At the University of Virginia, the walls of the Newcomb Hall art gallery are covered with cards that say things like:
“Three years ago I tried to kill myself…Now I’m 18 and people say I’m happy…but I still want to die…”
“I cheated on my SAT and I got a SCHOLARSHIP.”
“My family is rich but I shoplift EVERY DAY!”
A few years ago, a man named Frank Warren began handing out postcards to strangers. The postcard, addressed to Warren’s home in Germantown, MD, read, “You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project.” It encouraged people to creatively portray their secrets on the other side of the postcard, and then drop it in the mail.
Warren’s postcard art project soon became notorious, and now he receives about 1000 cards in his home mailbox every week. Warren said, “I had accidentally tapped into something full of mystery and wonder that I didn’t fully understand. The project took on a life of its own.” That life became a public one as Warren created Post Secret online (and www.postsecretcommunity.com), published four books of collected secrets, had his postcards featured in an All American Rejects music video, and began to speak on television and at colleges. Over thirty universities have sponsored Warren as a speaker on campus, and many more have gotten in line.
Warren, known as “the most trusted stranger in America,” says there is something liberating and cathartic about revealing your innermost secrets: “Sometimes when we’re keeping a secret, that secret is keeping us.” When he comes to speak on campus, Warren likes to open the microphone for a time of public secret-sharing at the end of the presentation. He insists that the lights in the hall be turned darker so that students who want to share feel more comfortable and safe.
In preparing for Warren’s visit, universities like to get into the spirit of the project and put on their own Post Secret projects. They collect secrets from the campus community and paper student union walls with heart-filled outpourings and colorful confessions.
Courtney Mallow, co-director of the Art and Enrichment Committee at the University of Virginia, helped put on UVA’s recent Post Secret event. She said, “I think it’s a really interesting way for people to connect ... tell their secret without telling anyone, you know, tell the world but don’t tell anyone at all.”
Mallow said it wasn’t always easy to know how to respond to submissions for the UVA exhibit. “Some of these secrets raised some really deep issues—some very sad,” she said. “We were unsure of what kind of responsibility we have” toward those who admit that they use drugs or consider suicide. Like Warren, UVA used the occasion to offer information on suicide and a hotline to call for those in despair. Often these secrets are a cry for help, she said, “and that’s something we shouldn’t ignore.”
Frank Warren’s Post Secret is not the only public forum for secret telling; there’s also www.grouphug.us, www.dailyconfession.com, www.notproud.com, and www.wallofsecrets.com. The phenomenon is far-reaching but appears to especially thrive in the college culture, where participants are awed by the “psychology of keeping and telling secrets.”
What does this fascination say about the university today? Many people acclaim Post Secret as a deep, liberating, communal experience. Amanda Lasicki, a Brick City Ambassador for the Rochester Institute of Technology, gushes, “Post Secret is pretty much this big amazing lifesaving art project.”A blogger calls the artwork “gut-wrenching honesty... a glimpse of what its like to FEEL deeply... insight for those ignorant of what it means to be tortured by one's own passions.”
For at least one university, Post Secret is considered educational. On November 17, Frank Warren will come to speak at Eastern Michigan University. On the webpage for the event, it says, “This lecture counts as Learning Beyond the Classroom credit.”
“Learning Beyond the Classroom” is one of five areas in Eastern Michigan U’s General Education Program (another is “Perspectives on a Diverse World”). Under “Learning Beyond the Classroom” are six categories—students must satisfy two:
1. Group A - Self and Well-Being (includes “Introduction Recreation and Leisure”)
2. Group B - Community Service, Citizenship & Leadership (includes “Conversations with Girls”)
3. Group C - Cultural & Academic Activities & Events
4. Group D - Career and Professional Development
5. Group E - International & Multicultural Experience
6. Group F - Undergraduate Research
It isn’t specified which category Warren’s talk falls under; perhaps, “Self and Well-Being”? In any case, Post Secret paints with vivid brushstrokes higher education’s preoccupation with self and well-being. Throughout the last several decades, colleges have increasingly envisioned their purpose as being therapy for floundering students who will soon have to find their way in the world. The psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the canon behind the university’s shifted mission. “The Gang Phenomenon,” a class at Missouri State University, tells in its course description:
According to Maslow, there are general types of needs (physiological, safety, love, and esteem) that must be satisfied before a person can act unselfishly. He called these needs "deficiency needs." As long as we are motivated to satisfy these cravings, we are moving towards growth, toward self-actualization.
Maslow’s self-actualization, the human desire to be all that “one can be,” comes after a person’s more basic needs, such as intimacy, esteem, and safety, are met. Schools and colleges are taking to heart the psychologist’s words. Believing it the duty of education to help students flower into all that they can be, they make every possible effort to fulfill students’ psychological needs. Campuses are made into “safe zones” for the sexually unorthodox, students are taught to develop a “liberated consciousness,” and A’s are easy to come by (“we have to nurture self-esteem”).
By now, students expect to go to college to be affirmed as individuals and to celebrate diverse aspects of their identity. They believe college to be a place of no judgment and no shame. Emboldened in this atmosphere, students readily voice their darkest secrets..
In her book The Repeal of Reticence, Rochelle Gerstein recounts how our culture lost its modesty: through “a belief that intimate subjects, which are liable to evoke shame when exposed in public, shed their obscene associations when put forward in the name of intellectual, social, or moral progress.” Indeed, Post Secret is lauded as emancipation from socially constructed moral constraints. It’s also seen as a way for people who read the secrets to gain confidence, knowing, “I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
Warren’s project seems to touch a cultural nerve. We gain a kind of power by possessing a secret; we gain a different kind of power by divulging it; and we gain still another kind of power by a veiled form of divulging—divulging anonymously or in a dark room. Perhaps we even gain even another kind in reading other people’s secrets. Frank Warren recognizes this power and markets it easily to angst-ridden students on their way to self-actualization.
Some of the secrets in public forums are humorous, some are hopeful, some are sad. But many writers are angry or defiantly proud of something they got away with. They show the darkest sides of the human heart. Why do people like to turn themselves inside out, to put their most humiliating, deceitful, bitter, disgusting thoughts up on display? Why do they get addicted to PostSecret.com? Perhaps it makes them feel better. Perhaps it repairs their self-esteem.
It seems that Post Secret, a stark self-portrait of the therapeutic university, could become a metonym for the future of higher education. Which, apart from its original mission, will be neither higher, nor education.