On cultural education

19 01 2009

Above: the finale of Maurice Bejart’s version of Le Sacre du Printemps

I have been commenting to AG about one of the greatest cultural travesties that I have witnessed lately. With the rise of the MP3 player and other gadgets, my listening to the local classical music radio station, KDFC, is limited to when I am driving. The brief times I do listen, however, I have noticed that they have started to play music from the film scores of recent box office hits. (The last piece I heard was some symphonic suite from Pirates of the Caribbean.) Normally, I am not that disturbed by the general cheapening of the cultural discourse in this country. Part of me, however, found this musical selection completely unacceptable. You have 800 years of continuous musical development in the Western world, from St. Hildegard von Bingen to Osvaldo Golijov, and you are going to play film music from Star Wars? Sorry, the whole idea is repugnant to me.

Of course, all of this brought me back to the rural barrio of my youth in the early 1990’s, a hundred miles south of here. At that time, all I had was a dinky small clock radio that was passed down to me second hand by my mother. I would stay by it with my ear to the small speaker and listen to the same radio station as it broadcasted classical music from San Francisco. Though obviously commercialized even then, I would get very excited when they deviated from the usual play list of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. I remember when they would broadcast concerts that featured the works of Bela Bartok and Toru Takemitsu, and they would play a Steve Reich piece in the not so late evening hours. I remember as a boy of 13 the excitement I experienced when I heard Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps for the first time on the radio. I had my uncle’s music appreciation textbook that he had left in my grandmother’s house when he became the first person in my family to go to college, and I would check off in my head the composers mentioned in that book when they played them on the Bay Area radio station. Later, when I was fourteen, I worked a summer job and the first things I bought with my wages were a CD player and some CD’s of Mahler symphonies, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. At that time my family also started going to the library in Gilroy that had an interlibrary loans system, and I would check out CD’s of everything from De Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame to Alban Berg’s Lulu.

Do I say all of this to brag? Maybe a little bit. But it all started out with a small radio and a commercial classical music station that still had some class, and without it, who knows where I would be? For all I know, there is some kid in that same HUD project listening to the same dinky radio looking for culture in a farm community , and all he is getting John Williams scores. And he will never get a chance to know this wide world of cultural richness, though arguably there is the Internet now. But I lament that the free airwaves which are most readily available to all seem to be increasingly dominated by cultural smut.

Though what I have written here is the best example of being able to gripe personally to the four winds in cyberspace, there is another point to it. It seems the Internet is full of experts who will argue into the wee hours of the night about the significance of a Scriptural passage or a paragraph of Immanuel Kant, but who cannot name one major choreographer of the twentieth century or tell you what iambic pentameter is. They may even be able to cite large passages of St. Thomas Aquinas without ever having slaved over a single passage of Ciceronian prose in the original Latin. They may be weaving their wonderous syllogisms of Christian theology while listening to Radiohead and eating a bag of Cheetos. (I like the spicy hot kind, though not while I am typing.) I tend to find how they write and think to be about a mile deep and an inch wide. Just because you can cite a few Greek phrases and you know what Heidegger’s Dasein is doesn’t automatically make you cultured, nor does it make you a competent authority. The questions you are asking are not like looking under the hood of a car and fixing the problem by looking at the manual. The problems go much deeper than that.

If our saturated means of electronic communication have made something worse, it is the American tendency to be ignorant of history. This is clearly evident in the few websites I do read. Even there it feels that arguments are often made in a very narrow and dim box into which broader issues of culture and historical memory cannot enter. That is why I tend to focus here on what it means to be a human being, and to be so honestly in this day and age and no other. For me, that does include an education in everything from knowing how to say the rosary to being able to comment on the technique of a particular ballerina. (AG is helping me on the latter.) My exhortation to my readers in cyberspace is that even if the things of high culture are being increasingly rejected by the masses and the market, you still have access to them. Use it.

Dame Margot Fonteyn


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15 responses

24 01 2009
Daniel Mitsui

Personally, I loathe iambic pentameter.

23 01 2009
e.

“I hope not to ofend by saying that there’s nothing in Arturo’s responses that can make one think he was talking about you. (Maybe about me…. )”

No offence taken.

In fact, in my opinion, there is nothing said supra that would go on to even suggest incidentally that the very same ignorance so lamented and detested herein as regards others may perhaps also exist with respect to the above interlocutors.

22 01 2009
Diotima Terpsichore, (lusitana combatente)

random Orthodox chick

“”I know firsthand that no one is going to care about the form of a ballerina if they can’t even afford admission to the ballet.””

I very much care about the forms that the ballerina dances, and I “very much” can’t afford admission to the ballet.

To tell you the truth, many of the greatest artists couldn’t either. And mostly it is this **””type of people””** exactly that are rather avoided by the art-lovers, and others.

22 01 2009
Diotima Terpsichore, (lusitana combatente)

Dear e.
I wholly agree with your second coment, and find it important.
“”there is that atrocious snobbery that carries with it the putrid air of superiority, which would deny persons of lower classes or even the supposedly lesser races””

Honestly, I think the reasons there’s so much ignorance, is at least half – if not more – responsability of this snobbery and arrogancy, which keeps all knowing and learning far from people desperately seeking for it, and from others who would learn if teached.

In my very special life, I have come across that many times. And my blog, every day.

PS-
I hope not to ofend by saying that there’s nothing in Arturo’s responses that can make one think he was talking about you.
(Maybe about me….:))

22 01 2009
e.

Arturo,

Thank goodness!

For a moment there, you had me going.

In fact, when I first read those remarks, I came to almost doubt that these had actually come from you.

After all, it seemed unlikely to me at first that comments as horrible as these should come from the one whose previous remarks either here or Sacramentum Vitae, seemed to carry within them some morsel of spiritual wisdom (particularly when it dealt with some aspect of theology as well as when it was reflective of certain wisdom from the ancients).

I hope to extend the humblest apology if I have been mistaken in my first reading of them.

21 01 2009
Arturo Vasquez

e.,

I was not aware that I was attacking anyone in particular, and certainly not you. If you were under that impression, I do apologize.

21 01 2009
e.

Arturo,

I’m not entirely sure why you insidiously resorted to ad hominems in your above comments; not only that, but to have actually gone even to the extent of calumny as to engage in mendaciolum.

I’m not so sure now as to the manner of your erudition (or perhaps even lack thereof given your most recent remarks as well as to Catholic principles you supposedly espouse), but gentlemanly conduct would dictate that, firstly, you do not attack your guests merely because (for some odd reason) their opinions seem not in keeping with your own and, secondly, vehemently attack their person for no good reason other than to make a mockery of them and, worse than this, manufacture hideous lies about them in order to discredit them.

I would humbly suggest that you repent of what seems to me an arrogant pride and any other uncharitable activity as this and beg you to look to the Franciscans as your model, lest you fall into the impudenta of Luther!

21 01 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think what is at issue here is the Internet pundit who thinks he is smart and well-formed, not the average person. As I have said before, I do not expect the average person to care about any of this or to even know the first Latin declension. But if you are going to make a pretense of tackling the loftiest questions of philosophical or theological knowledge, and what is more, pretend to teach others about it, a greater formation of soul will be needed other than just looking stuff up on Wikipedia. That is what I am talking about, not issues of the general knowledge level of the masses, which is, and always will be, abysmal.

21 01 2009
random Orthodox chick

Then there are those who are well acquainted with the common aspects of “high culture”, but think the model of an atom looks like planets orbiting the sun, the pH scale really is 0 to 14, or that spaceships actually have to worry about being pelted by asteroids while going through a belt. If we’re being thorough and including every manifestation of human effort, talent, and intellect, then getting familiar with the all the gems of our culture looks more and more like just an endeavor for people with too much time on their hands.

I agree with e. when class is brought up here. I know firsthand that no one is going to care about the form of a ballerina if they can’t even afford admission to the ballet.

21 01 2009
e.

Arturo,

“As for your other point, I think the real issue is not how smart people actually are, but how smart people think they are.”

I don’t think this is at all the case.

Rather, there are 2 principle elements that I believe are responsible.

First, there is ignorance, be it the usual ignorance that plagues the masses (either because of lack of privilege, opportunity or even the necessary education, etc.), or that ignorance that mistakes kitsch for culture because these do not know any better.
Second, there is that atrocious snobbery that carries with it the putrid air of superiority, which would deny persons of lower classes or even the supposedly lesser races (the latter not limited to just White, European stock but also even members of said lesser races who, because of having embraced elements of culture, end up treating their own with such scorn and condescension), of the elements of culture, narrow-mindedly believing, with ever that glaring hint of prejudice, that such things as these belong quite rightly, of course, only under the sole jurisdiction of the elite, to the more superior of the species.

That is to say, perhaps one of the remedies that may help current matters and promote high culture in the masses is to engage in programs that would help educate not only folks of wealth but also misfortunate and indigent families of things of culture, programs that would extend to children of welfare and the greater public, that cultural education that seems seriously lacking in our day.

21 01 2009
Visibilium

At last count, there were about 25 commercial classical music radio stations nationwide. They are disappearing owing to the declining number of listeners. Listenership determines what advertisers will pay for airtime. Even public radio stations that broadcast classical music are changing their formats to include more popular programs, like jazz or talk, owing to budgetary concerns.

The economics is pretty simple–more listeners, more stations. Who’s developing listeners to replace those who are dying?

Luckily, the old business model–reaching a critical mass of listeners in a particular location–doesn’t constrain the internet’s global market. The explosion of esoterica on the internet attests to the low cost of market segmentation and product specialization. Streaming radio broadcasts provide not only classical music, but also particular periods within that broad category. If I want to listen to Albinoni and his contemporaries, I don’t have to settle for listening to Haydn as part of a package deal. While cheap access to culture can no longer be provided reliably by transistor radios, it’s provided by increasingly cheap bandwidth.

20 01 2009
Alice C. Linsley

Wonderful commentary on cheap popular culture.

I’m teaching a class in the History of Ethics right now at a local college. We’re considering Plato and Aristole. The students are discussing this topic:

While priests and oracles in ancient Greece influenced ethical decision making, they did not fully satisfy human curiosity about the nature of the world. Nor did they offer a satisfying response to those who thought that the pagan gods were too human and fallible to be respected and worshipped. Such citizens questioned the authority of the religious establishment of their day. The questions they asked were taken up for the most part by the Greek Philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle. These philosophers attempted to explain nature, truth, reality and wisdom. They encouraged their students to think critically.

To whom do contemporary Americans turn to gain understanding of these things? Who might be our equivalent of the Greek Philosophers? Do we even have an equivalent?

Here are some of the responses:
“Contemporary Americans use counselors, scientist, politicians, musicians, television personalities, journalist, the media, etc. as their philosophers. It still seems that many people find refuge in their religious beliefs and prayer. People such as Oprah and Dr. Phil seem to be the Plato and Aristotle of today.”

“I think the American people turn to each other to make ethical decisions. We also use our democratic government and our lawmakers to use a guides while making decisions.”

Sigh.

I agree with you about using the resources we have at our disposal. Over the years I’ve read many books on Genesis that had access to through the Public Library and the Inter-Library Loan system.

20 01 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Corrected.

As for your other point, I think the real issue is not how smart people actually are, but how smart people think they are.

20 01 2009
e.

“In a word, I tend to find how they write and think to be about a mile deep and an inch wide.”

Arturo,

That is not a “word”; a person of your supposed stature should be able to distinguish the difference between a word and the above phrasing.

As to matters such as this:

“They may even be able to cite large passages of St. Thomas Aquinas without ever having slaved over a single passage of Ciceronian prose in the original Latin.”

What children these days are actually skilled bonis litteris?

For that matter, was there ever a period (even in Catholic Europe and in all of what once was Western Christendom) where the general populace indulged in or were even, for the most part, cognizant of what rightly constituted high culture or its various intimate aspects?

Indeed, the whole humanist enterprise that comprised of such distinguished continental scholars as More and Desiderius was borne out of this yearning to instill such culture (in particular, that of the ancients) into what was then (and even now) a people deficient of such erudite learning.

19 01 2009
Lucian

Here’s something about a simple and primitive faith from an Orthodox surrounding. I just thought that maybe You’ll be interested, given the various articles You have on Your blog regarding the same, but in a Catholic environment.

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