Friday, May 30, 2014

Is This Real Life?

There have been a few constants throughout my career. One is that I have always taught teenagers, almost exclusively. The other is that I’ve always had to teach some sort of dreaded “music elective” course. This course goes by many names—General Music, Music Elective, Foundations of Music, Musicianship, or the much-maligned “Music Appreciation”, which I’ve always found has at least two lies in the name.

Most of the students who take these courses do so willingly and are game to learn what I’m teaching, though there are always a few that are dumped in my classes to fulfill their arts requirements, citing the fact that they were tortured with a few piano lessons when they were five. Usually in these courses, it’s a combination of reading about music, listening, responding, and performing—through sight-singing (solfege, for those of you in the know). At Hogwarts, we also include composition in this veritable grab-bag. Some students really like this, but some (self-branded uncreative types, usually perfectionists to boot) can’t handle that there isn’t one right answer. There are many. “But I want it to be perfect!!!”

Ah, perfection. The dreaded “A+” that they so crave.

I usually retort with the last “perfect” piece of music that was written is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, with the possible exception of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. That’s usually when their face falls. And because I’m usually incensed by this point in the conversation, I usually hurl one last grenade in their direction by saying “And I’ve never, EVER, experienced a perfect performance of ANYTHING, either as a performer or an audience member.”

That’s not me being a snob (I certainly can be, but this is not one of those times)—it really is somewhat of an open secret that musicians strive for an ideal that we almost never, ever achieve. The best performance I’ve ever given was at my senior recital, and even then when I listen to the recording, I’d only give myself about a B+.

So back to the “wound-too-tight” perfectionists in my classes. The smarter ones have now figured out that it’s fun to “poke” me and get me agitated about something in order to kill about 10 minutes of class time. Every term since I’ve been teaching, the dreaded question has come up. This is the question jerk students like to ask because they feel it gives them the moral high ground and puts the teachers (or “masters” as we’re called here at Hogwarts) on the defensive. Every teacher who deals with teens has had to field the dreaded question, often from both student and parent. I’ve even had asshat administrators ask me the question. Every teacher of teens in every discipline has fielded it, and we all dread it. I can sense it coming, usually after an exasperated student fumbles through a poorly-prepared exercise or homework assignment. What’s that question? Here it is:

“Are we ever going to USE this in our lives?” …or some variation thereof.

Often I fumbled through some answer of thinking about something differently, of being well-rounded student, an appreciative audience member, how I’m not running a vocational/technical school, etc. My past tactic was to throw out a lot of extra words and hope that the gobbledygook buries the fact that I didn’t actually answer their question.

But this term, I was ready.

A struggling student did not want to sing his composition assignment—which proves he missed the point, as the assignment was a short LULLABY. He was obviously unprepared and didn’t like that his unpreparedness was broadcast to his 11 classmates. His harmony was in a different key than his melody, and the melody was littered with un-performable rhythms that wouldn’t exactly “lull” a baby to sleep—proving that not only hadn’t he practiced it, he hadn’t even listened to it. He had spent about 3 minutes on it, and I (and his classmates) gave him our assessment of his situation. He wasn’t pleased. My feeling on that score is…too bad, next time prepare. His feeling, which he vociferated through his hands that were hiding his face was “When am I ever going to USE this in real life?”

I responded with a phrase neither he nor the rest of the class expected to hear: “You most likely won’t.”

There was stunned silence, and twelve heads turned in my direction.

I went on: “You haven’t learned anything you’re guaranteed to use in so-called ‘real-life’ since 6th grade.”

More stunned silence.

I continued: “In fact, the only guaranteed ‘real-life’ skill you’ll learn between now and graduation, (unless you leave Hogwarts and go to a vo-tech school), will be how to drive a car.”

Student mouths are now agape.

Think about it: by 6th grade (roughly), you’re moderately literate, in that you can read a novel or a set of simple directions. By 6th grade, you have some digital literacy—enough to type a Word document, send an e-mail, or search the internet. You can add, subtract, multiply, and divide, enough to keep track of your bank statements. That’s all you need, really, in a modern American life.

Then the voices chime in and try and disprove me “But I want to be an engineer, so I’ll need to know Calculus!” “Ah!” I respond. “You’re correct. How many of you are considering engineering?” 2 hands go up. “Yes, you two will need calculus, no doubt. The rest of you won’t need it. Ever. How many of you are considering music as a career?” No hands go up (we’re just not that kind of a school). “See? None of you will NEED this. How about the sciences? Medical?” 4 hands go up. “You will need biology, anatomy, etc. The rest of you don’t need to know how to balance a chemical reaction. You’ll never do it. You see, dear kiddies, you’ve reached the ‘IF/THEN’ stage of your education—IF you are going to do job ‘x’, THEN you’ll need skill ‘y’. The rest of the time, it’s not—as you say, relevant to your ‘real-life’”.

In a generic high school setting (read: non-magnet, non-vocational), less than 20% of what you learn past 6th grade has any so-called “real-life” application, until you get to college where that number goes up a bit…probably to about 40%. Less if you get a Liberal Arts degree. These are ballpark percentages, but I will bet it’s definitely under 50%. It’s nice to know that World War I was 1914-1918, but it isn’t absolutely necessary to know that to go pick up milk at a 7-11. It’s nice to be able to plot a quadratic equation on a Cartesian plane, but that doesn’t help you at 2 AM when you can’t get your newborn to stop crying.

So why do we torture the children of America by insisting they complete 6 years of largely ornamental education at a tremendous cost to the taxpayers and/or parents (private school teacher, here, at a school with a $53,000 per year price-tag, remember)? Because we need well-rounded individuals who can make informed choices based on knowledge and experience. And that is why I’m here, my dear students. To broaden the scope of your world-view because, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (my hero) “God d*** it, babies, you’ve got to be kind.” And willful ignorance of the world and the people in it results in tremendous amounts of unkindness. Hate, war, rape, murder, genocide…the list goes on.

Having lived through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (thankfully NOT as a soldier), we heard this talking point over and over “Isolation breeds terrorism”. It happens to be true. I would add that INTELLECTUAL isolation breeds INTELLECTUAL terrorism—that willful ignorance of those in other walks of life and the lack of ability to see beyond one’s own position. When these people get elected to public office (playing to their base of other intellectually-isolated people), bad things happen. And they are proud of their ignorance! That is my definition of an intellectual terrorist.

“I don’t need no rocket-scientist telling me about global warming!!!”

Well, see, actually…you do. We educate experts and then refuse to listen to them. You hear this talking point from those wanting to dismantle public education: “Why haven’t we seen returns on the billions of billions we throw at public schools?” I’ve got news for you—we have. Their perception of non-return comes from a simple fact—So few people listen to things they don’t want to hear. With the death of the city-wide daily newspapers impending, look at what remains. The left reads the Huffington Post, the right reads—no, watches—Fox news. The pragmatists with a brain read the Wall Street Journal (I never thought that would happen in my lifetime, but it did. Just avoid the editorials, they can get ugly.)  The above statement is as absurd to me as saying "I don't need to plumber to tell me about my cracked-and-leaking soil-stack."  While the second statement certainly has a more immediate and direct impact on the average person, the two statements are, for all intents and purposes, identical.

We seek out the opinions we want validated and connect the dots to what we think we know—that’s human nature. Imagine what would happen if everybody knew more—more dots to connect! There’s where the “ornamental” education becomes practical. And once you connect more and more dots, you start to realize your place in the world, and the importance of those around you, near and far.

So, my dear future world-conquerors, write that lullaby. Balance that equation. Write that poem. Learn derivative equations. They teach you how to make choices, synthesize information, connect dots, and THINK.

And that’s real life, folks. The realest form of life and living I know.

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