Saturday, June 17, 2017

links for the weekend and a ramble on the problem of trying to cultivate "critical thinking" skills in contemporary Western education. And a frustration about cultural conservatives trying to treat Western cultural art like the canon is as closed as the books of the Bible

Over at Slate Mark Feeney describes how All the President's Men was a superhero movie for journalists

“Even before the outcome of Watergate was clear,” Robert Redford said on the set of All the President’s Men, “I thought there was a good story in how Carl and Bob were investigating Watergate.” It was just a natural. The old Hollywood’s history of infatuation with newspapering met the new Hollywood’s detestation of Nixon. Best of all, there was the way the story mirrored—no, demonstrated—the film industry’s most cherished beliefs about how happy endings can coexist with, and even triumph over, unhappy realities. The very title All the President’s Men, while ostensibly alluding to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (and, at an additional remove, “Humpty Dumpty”), also communicates a sense of great and powerful forces arrayed against its author heroes. As Alan J. Pakula, the film’s director, told one of Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington Post colleagues, “It’s inherent in the story of Carl and Bob that they have become a kind of contemporary myth” whose experience affirms “that American belief that a person or small group can with perseverance and hard work and obsessiveness take on a far more powerful, impersonal body and win—if they have truth on their side.”
By the time Nixon flew off in disgrace to San Clemente, the legend of the heroic and indispensable role of the press in foiling him was the accepted version of what had happened—a version whose acceptance was helped not a little by the phenomenal response to All the President’s Men. Published three months before Nixon’s resignation, it became the fastest-selling nonfiction hardcover in U.S. history. Two years later, the film version was released and went on to become the fifth highest-grossing movie of 1976, win four Academy Awards, and, in the opinion of no less an authority than Ronald Reagan, ensure Gerald Ford’s defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter. Even so well informed an observer as the New Republic’s John Osborne, probably the most respected and influential reporter covering the Nixon White House, could describe Woodward and Bernstein as having done more than “any officials did to expose the evil of Watergate and drive Richard Nixon from the presidency.”
The point isn’t the legend’s truth but its persuasiveness. As a newspaper editor tells James Stewart’s U.S. senator in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir, and when fact becomes legend, we print the legend!” The legend of the crusading reporter, enshrined in dozens of movies of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, was what Nixon had bumped up against and one of the reasons he could never get ahead on Watergate was precisely this: Once it became apparent that the newspapers really were onto something, people instinctively felt they already knew the story—and Nixon had to be the bad guy. Just as Watergate was the logical moral climax to Nixon’s career—the man who saw enemies in so many places finally became one to himself—so, too, was it the logical Hollywood climax. The good guys—or at least the likable guys—were the ones behind the typewriters. To Richard Nixon’s dark, dour, disingenuous matter, the Hollywood image of journalists was absolute, annihilating antimatter. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Bring Down the Government” was the way one Post editor described the first draft of William Goldman’s screenplay, which isn’t far off as a description of the final version. In real life, as on screen, how could the public not go for something like that?

We could call it the Spotlight before Spotlight. Not to say these are bad movies but I can't resist making the joke that the superhero movies reviled by film reviewers just use the superhero in direct, unmediated form, whereas the journalist-as-superhero trope disguises the convention, perhaps so effectively that journalists don't realize that what Eagleton called the dogma of a double truth, of a set of ideals for the leadership-worthy classes and the common rabble, is still in play and journalists have elected themselves to the superheroic guild that is based not on physical prowess but on social and intellectual access.

Thing is, as Batman: the animated series played out decades ago it's perfectly possible for the superhero genre to concede that there's always going to be a "one percent" or even a "top twenty percent" and to ask questions in the most direct way possible as to what we want the conduct and ethics of that ruling caste to be.  In a different way Nolan's Batman films did the same thing and while Americans with lefty leanings tend to like to say those films are fascist I wonder if that's giving British film-makers and artists too little credit for admitting that frequently impermeable class boundaries exist and asking questions about what the nature of a society is or should be.  A patrician class that refuses to publicly admit how patrician it is can feel like it's endangered by other powers.  One of the tropes of Bat-lore is that Bruce Wayne never has any doubt he's of patrician stock and was born into the world with every unfair advantage possible.  But I digress. 

Other linkage for the weekend reading:

Over the last ten years I've had this impression that's hard to shake, that what Marxists describe as "alienation" is intrinsically bound up with what Christian teaching regards as the effects of the Fall.  This potent alienation of self from others, self from self, and the articulated alienation of the self alienated from self as identity and the self alienated from self in terms of labor and its results are all things pretty well spelled out in the narrative of Genesis 3.  Marxist discussion of alienation is in so many respects reinventing the wheel of Genesis 3.  But now that I'm not at Mars Hill I would venture to say there are different ways of rediscovering old things.  Each generation has to discover in its own way things discovered before by earlier generations.  Rediscovering and reinventing the wheel is part of the human experience.  What is relatively "new" is a cultural paradigm in which whatever "we" discover can be presented as something we invented or revolutionized. 

One Jacob Siegel has a rambly insider-baseball account of a thing with the editors of two magazines:

Davis: What kinds of values do you think education should be passing on?
Deresiewicz: Ultimately, colleges have inherited the spiritual mission of churches. As religious beliefs have declined with the rise of science, especially among educated people, people started to turn elsewhere to ask the big questions: What does life mean? What is the world about? People turned to works of art, to literature, music, theater, philosophy, which were in turn brought into college curricula.
That’s what the idea of a humanities education in college is and should be about, but part of that idea has very much declined. [emphasis added] It’s not about learning a specific body of information or skills the way other parts of a college education quite properly should be. Studying the humanities is about giving yourself the opportunity to engage in acts of self reflection, seeking answers to the kinds of questions you ask yourself not in a specialized capacity—but in the general capacity of being a human being, as a citizen.
Huh, that reminds me of books I've been reading this year by David Roberts on the total work of art as a failed substitute for Catholicism as the European civic religion

One of Richard Taruskin's many polemics about music historiography and music education over the last twenty years has been that the gap between the academic canon and the repertoire canon (the gap between what university programs say you have to study and what people on the proverbial street part with their own money to go voluntarily hear) has gotten too big.  The introduction of debates about the nature of canons in education and what should be canonical introduces a wrinkle here.  One possible side effect of consequence of this ... let's just say that in a way what I write could be a case study. 

One of my college friends told me he found it fascinating that I could write about episodes of Batman: the animated series in precisely the same way I could have written about Dostoevsky novels or poetry by Wallace Stevens. In a way this is a joke because based on the criteria of academic canon you're not "supposed to" take Batman or My Little Pony cartoons to even be able to address the nature of the human condition as being at the same level as poetry by Shakespeare or Milton or novels by Nabakov.  But at another level one of the implications of a lot of theoretical debates about the nature of canon formation and modes of analysis is that it seems like we "could" do this.  You could learn the tools of the trade in college that allow you to analyze this or that on the basis of having read Tolstoy or Austen or Melville but then you can turn around and apply this thought processes to, sure, a movie by Michael Bay.  How many people who can quote Walter Benjamin even want to affirm that, yes, you could use the Bayformers franchise as a way to describe where we are now.  You could do this for Star Trek, too.

That's all rambling set up for quotes from this:

Go to Inside Higher Ed, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or read reports from Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and you will discover that the humanities are in decline. Enrollments and majors continue to plummet.
But humanities professors themselves, like a delicatessen owner selling spoiled meat and blaming business failure on the vulgarization of consumer taste, fault their students. “All they care about is money,” they complain. “Twitter has reduced their attention span to that of a pithed frog.”
We tell a different story. For decades, literature professors have argued that there is no such thing as “great literature” but only things called great literature because hegemonic forces of oppression have mystified us into believing in objective greatness. One of the commonly taught anthologies among literature professors, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, paraphrases a key tenet of cultural studies: “Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.” (Editor's Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct a statement about the anthology.)
But if Shakespeare and Milton are no more important than any other “cultural artifact or practice,” and if they are to be studied only “insofar as” they connect with other social factors and not because of “some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values,” then why invest the considerable effort to read them at all? Perhaps students who don’t take literature courses are responding rationally to their professors’ precepts?
The language about “how cultural meanings are produced, circulated and consumed” gropes for the prestige of something hard, unsentimental and materialistic -- in short, for economics, as a literature professor might imagine it. It appears that humanists’ key strategy for saving their disciplines has been to dehumanize them.

Now, sure, it's functionally an ad for a book.  But the concern is interesting.  The university systems as we know them in the West developed in the context of institutional churches with their literally religious concerns about a literary canon.  If you abandon this concept altogether yet still commit to the ideal that higher education should be about inculcating in people the capacity to acquire and employ critical thinking skills how do you set about doing this without a canon?  Can you do it?  For all the disadvantages canons have within poly-cultural contexts what a unified canon "could" provide is a common point from which all possible divergent readings could take place.  Christians can all debate about the appropriate interpretation of the Bible because while Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants of the Reformed or Wesleyan or Lutheran or Anglican or Pentecostal or Baptist or Mennonite or Moravian varieties may all disagree on various meanings and applications on a particular sacred text they will, at the very least, agree on what the sacred text is even if they can't agree on precisely who wrote the text and how authoritative and in what way said sacred text should be. 

Some of the battles in the last thirty years in higher education might have been to point out that if critical thinking skills are the goal we don't need a canon to inculcate those, do we?  Maybe we don't.   "If" we don't need a set canon in the arts for higher education then, as the authors quoted above propose, maybe it's a rational decision on the part of a lot of students to forego arts education in favor of picking up analytical skills in other ways.  This wouldn't have to be the STEM route that humanities fans sometimes fear, it could be history or political theory or ... maybe sociology and anthropology?  But in a way that gets us back the conundrum of the canon.  There is a canon of respected writings and contributors to the history of science., isn't there?  Newtonian physics may have needed a suppelement but Newton's place was not removed. 

What seems so lame about a swath of conservative and reactionary thought is this insistence that any attempt to add to the canon or supplement it might as well be the same as attacking the canon itself.  Look, I get why Christians would say you should not and cannot add books to the Bible.  We have those ecumenical councils and stuff.  But the idea that the canon, however we define that, in the arts, can't be a cumulative and additive thing seems stupid.  I admit that even if I were told by professors in college that Shakespeare or Hemmingway are real literary art I still enjoy Spiderman and Batman comics more than either of those, though the Bard really is pretty good.  I just admit that I like John Donne's poetry a little more if I get to choose Elizabethan era writers.  Even though both Beethoven and Mozart are regarded as more 'profound' than Haydn I disagree.  Haydn was the true luminary of that era if I "have" to pick one.  I'd rather not.  I even like Clementi's later sonatas more than much that I've heard by Mozart.  I've heard people actually gasp when I say that. 

But if we take this idea seriously that higher education is supposed to imbue us with critical thinking skills should we be that surprised if different people reach different conclusions about the arts? 

I guess I'm going to swing this back to my admiration for Haydn and how it can be explained in terms of his life and times.  Mozart and Beethoven's work, particularly after they both died, was anointed as canonical by the classes that identified with the marvelous beauty and ambition of the music.  There's a crude explanation that seems apt, the emerging middle class and entrepreneurial set could see themselves in Mozart and Beethoven because these were the two guys who were entrepreneurial about how they wrote their music and marketed their music.  Haydn was vastly more popular but he was working for the Man, for the Esterhazy court.  Even if Mozart and Beethoven were thoroughly indebted to the influence and interest of Haydn by the 19th century Haydn was admired and then, for want of a better way of putting it, ignored.  He had been canonized to the paradoxical effect of being sidelined.  As music theory began to explain forms with reference to the "deeper" composers, Haydn's more opaque and mercurial approach got shunted over to the side.  Richard Taruskin has, with cause, used Haydn as a case study of how the gap between what the textbooks tell us a sonata is supposed to be and what Haydn actually did couldn't be larger.  Haydn's unpredictable and whimsical approach to forms is so notorious that even in Elements of Sonata Theory, Hepokoski & Darcy just concede they drew more from Mozart and Beethoven and other composers for discussing formal options because Haydn was so playful it was hard to articulate any rules  about form from what he did.

Getting back to Deresiewicz's concerns about higher ed., I'm reminded of how I was advised by the late William Lane back when I was in school that if I did go into graduate studies for biblical literature to steer clear of the Ivy League.  He said the Ivy League had, unfortunately, lost its way and was completely sold out to what he called "the guild mentality".  It was all about the self-reinforcing dynamics of the guild doing things for the academic guild.  If you wanted to go into biblical studies with an eye toward serving the Church and as an act of serious Christian service he advised to go elsewhere and basically treat the Ivy League like a non-option.  That was, at the risk of reminding myself of the passage of time, more than twenty years ago.  It doesn't mean big schools can't generate wonderfully useful scholarship.  I've already name-dropped academics associated with the biggest possible schools in Western education.  Even in a case like, say, Taruskin, he's so committed a polemicist that there are plenty of people who maybe just barely grant he's a scholar at this point.  As a guitarist I've got my own little issues with his Oxford history of aired here at this blog. 

I suppose in our era of Trump the handwringing about critical thinking skills seems unfortunate because I get this sense that there's a set of assumptions laying behind invocations of critical thinking skills.  Who's to say that critical thinking skills, whatever they are, can be "taught"?  I've heard people say that you can't really teach jazz, not really.  Setting aside for the moment the annoying tendency of this kind of bromide being uttered by literal white guys ... no, wait, let's not set that aside!  I'm thinking here about Noah Berlatsky's riff against white guys like Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau using their roles as journalists to police the purity of black musicians; or a corresponding use of the role of the critic to condemn wholesale that genre of music known as prog rock.  I've had mixed feelings about prog rock all my life, loving parts of it and hating other parts of it and Haydn, in a word, has been my "answer", a composer who realized that you can do an awful lot with just a few hooks.  I view prog rock as a fine transitional experiment in high/low fusion of the sort I think a lot of us want to hear take shape, whether it's prog rock or Miles Davis' fusion period. 

Sometimes, and this is just me ranting for the weekend, I feel like the worst stuff that happened in Western academia all seemed to happen in the "long 19th century".  I've been anti-Romantic in my sympathies and convictions for a long time.  It's not without beauty or value.  I love some music by Chopin and to the extent that the Transcendentalists inspired Charles Ives that is the limit of my regard for them. 

But the canon status given to Beethoven and Mozart over Haydn exemplifies my recurring frustration with an approach to an artistic canon.  What's seemed clearer and clearer to me as I immersed myself in the early 19th century guitar sonatas on the one hand and in Hepokoski & Darcy's work on sonata forms on the other is that we're rediscovering fairly basic stuff about the 18th century music that's called "classical music". We're reinventing a wheel but we're reinventing it because, as I see it, we've been sold a bill of goods about the 18th century approaches to form by 19th century German idealists who, in the process of filtering the ideals of high art through their idolatry of Beethoven and Mozart, misrepresented the literature of the 18th century they were proposing to elucidate in the process. 

Part of me wants to go on at length about the beef I have with the Romantic era prescription of the "plan" in music composition vs the "Script" as was elucidated by Leonard B Meyer but it's the weekend and I wrote all that stuff earlier.

Recovering a more script based approach to sonata would open up the possibilities of incorporating ragtime and blues into sonata forms.  My worry sometimes is that the debates about the canon of Western music or the battles over cultural appropriation is that we have people enforcing purity codes that don't even have the explicitly religious foundations that could at least get them on the "sanctity" scale Jonathan Haidt has talked about in his work.  This might be where what people on the left call neoliberalism gets easier to identify.  Maybe it's what is going on when someone like Ethan Iverson vents that he dreads that Star Wars movies and pop music might pass for high culture in a century if we don't defend jazz and classical.  That the Beastie Boys ended up as "classical music" was one of the tossed off punchlines in Star Trek Beyond.

But, like I was saying, it is the weekend. 


blert said...

What seems so lame about a swath of conservative and reactionary thought is this insistence that any attempt to add to the canon or supplement it might as well be the same as attacking the canon itself.

The problem is that education has limited resources, time being the most precious and limited of these. A university teacher has one or two semesters with most non-majors to impart upon them the critical skills to engage with literature, music, or other arts. An attempt to revise the canon is essentially an attempt to exclude X in favor of Y. And if Y is no longer taught, despite being a foundational piece of the canon for generations, then this attempt to change the canon is an attack on the canon.

Yes, the canon changes over time. Sometimes this reflects changing tastes or politics. Sometimes additions reflect genuinely important new contributions to art. What doesn't change is the amount of time that teachers have to teach material to students. When something ceases to be taught in schools, it becomes an obscure footnote, engaged with only by scholars, which is why people fight back against canon changes.

And if the proposed changes to the canon are rooted in politics, where what is being pushed is plainly artistically inferior to what is being pushed out, then it is entirely justified to fight back.

The canon is not merely about preferences and tastes, and it's perfectly normal that individual tastes and opinions about what is great art deviate from the canon, particularly among people with specialist depth in the field. The canon serves the purpose of a shared cultural foundation. It's agreed among most people that this set of texts, compositions, or artworks are critically important for everyone to know. Their importance may be because of their innovation, influence on others, popularity over time, or other factors. Specialists will always delve deeper and wider in the field. The canon exists chiefly for teachers, defining shared cultural touchstones for what every person with a basic familiarity with the subject ought to know.

It's no surprise, then, that when a culture shifts from primarily a monoculture to a pluralistic multiculture, the result is divisive fights about the canon as it has existed. It is a cultural battle. The outcomes are that the existing canon triumphs largely intact, that an alternate canon supplants it, or that the idea of canon collapses entirely, with individual teachers teaching wildly different sets of texts and students receiving nothing resembling a common educational experience.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Institutional education definitely has a lot of limits.

My complaint about the left has been that by and large anyone who's able to quote anyone from the Frankfurt school doesn't usually grasp how he or she is soaked in what is today labeled "privilege". It was not entirely without cause Brecht regarded the Frankfurt school types as lame poser wannabe Marxists shackled to middle-class art. Not that I'm actually a Brecht fan at all, but it's been weird to see liberal/left folks championing critical theory in Anglo-American journalism. There's a handful of ideas from that wing I consider interesting but Adorno's "On Jazz" has been reacted to as though it's the work of a racist elitist jerk with some cause.

Option three of the three you mention at the end of your comment seems like the most likely outcome in the United States and the one that has transpired in the last twenty years. Reading Kyle Gann vent at his blog about how his book on Ives' Concord Sonata got stymied by peer review demands that he address gender identity issues when he wanted to just write a monograph on the actual published score of the Concord Sonata reminded me why I was glad I never ended up in academia!