Do not believe the rumors of the obsolescence of your path

Jonathan’s post from a few days ago — on the arguments we might make for music education in schools — was one of the best things ever written on the topic. You still got it, old-timer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of how to defend music to people who apparently need to be convinced. I am more sympathetic to the “music is awesome, period” argument than Jonathan, partly because I can’t get past the feeling that anyone who needs to hear a justification for music education in schools is a hopeless cretin and any argument you might make is already compromised by the fact that you are doing something that any sane civilization would find ridiculous, namely arguing for music, ferchrissake, are you fucking kidding me? We’re doing this now? What’s next, arguing for puppies and kisses and moonlit walks in midsummer? Yes, probably, that’s exactly the kind of thing we need to make an argument for for these days. There seem to be a lot of people in the United States who are incapable of seeing any value in anything that doesn’t have a camera in it.

A culture that doesn’t already know that music is valuable is a culture far gone in degeneracy. You know who else didn’t want music in schools? The fucking Taliban.

OK, OK, I know, I’m not being helpful or constructive here. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar and all that. Let’s try again.

In all times and places, probably, parents need to guide their children through the characteristic hazards and limitations of their schools. For me, growing up in a redneck town in the frozen end of nowhere in the 1970s/early 1980s, it was hippie crafts (gods-eyes figured prominently in my early schooling), schoolyard beat-downs, kids turning up to class hungover in the eighth grade, and the brutish indifference of most teachers to anything beyond the crowd-control aspect of their jobs. My kids have a different set of concerns: how to live in a corporatized educational system that monitors their every move and quantifies their every thought — or assumes that the only thought worth pursuing is that which can be quantified. Both my kids are strong in math and science (much stronger than I ever was), but their interests lie in the arts and humanities. And this puts them in a minority.

My son, for example, is going to be applying to colleges in a year, and almost all the high-achieving kids in his set are planning on being engineers, doctors, computer scientists, or something similarly STEMmy. My son’s interests lie more in the direction of Latin, jazz guitar, Medieval history, 1970s funk and soul, sci-fi and fantasy lit, and the films of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Much of what he hears, either implicitly or explicitly, whether from peers or the culture at large, is some version of “what are you going to do with that?” — in other words, what is the practical and economic payout? What is the measurable outcome? In this way is the central assumption of the present-day educational system mirrored in our society as a whole.

I believe that it is my job, as a parent, to set up the conditions under which my children can find and pursue whatever it is that draws forth their best self. And so the conversations around our dinner-table deal with how to hang onto those interests — and therefore also how to hang onto the best self that goes into those interests — in the face of society’s ignorance, neglect, and contempt. I have two interesting, interested kids who’ve got their own Thing going on, and I couldn’t be prouder. But the challenge is for them to be proud of their Thing. It takes courage to know who you are and to make decisions about your future in light of that self-knowledge.

So one thing I would add to Jonathan’s excellent post is that the arguments we make for the arts and humanities are sometimes the arguments that our own people need to hear. And I suspect that conversations of this kind are being had by families all around the United States. You’d never know it to listen to the dead-souled educrats, politicians, and professional opinionators who befog our public conversations like clouds of flies, but there are thousands, maybe millions of families across the U.S. that are proud of their kids who do theater or dance or music. Perhaps one of the things we can be doing for music education in this country is to develop a sense of an arts community among families, and bring as many people into that community as we can.

In response to Jonathan’s post, Sara Haefeli writes “I also strongly believe that the path out of poverty is motivated by one’s ability to imagine a different future. That’s what music and the other arts do for people–they give life to the imagination, they enable us to envision something different.” One of my kids said something similar at dinner a few days ago: STEM subjects allow us to work on the world as it exists; the arts allow us to imagine the world that doesn’t exist. In this sense, the American education system’s near-exclusive focus on STEM is deeply conservative. The workforce that it’s trying to create is one that will keep the wheels greased, the satellites spinning, the factories turning out iPhones . . . but it won’t be a workforce that ever stops to ask, why are we doing this? Could we be doing something else? Is this all there is?

I suppose you won’t be getting legislators to fund arts programs with that argument, will you? But if politicians and educrats don’t have anything to gain from raising kids in the arts, we do. As Jonathan wrote, you can have arts education, or

you could go the low-tax, I-built-that, finger-wagging austerity route. Let us know how that works out for you. Our kids—musicians’ kids—will still thrive because we prioritize that. Sorry about yours; turns out hangin’ in the mall, owing to a lack of in-school options, isn’t much of a catalyst for excellence or heuristic for valuable skills, but we warned you.”

I like the fightin’ spirit of that. We might have to make our case, and make it well, but we’ve got nothing to apologize for.

Kids who do arts, families and friends who support them: be proud. This is our music.

This is our music!

A capping quote from Leon Wieseltier isn’t as canonically cool as one from Bruce Springsteen, maybe, but his argument that study of the arts and humanities has become a kind of counterculture, a counter to our positivist, materialist culture, is to the point:

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. . . .

. . . As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.”  You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history—you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

Do not believe the rumors of the obsolescence of your path. . . . There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants, of that encounter and that experience, and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience—which is to say, you are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.

So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because—whether it knows it or not—you are.

<drops mic>

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to Do not believe the rumors of the obsolescence of your path

  1. “You’d never know it to listen to the dead-souled educrats, politicians, and professional opinionators who befog our public conversations like clouds of flies, but there are thousands, maybe millions of families across the U.S. that are proud of their kids who do theater or dance or music.”

    I wish I’d written that. I testify to this issue almost daily in my Music History Pedagogy seminar.

    Plus Wieseltier. For me, the passage above is as canonically cool as anything will ever need to be.

  2. Pingback: I really should be practicing | Dial M for Musicology

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