Is Authenticity Still an Ideal?
It is, but, as its use in college admissions illustrates, it has new meaning.
Posted April 27, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Authenticity once meant living true to your individuality and deepest convictions. Now it can mean performing for others your unique differences.
- College admissions tend to look for applicants who demonstrate passion for one thing, rather than the old idea of being "well-rounded."
- In many contexts, like college admissions, the new authenticity can seem obligatory, subject to institutional expectations and approval.
Is authenticity still an ideal? On the one hand, I have found in my research that authenticity seems to be disappearing. Others, such as the existentialist philosopher Gordon Marino, have similarly observed that the “once-urgent issue of authenticity seems to have been lost.”
On the other hand, according to a blog on social media, “authenticity is a super hot topic.” It is “ubiquitous in business,” reports an executive coach. And “authentic” and “authenticity” are the “current buzzwords” in the admissions discourse of elite colleges, writes Matt Feeney in his beautiful new book, Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age, where they “pop up everywhere.”
Fading away or “super hot?" I have argued, in a recent article, for both, because while an older meaning might be passing away, another is all the rage.
The new meaning of authenticity
In interviews with people dealing with emotional predicaments for my book, Chemically Imbalanced, only a very few spoke in terms of authenticity as an evaluative standard, either in thinking about the source of their painful experiences—with loss, social anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, not living up to their potential—or how to respond to them. Few, that is, spoke of getting in touch with their true self or inner depth, stressed the need for introspection, set their experience against a false and shallow social order, or faulted themselves for being too caught up in its deceptions and superficiality. These are the sort of self-orientations and understandings that “being authentic” used to mean. What I found was, if anything, something like the opposite.
And something like the opposite is what the concept of authenticity now means. Our new register of values sets a very high store on standing out, developing your unique self, your differentness from others, your unusual competencies, and attractive qualities. The German social theorist Andreas Reckwitz calls this new ethic “performative authenticity,” because not only is being somebody tied to being unique and singular—authentic—it is also tied to the convincing performance of that uniqueness. Our cultivated specialness has no meaning of its own; it only gains significance when it is socially recognized and brings esteem and success.
Authenticity and college admissions
We can see this new meaning of authenticity in a particularly transparent form in the college admissions process. The ideal applicant at the selective colleges, Feeney notes, is no longer the “well-rounded” generalist but the “well-lopsided” specialist. He quotes an admissions consultant who describes competitive applicants as those who demonstrate they’re “really passionate about something.” They have not been spending themselves “doing a lot of different activities, here and there,” but have focused their energies on a specific niche of their own making that demonstrates their “leadership potential” and magnitude of commitment. What the admissions officers most keenly dislike, Feeney reports, are applicants who “sound packaged.”
The performative nature of this new sort of authenticity is given almost perfect expression by administrators at the University of Chicago in touting their revised application process, the “UChicago Empower Initiative.” In announcing the Initiative, the Dean of Admissions stresses how the process “levels the playing field” for “under-resourced and underrepresented students” by giving them the “technology and other resources” to “stand out in the application process.” The Dean of the College, quoted by Feeney, is “delighted” to report that the new process will make “UChicago even more accessible by enabling students to present their best, most authentic selves.”
These Deans make no reference to any “true self” or “real you.” That is the old, inner sense language of authenticity, a type of understanding that comes through one’s own personal reflection and self-governing activity. It refers to something “you are,” as Marino stresses. That is the sense that is fading away.
These Deans are speaking the new language of authenticity. They are talking about “empowering students” (and families and school advisers) with new means to craft and perform their unique selves. New students will have “increased flexibility and ownership to define and share what they feel best represents them,” according to the Initiative announcement, including the option not to submit standardized test scores and to make “use of the media of their choice to better personalize elements of their application, including submitting a two-minute video introduction in lieu of the traditional college interview.”
These Deans imply, of course, that the best version of your authentic self is the version best suited for institutional evaluation and approval. This implication illustrates another feature of the new authenticity that makes it so unlike the old—it is a kind of obligation. If you want to attend the University of Chicago (or any selective college with “holistic admissions” criteria) you have to be able to persuasively demonstrate how you are different, what is special about you, what makes you stand out from the crowd. You can’t appear uniform or “packaged” and you can’t appear like you’re trying too hard—that wouldn’t be genuine either. If you can’t or won’t perform in this way, Chicago just might not be in your future.
The price of the new "authenticity"
College admissions is not unusual. As Reckwitz documents and the “super hot” status of “authenticity” in many spheres of life — including work — shows, all our institutions increasingly expect a performance in such terms.
My recent article, referenced above, was titled, “When Your Authenticity Is an Act, Something’s Gone Wrong.” Not a bad title, provided by the editors, but perhaps somewhat misleading. If performative authenticity were merely an “act,” something voluntary or that had no enduring impact on our life, then we would have little to worry about. After the performance, we just take off that costume. But it is more than that.
Like the older, inner meaning of authenticity, the new is also a way to be; an ideal that you have to aim for. You do not just wake up one day “special.” You have to set a course toward specialness, fashion your unique difference, and accrue a portfolio of curated accomplishments. That is why, for instance, college consultants emphasize the grade-school years. They advise parents to prepare their children for a high-school career, to create a game plan, make strategic use of summers, design a strong academic program, cultivate a passion, and all the rest. You have to become the sort of person that is (seemingly effortlessly) authentic, equipped with various best versions that correspond to different institutional expectations.
If you want to be authentic on the older model, you’ll have to resist becoming the new.