Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Thing 1's trumpet teacher suggested that he watch the video below, of trumpter Rafael Mendez. It's all about precision and control, and it's pretty amazing--it closes with Mendez playing the Mexican Hat Dance on a single breath.

Being the person I am (He Who Broods On Larger Implications), it has gotten me thinking about this idea of excellence, and what place it has in our culture anymore.

In the education field, of course, we've completely given up on the idea of excellence. For most teachers in most districts, even the goal of proficiency is ludicrously pie-in-the-sky, leading teachers and administrators do things like cancel everything but math and English and drill those subjects till test day. And still the students can't pass.

One of the reasons for this downward slide is a lack of rigor--a refusal to demand, and teach to, excellence (in our teachers as much as in our students). I've been in schools--across the country--and seen error-strewn student work posted on bulletin boards. Some of the work was corrected; most was not. Some of it was graded; most was not. What, exactly, made it worthy of display and celebration? What values do we teach our students when merely completing something makes it worthy of applause?

Are things any better in the arts--the world I more or less left behind in order to be a Responsible Parent? I would have to say Hell No.

What does excellence mean in popular music these days? Is there an agreed-upon definition? There are tastes, of course--everyone has tastes and preferences. But I'm talking about recognition of skill that transcends preference. You can hate jazz, classical music, or the trumpet, and still have to acknowledge that Mendez is a master. It's clear what Good is, and what Great is, completely apart from personal preference.

But virtuosity as an instrumentalist is old-fashioned and, it seems, entirely beside the point these days. It still matters in classical music and in jazz, of course, but who really cares about those anymore? Weirdos. Fringe-dwellers. It's not Mainstream. In the Mainstream, everything is synthesized and pre-programmed, and even when real instruments are involved, not much is asked of them. I mean, we aren't exactly hearing new Jimi Hendrixes out there, are we? It's just not part of the conversation.

What about singing? Yeah, what about it? Doesn't virtuosity in singing have anything to do with public approval or popularity? I mean, come on--it's singing. We must care whether or not it's good.

Well....must we? Did we love Madonna because of her pipes? Is Brittney our latest tragic heroine because of the pure vocal skill that she's throwing away?

Listen, there are certainly things we like and hate, and want and don't want in our musical artists--but musical skill is not one of them. It's not that we hate it. It's just not relevant. It's not the point of the exercise. Maybe it's because the larger show has overtaken the musical performance. If Brittney can dance, we consider her a good singer, somehow.

How about in the visual arts? I'm no expert, but it seems to me that what is desired and applauded these days is conceptual daring rather than virtuosic or even skillful execution. I'm not sure what excellence would even mean these days. If Damien Hirst is a great artist for displaying a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, what does execution even mean? A clean tank? He's famous because he proposes and executes daring and provocative ideas. But the execution requires no particular skill or craft--nothing that requires years of training and practice and honing of ability.

It seems to me that, in all these fields, the idea of working and sweating to develop and hone one's skill and technique is just...not that important.

Rigor and excellence are still demanded in the world of athletics, though I'm sure the prevalance of steroids and the lifting up to glory of Barry Bonds will work to make a hash of that sooner or later. But for the moment, at least, it's one area where we do care about not just raw ability, but the training and shaping of that ability to the point of excellence--to the point of transcendance above what ordinary people can do.

And listen, obviously there are exceptions to all of this. We do celebrate and hold in awe certain performers who rise above the rabble out of sheer skill. But we also, sometimes, resent them for it, and think of them as being elitist and Not Like Us....which was supposed to be the whole point.

Is it that outrageous and impractical and unrealistic to desire a culture in which we raise our children to at least aspire to excellence in all things--to train their minds and their bodies--their spirits and their appetities--their physical and aesthetic desires--to seek out and work towards the best that the world has to offer, and that they can offer the world?

Yeah, you're right. My bad.


RogueTess said...

Hey, He Who Broods... -- an idealistic knitter and HS English teacher here. Yes! (fist in air) I've recently adopted the metaphor of athletic coach in my writing instruction to prepare both parents and students that there will may be pain involved in improvement and not necessarily just positive pap as feedback. IMHO what truly holds teachers back from sometimes harsh coaching is OVER-protective parents and cowardly administrators and fear of litigation. OK, so I'm a little cynical, too.

Agathon said...

It's strange, isn't it? There's so much that makes perfect sense to people in sports, that seems completely insane to people in academics. Like the idea that coaching means more than cheerleading. Like the idea that being able to perform on game day is more important than being able to run drills.

This is what happens when the academic geeks like me, the ones who wind up in teaching, feel left out of team sport and just stop participating. There were Lessons To Be Learned, and we missed them.

Heather said...

Here's my comment:

Dennis said...

At my partner, Edward’s middle school, there is a RULE that student work must be posted on all bulletin boards roughly monthly and that teachers are NOT allowed to write corrections ON the work. In fact, teachers most post a rubric—they’re nuts for their fucking 4-point rubrics at I.S. 125—and notecards/stickies with a short appraisal of each piece of work.

Of course, he found this out in October, 10 days before it was his turn to post the year’s first bulletin board. The students had already done interesting, bulletin-board-worthy projects—but he had written corrections and feedback all over it, so it was not usable!

Yet, it was completely acceptable — even encouraged — to put up level 0, 1, and 2 work.

You are absolutely right about excellence being missing. RogueTess might disagree with this, but I swear, it comes from the NYC teachers’ unions (aka the Number 1 Reason I do not work for the NYC DOE despite my socialist tendencies). Of course, we could blame it all on the answer “Why does a union need to exist?” but I think that is a cop-out. The union breeds a Culture of Proficiency, eschewing excellence except in lip service. After all, giving a little extra would be giving something for free.

And it trickles down from the teachers to the students.

Edward is a fourth year DOE teacher in a totally new roll as a math/science teacher. There is no math coach at his school, and I don’t trust his colleagues to give him advice, so I help him a LOT this year. THE hardest challenge I face as Edward’s sort of personal “coach” has nothing to do with his professional toolbox—it’s his own complacency as part of the Culture of Proficiency. In the past, whenever I challenged him to work harder for the benefit of his students, he would often fight back with “I just need to get an S”— S for Satisfactory, the official rating that unionized teachers need to get to keep their jobs.

Fortunately, to the benefit of his students, he's breaking him. That guy has worked his ass off, putting in a good 20 extra hours per week planning, reflecting, talking with me, and correcting all of his kids papers.

Except the stuff that’s going to go on the bulletin board. :-)


P.S. hi heather... I’ll check your comment out, too.

Heather said...

Hi, Dennis. Nice to meet you.

I'm going to have to change my Blogger name to differentiate myself from HEATHER Heather. In private conversation I sometimes take on the moniker, Heather the Other. That might be appropriate on several levels for the general Blogosphere. Hmm. I'll give it some thought. In the meantime, give my regards to Heather--the one you already know.