Sunday, June 28, 2009

Romans of the Decadence

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Jonathan Alter

"Education is the dullest of subjects," Jacques Barzun wrote in the very first sentence of his astonishingly fresh 1945 classic, Teacher in America. Barzun despised the idea of "professional educators" who focus on "methods" instead of subject matter. He loved teachers, but knew they "are born, not made," and that most teachers' colleges teach the wrong stuff.

Cut to 2009, when Barack Obama thinks education is the most exciting of subjects. Even so, Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, get Barzun. They understand that the key to fixing education is better teaching, and the key to better teaching is figuring out who can teach and who can't.

— Jonathan Alter, Peanut-Butter Politics: Education funding is a sticky issue, Newweek. web June 6, 2009, print June 15, 2009

This is not quite right. Barzun also says that born teachers are rarer than born poets. Since many more teachers are needed than are born, teachers who know and cannot teach should be taught how to teach.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

From The Music in the Music of Berlioz

The base for precise reference in music is solid enough — air waves are as material as steel, but they move fast and catching the portion that expresses takes practice. One might have thought that over the years the frequent performance of the standard operas, reviewed by the same newspaper writers, would have established some firm connections between musical effects and the words and situations they accompany. This has not happened. Operatic words tend to be inexpressive and are rarely heard beyond the first two or three by which famous arias are known. Another obstacle is that the relation of words to the sensations of life is far from clear-cut. We call anger quite a number of distinct feelings — there is hot or cold anger, vocal or suppressed, weary from sameness of the cause, touched with surprise or contempt or even with amusement (if the cause is a child's prank).23

23. Need I add that this inadequacy of literal speech is one reason for the existence of the arts? By re-presenting our experience in a variety of ways they enlarge our understanding of life.

— Jacques Barzun, The Music in the Music of Berlioz, in Peter Bloom, ed., Berlioz: Scenes from the Life and Work, University of Rochester Press, 2008, p. 21.

From earlier in the essay:

The number of situations that music can, if not express in detail, still be plausibly associated with, is quite large [yet] the hearing of any piece impresses so many unique musical details on our mind that it seems to mean only one thing. The English critic Edmund Gurney solved the puzzle with finality when he condemned the prosaic fallacy that the essence of music is vague namable expressiveness, instead of definite unnamable expressiveness.

— Ibid, p. 15