By Peter Blair, Staff Columnist
Published on Monday, April 4, 2011
College President Jim Yong Kim is unpopular among many students these days. Many pieces have been published in The Dartmouth criticizing our president, from Verbums to opinion columns to Mirror articles. Nearly all the people I’ve talked to about Kim have expressed some kind of serious disappointment in him. He is the man everyone loves to hate. In short, much of the campus is suffering from a shared psychological state that I like to call Kim Disillusionment Syndrome (KDS).
KDS strikes students who are finally being disabused of the uncritical, starry-eyed illusions they used to possess about him. One finds the pain of such disillusionment everywhere. Students across all classes are wallowing in feelings of anger, betrayal and existential angst. We hung our hopes on Kim, but Kim disappointed and now we find ourselves in a ruined, shattered world stripped of all heroism and goodness. Superman has been unmasked, and we find ordinary, fallible Clark Kent starring us back in the face. Expressions that provide evidence for this syndrome are commonplace. Columnist Josh Kornberg wrote, “the president who showed us the possibilities of being human [who reminds us] how important it is to believe in heroes” has turned out to be nothing more than an unusually clever salesman (“Wail to the Chief”, March 28). What now? How can we move forward?
As much as I feel for those who have were beguiled by Kim’s “obsidian eyes” and “soothing voice,” my first reaction to all the despair going around is to laugh. There is something sadly humorous in watching people realize their idols are fallible human beings. It is doubly entertaining though also doubly tragic when people have so strongly invested their outlook on life in another person. So invested, in fact, that they can’t bear demonstrations of that person’s imperfections. KDS, because of its manifest absurdity, is first and foremost an occasion for humor (though the humor is slightly lessened by the fact that the language used about Kim sometimes sounds like it could be the opening to a bad erotic novel).
But it is also an occasion for serious reflection. Why is it that Kim’s perceived failure as a president causes one to doubt the existence of heroes and to lose sight of the possibilities of being human? Why is it that one’s hope stands or falls with one man? There is something seriously unhealthy about our intellectual culture when such a state of affairs obtains, and it is worth examining the cause of it.
KDS is rooted in, I believe, a misunderstanding of human nature. The reason why people are so affected by the failures of their heroes is that they entirely overestimate their abilities and underestimate their capacity for moral and professional incompetence. In other words, we expect too much from people because we don’t appreciate the depth and universality of human fallibility. Kornberg wrote in his column that Kim was supposed to be “the president who saves millions of lives through a superhuman unwillingness to settle for solipsism or cynicism.” We expected Kim to be superhuman. But like all of us, Kim is apt to make mistakes. The only difference is that his power amplifies the significance of his mistakes.
This column is therefore an exhortation to realism. One ought to be idealistic when it comes to causes and ideals, but never when it comes to people. Success, as a friend often reminds me, equals results minus expectations. As a visionary and transformative leader, Kim, like Obama, is a failure. As an administrator and college president, he is mediocre, perhaps even mildly successful. If we had expected less of Kim, as we reasonably should have, we might be unhappy with his mediocrity but we would not be suffering the destruction of our worldview.
In short, we can entertain realistic hopes for our leaders if we expect only that they leave their organization, nation or college moderately better that it was before their tenure. If we expect them to improve things in all respects, or even in a vast majority of respects, we will be guilty of moderate idealism. If we hope they will give us an example of heroism, we have abandoned all claims to realism.