Saturday, July 14, 2018

Rod Dreher links to a piece at The Baffler about student debt disasters--some gloomy diffuse musings on how higher education may embody the problems it would purport to solve thanks to its bond with finance

It's a long read, and Dreher's commentary is relatively to the point.

In fact I don't feel any need to really quote from it because it just reminded me of a friend of mine, also from Generation X, who told me years ago that he felt he was sold a bill of goods about college.  He felt like he was sold an idea that if you just go to the right school and get the right degree the whole job thing takes care of itself.

It's obviously not true.

But colleges and higher education more generally depend upon people like you or me or my friend buying into the idea that you can't put a price on a full-bodied education.  You sure as hell can, actually, and the lending industry seems to be aware of just how much money a well-rounded education can cost, just as administrators and bureaucrats who decide how many core courses you have to take before you're even allowed to graduate with a degree in a field of study that you initially wanted to pursue to begin with certainly seem to know.

One of my friends inc ollege graduated a year or so later than I did and he called me one day to say he was furious when he realized that the school we both went to went from describing itself as a four-year institution to having a "five-year" degree for undergraduates.  They just blithely went from saying it would take four years to five years and for the tuition rates we were paying that was no small amount of money!

I opted to stop at a B.A. in a useless field of study in job market terms.  My journalism degree didn't help me land a whole lot of jobs.  It was clearly a lot of value for time and money spent  when I got around to chronicling the peak and ruin of Mars Hill. 

But I realized while I was still in college there wasn't really a job market for an interest in literature, philosophy, let alone music or music history.  I settled on journalism as the field of interest, amid all my probably "useless" interests in job market terms, as having something close to a market place.  But a few years before I graduated I realized that there was probably not a job out there for me.  On the other hand, the prospect of changing majors three years in was a foolish venture.  All that would have meant was changing the kinds of hoops I'd have to jump through because I'd worked out that despite the claim that all the general rounded education hoops I had to jump through in high school was preparation for focused study in college it turned out the first two years of college were just preparation you had to do before you were allowed to enter a program.  They had you on the hook with general education requirements to stay for basically twice as long as you'd need to actually attend to get the focused study that you would have thought was part of your degree, rather, the core of it.

Finding all of this objectionable, even finding it to be a kind of prestige racket scam, isn't the least bit the same as being anti-intellectual or anti-scholarly.  I'm reading almost half a dozen books by Theodore Adorno because it's fun, for crying out loud.  I finished Richard Taruskin's five volume Oxford History of Western Music.  I'm getting back into his roughly 1,200 page Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, too.  I've got a pile of Ellul books in the reading list.  Reading a book on Bartok and Hungarian nationalism.  Still early into a book on Poland and East Germany in the Cold War period.  I'm slogging through Joseph Campbell's notorious book.  So I'm reading stuff.  I'm looking at taking up blogging about Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  But I'm temporarily sidelined by other stuff offline and I'm intrigued in taking up some writing about Zaderatsky's 24 preludes and fugues as well as Henry Martin's 24 preludes and fugues.  I'm interested in 20th and 21st century fugal cycles.  When volume 2o f Michelle Gorrell's cycle is finally ready to be published by Boosey & Hawkes I look forward to ordering part 2. 

But I don't regret only getting as far as an undergraduate dgree in journalism.  I can't see that getting a master's degree or a doctorate would help me learn more or be more scholarly.  I feel like I practically wrote a master's thesis on 19th century guitar sonatas as it is.  Now it's not really a thesis level thing as I wrote it, of course.  I'd need to have tackled the extent sonatas of Matiekga and Molitor before I'd feel like I had really made it a master's thesis level length project.  I ... might consider doing that at some point.  Matiegka's worth the trouble to me but life is busy. 

But all that is to say that if I had had to go through the routines and jump through the hoops of grad school I am not altogether sure I'd have had time to tackle this stuff and I am not convinced by what I have been able to see of academic publishing that there's exactly a place for the kind of writing I do and have done about 19th century guitar sonatas.  I am also not sure there's a place in academia as it is for thousands of words theorizing on how ragtime can be synthesized with sonata forms because the prestige racket seems to be in place and because people committed to essentialist narratives about what is supposed to be construed as white or black music seem to have too much at stake in reinforcing the stereotypes that should be getting dismantled within the academy.  It feels like reactionaries are committed to a "universal" set of artistic values that are a stand-in for defending a canon rather than opening the field to applied study of other music on the one hand, and reactions to the reactionary stance may be sincere and well-intentioned but get trapped in the modes of polemic and discourse established by the protocols (or inertia) of academy.  I can tell you (all forty readers, maybe?) that I can write as many thousands of words about why "Living for the City" is a work of musical genius as I can about Matiegka's appropriation of themes from Haydn's piano trios for Grand Sonata II. 

And my polemic point for this post is that I can do all that without actually being in academia. 

But what the Baffler piece skims is that the author in question got married, which strongly indicates the author in question was also dating.  This may tie back to my earlier writing this weekend about how within the confines of a middle class existence there can be a tension between art-self and sex-self.  Statistically if straight people in a relationship have sex for long enough a time babies can result and there's a tension between the understanding of the art-making self and the baby-making self that may be unique in some respects to the middle class.  Some of those tensions go away if you reconcile yourself to the likelihood that a scholarly life is a kind of, well, monastic existence.  But in the last century or so the artist has become a kind of prophet or seer or art-priest but rather than some kind of residual vow of celibacy there might be a tacit or explicit vow of, well, profligacy?  Like artists in the post-Romantic tradition can almost seem as though they have an informal vow to get laid rather than not. 

Years ago The Atlantic had a write-up about various authors who chose not to have children and in the span of the article there was no indication that any of those authors who expounded upon their decision to never have children were people who were celibate.  If you're not having sex then there's no "decision" to not have children because the very possibility of them is generally moot. 

In the years since I turned my attention back toward arts writing and coverage in the wake of the Mars Hill collapse I've been negatively impressed.  It is hard to shake the sense that higher education in the United States is a prestige racket.  People absolutely learn wonderful things and write interesting stuff.  I'm not against any of that, but the educational system seems like a bill of goods, like a cabal dedicated to a priesthood of art religion in the liberal arts that seems like a grotesquely inflated bubble.  That doesn't mean I think the people who are fixated on STEM necessarily have a better or healthier conception of college education.  The idea of free college for everyone sounds like a recipe for disaster.  That's like telling everyone that high school officially gets to last eight or nine or ten years rather than a mere four years and for what?  What jobs are going to be out there that require a liberal arts degree or an engineering degree, even? 

One of my teachers in high school decades ago said that the problem with American education as a whole in comparison to European models was that the baseline assumption was that every student educated could be expected to one day be a senator or a representative or a part of the political gentry or aristocracy and this meant there was functionally no training in the trades and skills that would be more useful in the general economy and society.  A variant (since this guy was German) of a Germanic critique of Anglo-American educational paradigms was penned by Paul Hindemith (which I've already referenced a few times) in which he said that American music education produced music teachers and not rounded amateur musicians.  The educational culture was designed to be self-perpetuating.  The longer I live and read about the various crises that crop up in higher education the harder it is to shake the sense that the rot is in the core conception of American ideals about higher education.  The higher education paradigm seems geared toward a residually aristocratic notion of a well-rounded thought leader/scholar patrician rather than toward useful, gainful employment.  This problem probably cannot be ameliorated merely by shoving everyone into STEM or service oriented training.  The problem of the years-gobbling "general education" requirements will still be there. 

One of the conundrums about all of this is that if you express reservations about the problems in academia as it has developed in the last thirty years the easiest rebuttal someone with an interest in academia could roll out is to say you're anti-intellectual.  Or there can be a comment about the predatory nature of capitalism.  Well, I wonder about whether that predatory nature isn't the way of the world seeing as capitalism is one way that original sin works itself out in one historical context while it works itself out in other ways in other contexts.  Yes, I invoked original sin.  I don't think we live in an era in which it makes sense to assume that inherited and dispositional temptations to evil for personal or in-group gain can be warded off merely by adherence to a dogmatic orthodoxy.  It doesn't mean I don't care about orthodoxy.  I mean, I've said a few times I go to a Presbyterian church.  But what I'm saying as I have over the years is that doctrinal orthodoxy BY ITSELF is no assurance of ethical conduct.  What we've been seeing in the last ten years is that the flags denoting team loyalty are not turning out to be the least bit reliable indicators of how not-abusive a man in power or with influence can turn out to be. 

Particularly as a former Mars Hill member I am dubious abou the idea that merely switching ideological loyalties will cure the cultish mentality that was fostered there.  If someone was a Mars Hill member and is now a blue state voter rather than a red state voter all that has changed is the flag rallied to not the totalitarian cult-like mentality that was observable within the confines of the community online.  I'm not talking about friends I made who were self-identified progressives eight years ago who were at Mars Hill.  I am aware that in popular journalistic imagination there could not have possibly been Christian progressives or anarchists at a place like Mars Hill but there were.  The thing is I've got no truck with the people who were progressive then and have stayed progressive.  We differ on a few points of policy questions but we get along well.  My concern is more about those people who were red state then and have decided to be blue state now.  Or those who decided to MAGA things.  These are people who have transferred what I believe is still foundationally a cultish mentality to the realm of politics.  All blather about "functional savior" in mind, there are people who are set on reverse-engineering for themselves a red  state Jesus and a bleu state Jesus and they do not recognize that these reverse-engineering projects make for an American Jesus that is a false Christ and an antichrist.  It's not a matter of the POTUS being the antichrist merely if the "wrong" person gets the jbo, I say it's the very nature of the job, as it is for any world leader position.

How does that connect to higher education?  Well, to be combative about the point, academia is the priesthood within which the powers that be get defended.  Attempting to reform the canon or create a theoretically post-canonical world will fail because that is to misconstrue what the function of academies has been for as long as there have been academies.  To seek to remove rather than reform a canon is to seek to remove the basis for higher education at its core.  If you don't want a canon then you functionally don't want an academy.  That's why I'm willing to say I think we need an additive, reformist-minded poly-canonic aim in higher education but I can't bring myself to say that we should have a post-canonic higher educational scene.  To argue for that is, I think, able to be sincere and even well-intentioned but unfortunately naïve about the nature of higher education as a whole. 

The Baroque era with its panoply of styles and theories seems like what we should try to conceptually recover as applicable to higher education and the arts, if we're going to try for that.  But I have had my doubts about the health and viability of higher education in American society for a decade or so.  I wanted to be an academic in my twenties and now I'm grateful I didn't manage to become one and it's obvious (I hope!) that this had nothing to do with a loss of love for learning or study. 

I think we should work at restoring or developing a new kind of unskilled labor market.  People who think the problems of the contemporary American job market can be fixed by making college available for everyone are makin ga mistake.  If our whole educational paradigm of the well-rounded jack of all trades scholar was predicated in any way on an aristocratic leadership paradigm then to focus on legacies of white racism or white supremacism without examining the class element is going to make a mistake, a dangerous category mistake because it wasn't as though American Indians didn't have caste systems or slavery themselves. 

I'm worried that American discourse has devolved on race in ways that have come at the expense of class considerations, which is why it's far, far easier for me to take progressives and post-Marxist thinkers seriously than mainstream liberals--mainstream liberalism has finessed the extent to which it is tied to the upper twenty percent.  How many people who would consider themselves loyal blue state voters would nonetheless reject the idea of abolishing legacy admissions for prestigious schools?  Even a Ted Kennedy could sign off on getting the Navy aircraft carriers the Navy didn't even need for the sake of shipyard jobs.  Blue state people need to remember that a nation run by cosmopolitan city-states is not necessarily going to make American life more democratic.  When Clinton ran with "I'm with her" and replied that America already is great there are reasons she lost the electoral vote, some of which "may" have to do with Russian hacking but some of which have to do with comprehensive gerrymandering the DNC didn't seem interested enough in to stop, on the oone hand, and on the other hand, the implicit claim in the America-already-is-great rebuttal to a MAGA slogan invites a question of for whom America is already great? 

Some of the newly aware sentiment of the moment could potentially be a mask.  #TimesUp isn't necessarily a worst cause cause but if there are fewer women directing now than there were a few years ago then what if all we're getting is more STAR women directors and fewer women directors in practice?  That can't really be what we want for the film industry, is it?

That ties somewhat directly to the crises of academia because, as I've said, there's probably no plausible case to be made that academia will ever be post-canonic because that misconstrues what academia has been for millennia.  To put it another way, if you hear Beyoncé songs all over the radio or Katy Perry songs or Taylor Swift songs there's still a corporate culture.  It may look more feminine and be more diverse and it's not even to say the new songs are even necessarily bad, it's that the academia plays a potential role in ameliorating a relationship to power that it mediates without necessarily considering that the alternative isn't likely to be a post-canonical pedagogy, it's going to bee a new canon with a suitably adjusted pedagogy. 

Now maybe letting the proverbial market decide is going to be worse because as highbrows have lamented since millennia ago the stupid masses keep picking stupid stuff.  Ancient Greece had some equivalent to what we might call Michael Bay movies. 

What an academic approach could address is, perhaps, saying that Michael Jackson became the King of Pop in a way that is comparable to how Josef Haydn became "Papa" who inspired Mozart and Beethoven.  I think that poptimists in music and musicology could benefit immensely from going back to Haydn because Haydn and his generation (loosely defined) give us a "classical" music tradition that predates German idealism and the emergence of art religion and its more nefarious elements.  There's always stuff to reject and we should certainly not be in a rush to just say Beethoven shouldn't be studied at all--a bit too much of the polemics against the established Germanic canon seems to forget the Americanist canon that will go up in its place.  We're not going to get a post-canon pedagogy, we'll just eventually get a pedagogy geared toward a new canon.  Perhaps that canon will move away from the literate music tradition in favor of technologically mediated music but that will be a shift from one canon to another.  Sgt. Pepper is not going to just get obliterated from the pop canon just because the literate musical tradition is considered secondary or elite. 

My skepticism about post-canonic arguments isn't with the altruism that its advocates are trying to bring to a more open-ended approach.  I think we need a more additive and open-ended approach to canon but if we step back and think about this stuff this crisis of canon is precipitated by technological advance and archiving capacity.  The crisis is that if we can survey the entirety of Western music in on-page form why can't we do this for recorded music mediated by vinyl records, cassettes, CDs and so on?  It's not that a Richard Taruskin has to write about that in an Oxford History of Western music that explicitly limits its scope to music on the page, it's that the historians and musicologists who could write a comparable history of mechanically recorded and technologically mediated music in the computer/machine sense of the term (as if pen and paper weren't themselves technology) have not gotten the ball rolling to the point where a comparable Oxford-style, ahem, canonical narrative, has been published yet.  That gets at the paradoxical improbability of any post-canonical musical pedagogy. 

Rather than academics or journalists rising to meet this challenge who seems to have the time, leisure and energy to spare for chronicling this stuff?  Fans. 

And the thing about fans, of course, is that none of them have to actually go get a master's degree in a liberal arts program to be able to share their love of something.  What academics can provide, in theory (ahem) is a historical context for how this or that thing developed.  That will keep happening ... but I wonder if it may be better to warn people who are going in for advanced degrees that perhaps they should recognize that they are monastics.  They're not taking a vow of poverty in the old school poor sense, but they should be told they are making a vow of debt slavery given the way college educations get financed and then, like a would be monastic, be given a chance to consider whether that's really what they want to do with their lives.

Because it seems more and more treating higher education like a ticket to being middle class is obviously a lie and it's also not true to say that you "should" go get the degree because in the end you make more money.  Maybe you do but correlation and causation have to be kept in mind. 

Adorno was wrong to assume that what he called the culture industry was incapable of making art.  Thriller holds up as a great pop album, just as Innervisions hold up remarkably, too.  But ... academics who would like this music to be taken seriously and discussed seriously have to step back and consider that there's a gigantic corporate apparatus that made this music possible, what the Soviets regarded as the decadence of Western imperialist capitalism.  Hip hop has become the biggest selling genre in the world in the last few years and how did it become that?  What market forces were at work?  Which empires have produced and distributed hip hop as a popular style?  For leftists and progressives who committed themselves to the literate music tradition (Gann and Halle come to mind) hip hop is a variant of popular music which is the new hegemonic influence.  It's technologically machine-mediated popular culture that is the hegemony against which the Western literate musical traditions can be thought of as constituting a dissident bulwark by musicians in that tradition with green and progressive and socialist sympathies but because within academic contexts that canon is "the" canon, people who would advocate for a post-canon pedagogy are in a paradoxical position of trying to get the most popular styles of music on earth from the last century taken seriously in an academic context. 

Theory has not caught up to practice, which might be a sign that compare to the theory-first approaches of the 20th century that there's a sense in which theory lagging behind popular practice means we've gotten back to a "normal".  If we look at how that "normal" looked over the last fifteen hundred years it might not be so surprising that a lot of that "normal" involved a lot of starkly stratified class and caste systems.   It's not clear to me why academia would now suddenly be the antidote to rather than the embodiment of those historic modes of social stratification. 

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