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There were two news items that caught my attention this week: Gwyneth Paltrow nabbed the top spot on the recently released "Most Hated Celebrities" list for this year and an article about the Miss Korea contestants and their uncannily similar faces went viral.

These are the kind of stories we see frequently, prompting the usual response: decrying the fashion industry, criticizing Hollywood culture, questioning the frivolousness of even analyzing celebrity-bashing and pointing to identical beauty queens as an indication of our rampant self-image problems.

The reactions aren't wrong. A "Most Hated" list hardly tells us anything we don't already know. Looking at the Miss Korea contestants and shaking our heads at the modern world's narrow beauty expectations is a natural response.

Then we move on to the next news item, maybe about a sports scandal, an attention-grabbing crime or yet another government quagmire thanks to quarreling politicians. Just another day with another series of equally depressing headlines.

This attitude echoes our isolated approach to learning and ideas prominent in modern education. An unfortunate consequence of living in a world with advanced technology requiring specialists and experts is compartmentalized knowledge.

We've become accustomedto isolating details in education, business, politics and relationships. We address concerns on an ad hoc basis: here's one problem, here's one solution, circumventing a cultural overhaul by contending with one situation at a time.

It's perhaps the unfortunate but inevitable consequence of a pluralist worldview. Wrapped up in individual stories, relativistic viewpoints and isolated narratives, we miss the connections between them that reveal larger truths. A headline is a mere symptom. An article about hated celebrities or surgically-enhanced beauty contestants only shows us a slice of our cultural fixations. It's not enough to point to narrow beauty standards and call them wrong, because it's not enough to highlight any single problem and try to fix it alone. To talk about unrealistic beauty standards, for instance, is to enter into a philosophical conversation that traces back much farther than magazines and movie stars.

In college and into adult life, we should foster the ability to look at one story and trace its relationship to an overarching theme, whether that story is about a meme, literature or political philosophies. Our sciences, our celebrities, our technologies and our arts are not single subjects but single facets, related by what they reveal about us. The continued specialization of our studies and careers will progress and students will follow an increasingly narrow educational focus. Potentially, the inability to connect with an underlying thread will reduce recognition of broader problems extending beyond individual fields, thereby depriving society of broader solutions.

As I look at the headlines, I believe we are elevating some cultural symptoms over others without treating the larger disease. Plastic surgery obsessions, terrorist attacks, abortion horror stories, box office successes, a divided government, our consumption of celebrity: What do they all have in common?


We have to look at people — their desires, and anxieties, and voids demanding fulfillment before we can fix the headlines. To fix society, we must first fix ourselves. For all I've learned in college and as a columnist, that's been the most valuable lesson.


Reach the columnist at or follow her at @EMDrown

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