Saturday, June 9, 2012

An Education in Music, Part 1

One of my favorite bloggers, Glenn Harlan Reynolds of Instapundit, has a new book coming out titled The Higher Education Bubble. There is a review of it today in the Washington Post. I've been thinking similar things for a long time. Glenn's basic point is that a college education, like home-ownership, has been identified as one of the markers of the prosperous middle-class. Since having more members of this class is a good thing, society, in the form of government subsidy, has supported these markers. But for some odd reason, as the price of both these commodities went up the quality, in the case of the college education, went down. (There is an interesting asymmetry there that no-one seems to have pointed out: why did the quality of college education go down, but the quality of houses not?) Glenn's point is that there is a misunderstanding of causality here. Just as giving someone a McGill sweatshirt doesn't mean they have a McGill education, giving more people college degrees doesn't mean that more people are educated. As Glenn mentions, people become members of a prosperous middle class when they exhibit the right virtues: discipline, thrift, hard work and the ability to defer pleasure. Boy, is that ever a list of uncool things!

But why am I talking about all this? I have noticed the trend, but I have also noticed some other things that are not so simple and straightforward. So let me talk for a bit about An Education in Music. I come from a lower class background. I was raised on an isolated homestead in the Canadian North. It didn't even occur to me to go to university as those who did just seemed pretentious. It was my interests that ultimately sent me to university. From the time I could read, which I learned at home before going to elementary school, I read everything I could get my hands on. I read my way through at least two small town libraries. When my university-attending friends were back home on a break, we got into a discussion of one of my recent interests: ukiyo-e: Japanese woodcuts, "pictures of the floating world". I had just been reading a fascinating book on them. As they left, one of my friends casually said, "you know, you really are university material." Up until then, I hadn't thought of it. The nearest university, the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, was about a three-hour drive.

One of the reasons I hadn't thought of it was that I hated high school quite a bit. It was the late 60s and the hippie/drug counterculture was in full swing so smoking marijuana at lunch hour probably didn't help. But it was more the meager content of the curriculum that turned me off. In any case, by means of a thorough neglect of all my courses, I managed to graduate with a 53% average. Not likely to get you into university. So I went to work at various menial jobs like tree-planting, salal-gathering and clam-digging. After a year and a half, I decided to do something else! By this time I was working for a stuccoer and by the end of the summer I had a thousand dollars saved. In 1971 that wasn't as small an amount as it seems now. I could see three options: use it to attend university, buy a used Jaguar or buy a piano. I was acceptable as a 'mature' student.

By this time, you see, I had discovered classical music and was thoroughly hooked. Anyway, I decided on university and for the first time met a library I would never finish reading! One million volumes! Plus, a healthy listening library with thousands upon thousands of recordings of everything from Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic to Javanese gamelan.

My first year in university on top of my courses: Music Theory, vocal techniques, choir, lessons, German, English, Linguistics, Music History and Philosophy I managed to read half of Copleston's eight volume history of philosophy, all of Dante's Divine Comedy and a bunch of lesser stuff. This on top of listening to several LPs every day. My grade point average was A-. I loved university. So much so that I didn't get out for the next twenty-five years! I stayed on to teach.

OK, that's the background. Now for some details. Take that philosophy class, for example. Taught by Prof. Kluge right out of graduate school with a fresh PhD. This was first year philosophy and there were twenty-five people in the class. None of us had any background so he would assign readings like Berkeley's dialogues on the existence of the physical world. We would read them, get outraged at the ridiculousness of it all and the next class would be a free-form argument about it. Kluge would pace back and forth as someone ranted on and then pause, and, with a piercing glance at the student, say, "may I rephrase that?" At that point you knew you were lost because in re-phrasing, the emptiness of your argument would become evident. What does this remind you of? That's right, Socrates as depicted in the Platonic dialogues. We were getting an introduction to philosophy by actually doing it!

Some twenty years later, I was teaching guitar in this same university and a student of mine was taking this very same philosophy course taught by the very same professor. Only now, there were THREE HUNDRED students in the class. What can you do in that situation? Just lecture a bit on the history of philosophy. No actual philosophizing will take place. I told her, "you should sue someone for educational malpractice!" This same phenomenon took place in all the other non-music classes as well. My English class had fifteen students. Now, it must be four or five hundred. In order to get the kind of direct education I got in first year undergraduate, you have to be enrolled in graduate seminars. My doctoral seminars in musicology ranged from twelve to twenty people.

Now the interesting thing is that this grotesque expansion of class size from twenty-five to three hundred or more only happened in certain areas. All the humanities, of course. But in music it couldn't be done. Every music student gets a weekly private lesson on their instrument. I'm sure that administrators would like to do away with this, but a music department full of people who can't play an instrument is not gonna fly. Also, there is a limit on how big theory and ear training classes can be. Music history courses are easier, but I don't recall seeing one larger than about sixty students. I suspect similar things go on in art schools. There is a limit on how many people you can jam into a life-drawing class, I imagine. Also, in science courses, the labs have only so much equipment.

But the fact of the matter is that in any area where the university was able to jam more people into bigger classes with no obvious loss of quality, they did it. I taught one music theory course--for non-music students, let me hasten to say--where there were sixty people in the class. With a smaller class I used to give a lot of assignments which I had to mark. With sixty, I quickly cut the number of assignments in half. It just takes too long to mark sixty theory assignments! So here, unobtrusively, the quality of the education, was significantly diluted. If you give half as many assignments, the students get approximately half as much education.

I can see this will need more than one post, so I will leave you with some music. My largest class in music school back in 1971 was the University Choir. This is the first piece we performed:

Believe me, I learned more from singing bass in the choir for that piece than from anything else in first year university.

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