because there’s this other problem that needs immediate attention –” Beating around the bush may be easy, but it is not illuminating.
Students who can’t criticize can call their editorial style anything they want: wishy-washy, sensitive — I just call it dishonest. Lying, as everyone from Kant to Teresa Heinz Kerry will tell you, does not help to further the intellectual goals of our society. This is not, of course, to say that brutality is socially acceptable, or even helpful. Remember that first scene in the movie “Wonder Boys?” A class full of harsh-looking college students bent on glorifying themselves and embarrassing their peers rips the protagonist’s angsty story to shreds. “It’s atrocious,” says one student. “Why are all of your stories the same?” asks another. The character comes away with no aspirations for improvement, only instead stifling apathy.
The problem here is that harsh criticism can be just as dishonest and unhelpful as non-criticism. Being too mean and being too nice result from the same problem: laziness. If you’re too lazy, for example, to read a classmate’s poem thoroughly and give it some serious thought, then you won’t be able to comment on it in a way that is both severe and helpful. It is not and insult to me when somebody writes a response to one of my columns — it’s a triumph. I, like anyone interested in learning, want to know what I’m doing wrong and why other people believe different things, do things differently. I of course don’t want to be told that I’m stupid, but even worse is the worry that praise isn’t genuine.
We’re devoting four years of our lives not only to read books and work out math problems, but for the privilege of the society of a university. Discourse is how we learn, and it comes at the price of our leisure and our pride. It’s not easy to educate yourself, and it’s not easy to help others. Learning is hard work, but it’s worth the investment when the payoff is a better education — or just a better poem.
By the same token, it’s difficult to take criticism, but it is insulting to be shielded from it. If the fruits of my labor — be they intellectual, artistic, anything — are pitiful, I’d rather know it than have to worry that my peers mock my efforts behind my back. We do each other a great service to offer our constructive, valuable opinions. Art critiques at Yale are notoriously harsh, but it is in that environment that serious criticism demonstrates mutual respect, and in that environment that students become better.
Let us, then, not learn by the all too prevalent example of uninspired euphemisms and instead aspire to give each other honest and thoughtful criticism, never shying away from truthful impressions and always analyzing work as well as we possibly can. As Paul Simon sings, “you don’t have to lie” in order to protect somebody’s feelings.
Helen Vera is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.