It seems only fair that, having vented my spleen on someone else’s extremely weak idea of what “elite” truly means, I offer a counterexample of my own. It is the practice among my tribe to cherish and honor scholarship, intelligence, and individual accomplishment, yes. More to be honored, though, are those who taught and influenced: via their writings, their schools, the legal opinions that were passed down in their names, the illustrious students who benefited from and transmitted their wisdom. Rabbis Hillel and Shamai were hugely important Talmudic figures, but what cements such status are the phrases The School of Hillel and The School of Shammai. The two Sages didn’t just sit around being learned; they taught, influenced, and founded schools of thought, for which they have been remembered and discussed for two millennia. Now, that, brothers and sisters, is what you want to aspire to.
A volume I received in the mail a few days ago testifies, in a chorus stronger than any I have ever seen, to just such a one. The book is titled Qui musicam in se habet: Studies in Honor of Alejandro Enrique Planchart (admire it here, and order it HERE!). I’ve mentioned Don Alejandro in this space before; in his own words my “adopted uncle,” he has been my Rabbi, mentor, and friend since I studied with him at the University of California at Santa Barbara, from Fall 1977 to Fall 1979, a period that began when he was fifteen years younger than I am now. And this superb volume, in which Debbie and I have been honored to make contributions, has much to teach about what “elite” really means.
Don Alejandro earned two of his degrees at Yale and one at Harvard. That record, combined with the more-than-a-handful of languages he knows fluently and probably dozens of others he can make his way in and the dozens of highest-order scholarly publications, would constitute the dictionary definition of “elite.” Except: he didn’t spend his life teaching at such a place. Rather, UCSB was was one of seven branches of the University of California, each with different specialties but all with a certain disciplinary coverage. Despite what certain of the self-deluded faculty and administration parroted in those years, I’m here to tell you that we-the-students were not all Philosopher-Kings and -Queens. Quite a cross-section, actually: I lived in the dorms, and remember a substantial proportion of lazy, entitled stoners of all colors and flavors in addition to those of us inclined to work harder and make up for lost time or weaker backgrounds than we would have liked to have had. So, an “elite” institution? Not really, regardless of how busting-with-pride my acceptance there made my father, who taught in the California State University system (the one with more inclusive admission policies, supposedly more geared to undergraduate education). Dad bought me a new (three-piece!) suit and a rebuilt c. 1930 manual typewriter even—he was just glowing! I was really happy to get in there, too—I was rather far from a straight-A student until graduate school, and the financial requirements for “elite” schools were entirely out of the discussion for our one-state-prof’s-income household. My parents were not products of super-elite schools themselves, so this was big stuff for us.
First quarter there I encountered Alejandro, and that was that; I spent the following three years following him around and Soaking It Up. His on-paper specialties were Medieval and Renaissance music, but in addition to those areas, and being a modernist composer, he could discuss anything—whatever his students were working on (Liszt and Gershwin in my case), rock music, anything. He was there, in other words, to listen and talk and grow musicians and musical learners. “I teach graduate students because it’s my job,” I heard him say once, publicly. “I teach undergraduates because I want to.” Now, it’s true that everyone has a favorite professor, but they all do not get (and I do not exaggerate) a 900-page Festschrift—that is, a volume of collected studies in one’s honor—as an 80th-birthday present. So, what schools are represented by Magister Alejandro’s friends, colleagues, and students?
Well. Oxford, Cambridge, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, the University of Utrecht, Trinity College Dublin, and the Centre d’Études Supérieures de la Renaissance in Tours, and the University of Rome, to start. Above the tree-line we find the University of Western Ontario and the University of Manitoba, and in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave we’ve got Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, Princeton, UC-Berkeley, the New England Conservatory, Eastman/University of Rochester, the University of Texas at Austin, Smith College, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, the California State University at Long Beach, the University of Northern Colorado (that’s us), West Virginia University, and Louisiana State University…
That my friends, is one hell of a far-flung group of scholars and teachers to rise up and call you Blessed. This is far and away the largest Festschrift I have ever seen, and many of the studies here really do reflect the puckishness of our Alejandrian model: an interest in performance, a certain irreverence about the sacred figures of long ago, and so on. (The closest to it that I have seen is the one devoted to Leonard G. Ratner, at whose feet I sat at Stanford, which clocks in at a mere (!) 548 pages. He, too—may his memory be for a blessing—founded a school of thought, and has admirers worldwide.
May I repeat: with a couple of brief exceptions (a year at the University British Columbia and a year at Brandeis), Alejandro’s students encountered him at UCSB—a California university that was literally on the Pacific Ocean, and which (let’s say) did not exactly maintain the admissions standards of the Jedi Academy. You see the results, repercussions, influences, echoes, and resonances throughout the scholarly and performing musical worlds.
So if I may return to the banalities addressed in my last blogpost: Justice Antonin Scalia has not the slightest idea of what a qualitative elite really is. He has nothing more than popular culture and brand-loyalty, and as I said previously, it is those of us who have attended more than one sort of academic institution who know the difference and are competent to appreciate the various contributions such institutions can make. “Prestige” is the weakest, stupidest, and most transparent criterion associated with higher education that I can think of, and of course that’s the one Scalia went to. Stick a fork in him; he’s done.