Sunday, January 28, 2018

an educational-industrial complex, a piece on textbook prices, and a blog post with a rant about the way the system operates

For as often as I've heard people lament the negative effects of what Eisenhower called the military industrial establishment, I have come to the conclusion of the last twenty or thirty years that there is an educational industrial establishment.  We live in an era in which the possibilities for course work based on public domain resources would seem to be at a high ebb.  You could go to and download Taneyev's Convertible Counterpoint in Strict Style, if you wanted.  Not that you necessarily would ... but you get the idea.

But, of course, textbooks for college courses are still ridiculously expensive.

Now I've linked to stuff Kyle Gann has written about academia as a realm for the arts, and specifically music, in the past. He described "The Musicology Ladder" years ago.

I found it easy to sympathize with Gann's rant about the prestige racket of academic music analysis because for the most part I have not found significant long-form analyses of classical guitar literature, particularly the use of sonata forms in the literature, with the exception of some fun doctoral dissertations that have been made available online within the last ... basically five years.  Some of my blogging here has been an attempt to write some mid-length analytical writing about sonata forms in early 19th century guitar literature by ... the usual suspects but some of the neglected but still worthy subjects.  Whether I go through with an attempt to do more analysis of Molitor remains to be seen.  I like Matiegka an Sor and Giuliani a whole lot more, even Diabelli, too.  Molitor had some fun moments but ... not quite my cup of tea.  As so many scores that were previously available for free on IMSLP vanish the prospect of scholarly discuxsion of those vanishing works seems more acute to me.  But I digress.  Gann had something else to say about academia as a culture that seesm worth quoting:


In the meantime, I’ve come to understand academia better. I mistakenly thought, from my 1970s student’s perspective, that the problem was that a group of academic composers had gotten ensconced in music departments, and their stodginess and lack of creativity were preventing students from being exposed to the most exciting new music around. I have since learned that a college or university is a particular type of money-siphoning machine, and specifically a type that adheres to values foreign to the commercial world. The lack of creativity goes not from the faculty upward, but from the boards of trustees downward. Wealthy people keep the college system alive, and they do not do so disinterestedly. They want, in return on their investment, a kind of cultural prestige, and a kind that cannot be supported by any rabble-rousing populism among the faculty. [emphasis added] Arcane, difficult-to-follow academic work feeds that prestige. Sure, you can write about Laurie Anderson in that milieu – but only if you do so in jargon that talks about “postmodern modes of discourse” and “transgendering,” that makes it abstract and difficult to understand and therefore respectable – which means nonthreatening. Exciting young professors get hired (almost by mistake, it seems) and energize the students, but they eternally seem to have more trouble avoiding getting smashed by the edicts handed down from above than the punctilious ones who cloak their research in measured and arcane terminology. The sciences and social sciences in particular thrive in this environment, and they’re the backbone of the institution. Those professors are in their element, and live honest lives. Knowing them is a constant revelation. The artists, on the other hand, are at a permanent disadvantage. The most creative of them cannot present their work with the kind of empirical verifiability that translates as prestige going up the ladder – except by winning awards administrated by other universities. And those who aim for and achieve any kind of popular or commercial success virtually negate the explicit aims of the institution.

So with that kind of observation in mind, the prospect of spending years to find a way to synthesize the vocabulary of ragtime, blues, jazz and country into sonata forms and fugues would have no encouragement from academic cultures at all, let alone from the commercial side of things.  There may be those certain that such a venture is ultimately dubious because vernacular musical styles are inimical to the long-form modes of developmental argument that characterize sonatas and fugues and the like.  The people who make those assertions are completely wrong but I don't feel like belaboring that point in this particular post. 

No, we're shifting gears slightly ... because if conventional academia can be seen as a prestige racket that's something to keep in mind with the "Christian" version of the prestige racket known as Anglo-American academia.

For those who hadn't heard this or may have forgotten, there were no less than three attempts within the history of Mars Hill to start a Bible college or a seminary, or, barring that, to collaboratively make something like one.  For anyone who wants to review what I've blogged on that topic ... here's a set of tagged posts.

then there were the three attempts by people within Mars Hill Fellowship/Mars Hill Church to start a music label

Now given the failure rate of music labels and schools it would have seemed ill-advised for a church that wasn't even twenty years old to try so many times to both start a record label and some kind of Bible college or seminary but they kept trying, and the Corban collaboration was possibly in the works even during the final year. 

It may make no sense at a business level or a cultural level or even an educational level but do you want to know what level it does make sense at?  The level of prestige or status.

It's with that kind of thing in mind that a blog post by reader Cal caught my eye.

At the risk of merely touching upon the post and going in a different direction, the rise and fall of the now defunct Mars Hill Fellowship better known as Mars Hill Church might be instructive for the failures to establish either a music label or a Christian school.  Given that Mark Driscoll used to make fun of young seminarians interested in working at Mars Hill who had, so to speak, more degrees than Fahrenheit but no real world experience, it seems all the more ironic that his roughly twenty year stint at Mars Hill was punctuated by attempts to start a Bible college and that this was part of his vision from its inception.  When I was at Mars Hill and a supportive member I thought that a Christian school would be a great idea ... though I was convinced that this was going to be a second or even third generation challenge rather than something that the first generation of Mars Hill would have any business in or competency for establishing. 

It's relatively clear within the history of Mars Hill that the aim of the would-be seminary would have been to line up training for men to serve in ministry within the context of Mars Hill itself or an Acts 29 context and, to keep things rather brief, it seems that's how things played out for those who participated in Re:Train, while Re:Train lasted.  The reasons why it didn't last have never been explained in much detail for the public record.  Perhaps at some point an enterprising historian who can talk to people who were involved in the project and are both willing and able to speak for the record could tackle that ... but the most I could probably do is advocate for that kind of project.  It's not really within my range of resources, even if I've made a point of documenting things as best I can from the position I've had over the last decade or so.

But pertinent to Cal's recent musings, what could be said about the failed attempts by Mars Hill to create  a sustainable Bible college or seminary was that it was patently obvious to anyone within the Mars Hill community that the practical aim was to equip people to participate in paid ministry capacities within the Mars Hill community.  What kept it from being a mere diploma mill was the institutional connection and aim ... even if some people might have reason to feel it was ultimately a diploma mill anyway but I believe it's both charitable and responsible to propose that whatever disagreements any f us may have had with Mars HIll leadership they were really trying to create a school that had practical outcomes in mind.  In that sense the wildly toxic nature  f the leadership culture doesn't have to be what informs every last detail about that culture's efforts.  It's possible to grant an abstract positive to trying to start a record label or a school evenif there were all sorts of reasons to advise that Mars Hill lacked the resources to sustain these efforts and that these efforts were undertaken so soon within the life of a young organization that is now obviously, dead, to have been effective.

But if Anglo-American attempts at Christian schools are in thrall to the prestige racket described here and elsewhere then ... what's the point?  It's so often been said that the twelve were fishermen and people without formal education it's hardly something to make too much of, yet it's also valuable to not underestimate the obvious. 

I haven't been in an academic setting for decades and I don't miss the culture of jumping through hoops.  Soe of my favorite books to read in the last five years have been academic books.  Elements of Sonata Theory was a blast and I would say it's the most important book on sonata forms I've read since Charles Rosen's landmark monograph.  But what made it fun was that in so many ways it was an academic and necessarily theoretical exploration of ideas that I've been toying with on my own time outside an academic context steeping myself in the music of Haydn and Stevie Wonder and Ellington and a great swath of other musicians.  I find I agree with Gann about wanting music theory and the like to have a populist aim.  I feel you should be able and willing to share knowledge in a way where nobody has to charge you money for the gift of knowledge you share. 

For as often as he made fun of the nerds when it suited him, Mark Driscoll was swift to describe himself as a nerd when it suited a rhetorical moment and a practical aim.  He hasn't lost time sharing that he got a master's degree ... but it can seem that what he was in for was the status symbol aspect of the degree as distinct from the knowledge and the love of learning that can be acquired in a scholarly life.  Learning can be a source of evil as well as virtue so I hesitate to ever suggest that scholarship makes a person virtuous in itself ... and that is part of my concern about the prestige racket, that so often the prestige racket presents itself as a virtue racket when the two are not necessarily, if ever, things to be conflated in our history.  In a post Weinstein moment it would arguably be the case that a whole lot of men used their prestige, power and influence in academia in ways that were patently evil.

Which gets me to mulling over what Cal has written about how for Christians to want to emulate the prestige racket of Anglo-American academia should force people to ask why they want to emulate this culture as it has so obviously been in crisis mode over so many of its elements in the last decade and a half. 

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