Frankly proposing nothing...

Last night while driving to my night class, I decided to call an audible. I had something planned but was bored with my stale old routine. So I rewrote the whole lesson in my head. Instead of slogging through a dull discussion over the text, I walked into the room and put the following thesis on the board:
Understanding, appreciating and evaluating works of aesthetic creativity is no longer relevant in a society that needs a competent, well-trained workforce and a self-sufficient, productive citizenry. Given this, and the exorbitant cost of higher education, there should be no required courses in aesthetic appreciation in the general education core curriculum.
We then went on a campus tour and I showed them how to read architecture like a text. We came back to the room and I had them analyze the structure of a poem by W. H. Auden. Next, I gave them a short lecture on Baroque style as manifested in painting, architecture, and sculpture. Then I had them analyze the concerto format in a piece by the Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. They had to show me how the musical composition corresponded to the values expressed in other Baroque works.

Many of the students said they hadn't looked at buildings and sculpture this way before (as a statement of ideas, values and aspirations). Others said it was interesting to listen to a piece of music in a different way (on a purely musical plane) or think about the "sound sense" that Auden so artfully loaded into his poem.

Then we came back to the thesis. "How many of you think that all of this stuff we've been doing tonight is interesting and maybe even fun, but--in the end--it's just a lot of self-indulgent twaddle? Let's face it. A college education is expensive and time-consuming. Few of you came here to read poetry. You came to enhance your value as potential employees. And, frankly, who the hell cares about Baroque anything?"

I asked those who agreed with the thesis to go to one side of the room and those who disagreed to the other. Each group had to formulate arguments to support its view. Most opposed the thesis, but three students supported it. Their argument was that this stuff ought to be an elective. No one should be forced to take music appreciation and art courses. The other students tried to argue that the analytical skills used to think about art were transferable. They said learning to analyze a painting or a piece of sculpture might just make you a sharper accountant. One young woman said it would help her be a better nurse if she could talk to her patients about a wide range of subjects.

I sided with the minority on this one. I doubted the skills were in anyway relevant or transferable to accounting. Besides, does the subject of Baroque music often come up during a sponge bath? Maybe, I said, the pro-thesis side is right. Maybe this stuff is really useless. I challenged those defending the teaching of the arts to come up with a better justification. They couldn't and neither can I.

For years I just assumed that education was some kind of personal and civic-betterment project. If we could just educate enough students to realize that there was something more to life than getting and spending… I even used to quote that old Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells: “The story of humanity is the story of a race between education and catastrophe.” I quoted this whenever any of my students asked if we were dismissing early. I would feign shock, quote Wells, and tell them I was trying to stave off catastrophe (and they weren't helping).

But I've slowly come to the conclusion that the things I love and teach are completely useless in a world that demands a ruthless functionality. Make no mistake. I’m not apolitical and I have my causes, but I no longer quote Wells. I’m far more more likely to quote the much-maligned Walter Pater, who wrote, “Art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”
Sometimes, too, I quote another sage, Willie Wonka, who said, "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men."


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