Monday, June 18, 2018

Reflections on Education

I think I posted this clip by Jordan Peterson a while back. It is really short, just four minutes, so have a look. Just ignore the little bit towards the beginning where they are trying to decide where his "rubric for essay writing" was posted. He gets right to the basic issue, which is, how to teach people to think:

I was reflecting on my fairly long (about thirty years) career teaching music and I realized that what I typically did was something quite similar to what he is talking about. Most of my time was spent giving individual instrumental instruction--guitar lessons in other words. I remember once being asked by a fairly bright student what it was I taught exactly. My answer "whatever you need." He found that a bit unsatisfying! But it was quite correct. Every time a student walked in the door I was presented with a variation on a single problem: what does this student need? For many it was simple technical instruction: how to hold the guitar, the best hand position, how the fingers should approach the strings, how to make a good tone, how to make different tones, and so on. Slurs, arpeggios and scales. But immediately following these issues were the musical ones: how to make a phrase, how to balance a chord, how to handle different tempos and how to do accelerandi and ritardandi. Then there is repertoire which brings with it questions of style and performance practice. Really, there are an almost infinite number of things to know and to know how to do. But each lesson was simply a response to what the student needed at the time. And yes, extremely labor intensive since the instrumental instruction model in music involves one professor and one student in a small room for one hour each week.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Peterson is talking about, I think. Sure, there are differences. For one thing, I rarely encountered a performance in the studio where there was nothing to say except, "A, good job." Every lesson was basically a taking apart of the performance and examination of the details with an eye to correcting faults and improving things. Apparently, while we still do this in music lessons, we, that is, universities (and before them public schools) have given up entirely on the idea of teaching people how to write. Peterson subtly implies that this might be a kind of conspiracy to rob people of the ability to think critically. He might be right. Or, on the other hand, maybe it is just incompetence and laziness.

I think that I have some writing skills. Where did I get them? Not from a classroom, at least, not that I recall. When I arrived at school for Grade One (there was no kindergarten where we lived) I already knew how to read. I don't recall how I learned, but I guess it was my parents. The basic idea of how to write I just picked up from reading. About the only thing I remember from all those years of English classes was in Grade Five or Six, I wrote a little thing in which I was using quotation marks to show dialogue and the teacher said something about how I was doing it wrong.

When I got to university there was an entrance exam where you had to sit in a big room and write an essay for an hour. Those who were bad were assigned to a remedial course. I passed and was put into an English literature class. They did assign a research essay, so I guess that was teaching us how to write. But I honestly don't recall the critiques I received.

I think I taught myself how to write by writing letters to the editor of the Globe and Mail when I lived in Canada and was under-employed for a year or so. You had to come in under 800 words, the subject had to be topical and you had to make an interesting point. I got so I could get about 40 to 50% accepted.

And, of course, writing this blog is another extended course in how to write.

Jordan Peterson's grim conclusion about universities is that, since they charge you a great deal of money and fail to actually teach you the most important things, like how to write, they are really instances of "indentured servitude" with students graduating $100,000 in debt. He doesn't use that phrase in this video, but it is in another one.

In the music department, I suppose we are more honest and do actually try to teach people how to play, performance majors at least. We just kind of gloss over that part where, when you go to the audition, there are two hundred other people auditioning for the same position.

After all that blather we really need an envoi. I just watched the new video, shot in the Louvre, by Beyoncé and Jay-Z called "Apeshit," but it is so astonishingly pretentious and narcissistic and so uninteresting musically that I think we should just ignore it. Instead let's have something by a really first rate musician. Mozart is the only composer I know of who wrote virtuoso concertos for himself to play on two different instruments, the piano and the violin. That guy was just way too talented. This is Ayako Uehara accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Fabio Luisi playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No 22 E flat major K 482:

Only 580 views on YouTube!


Steven Watson said...

One of the funniest and most revealing moments of my rather poorly spent university years was a letter I received after failing to hand in a crucial essay. Without asking for it, I was given what they called a 'compensatory pass' for the essay. The standards were so low they would not even let you fail.

I used to go on occasion to the hub where all the marked essays were and read some of them. They weren't locked up -- just kept out in the open in box files -- and were all anonymous of course. There was a general widespread lack of understanding when it came to fundamental things like paragraphs, punctuation -- let alone style and precision. I was and am no great writer, but I was competent, an that made me exceptional.

I also reflect (and forgive me for going on) that we never read books at university. We read extracts, occasionally a full article, though usually selectively. More optimistic tutors might try to get us to read a whole chapter of a book. But a student could (and likely would) go through his entire three years, and get a good degree, without ever having a proper experience of reading. This was probably true for me too, and I've read much more and learnt much more outside university than I ever did there. But I think this is characteristic of a historically European understanding of education and culture: it's about how one uses one's leisure. University is now about work and career, whereas it should be about leisure - in the grand old sense of 'gentlemen of leisure'. And I think people crave it. No student is motivated (except by dreary necessity) by the language of 'transferable skills' -- that will never make good writers -- whereas I think intellectually curious people -- which includes a disproportionate number of young people -- can be motivated by, say, Seneca or Burke or Engels (Engels is often brilliant, if only leftists actually read him). That's the other problem I remember seeing with many of my fellow students: their reading was limited to textbooks and secondary sources, seldom reading the original works (which are in fact usually more compelling and enjoyable). But I really am going on a bit...

Bryan Townsend said...

Going on and on, in your case, is a plus! I have been noticing, in places where you expect nothing but competent writing skills, like the Wall Street Journal and other very large media, that the ability to make the subject and verb agree seems to be getting more and more tenuous! And the ability to simply write compelling prose that engages the reader is fading as well. I find myself just skimming through most online writing. It is also a bit disconcerting to read financial advisors who do not know the difference between the verb, to advise, and the noun, advice.

There used to be a quality called being "well-read." This is becoming rare. How many people reach their maturity having read Shakespeare, Dante, Homer and T. S. Eliot, let alone Wallace Stevens and Theodore Roethke? How many have read in European history? I can recall my professors in university being surprised that I had read R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History and Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West. I also read the first few volumes of Frederick Copleston, History of Philosophy, but bogged down when I got to Kant, so I don't count that one. I did finish Bertrand Russell's History of Philosophy, though, a much easier book!

Steven Watson said...

You're too kind. You've read Spengler? I've been led to believe that's almost a hate crime in and of itself; it's high up on my to-read list.

Aye, the stigma of not being well read is a very good motivating force (at least it was for me). It's quite sad to discover that people who are otherwise intelligent have never read a single book. I recall having a 'discussion' with an old friend who accused me of being closed-minded for not watching much television (and having no desire to do so, except for the occasional exceptional show), but when I challenged him on his never reading a book, he did not see my point. For some reason we have made a virtue out of low culture -- and this has become especially true of elites, who are now nearly as illiterate and unremarkable as the rest of us, or at least pretend to be -- yet one almost feels sheepish about admitting that, yes I like the odd television show, but my perfect idle evening is spent flicking through Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and playing a Dowland fantasie (in fact I would never say that as it would likely come across as pretentious). I recall conductor Antonio Pappano complaining that British politicians were afraid to go the opera lest they be photographed and found out. Yes, there still is a stigma, it's just that it's been inverted.

Bryan Townsend said...

As I recall, The Decline of the West was rather interesting, not least because of when it was published: 1918.

I was raised in an intellectually-starved environment surrounded by low culture. Perhaps this is why I had such a hunger for high culture when I discovered it existed. Yes, we seem to be in an age of inverted snobbery!