School’s Out Forever

Photo by velkr0 – CC-A.

Way back in 2007, I had a conversation I’ll never forget with a Professor at an Important University. I had just accepted my admissions offer from the University of Colorado. Professor and I were talking about graduate school, the right choices for a young composer, and why I was choosing to go to Colorado. It was a heated discussion, as this person had some strong opinions about my decisions (not very positive opinions, at that). I didn’t pay much attention; after all, I was 21 and I knew everything. But among Professor’s diatribes, he/she said something that has always stuck with me: “Don’t be one of these composers that lives their entire creative lives in the academy,” said Professor. “Graduate with the Master’s and leave. Take time off before your doctorate. Go out and connect with real people, real working musicians. Grow up at least a bit outside of the university.”

And after I graduated, in no small part due to this conversation with Professor, I did.

Fast forward to last week. The ever-amazing Brain Pickings published a small excerpt from Susan Sontag’s diaries. The excerpt consists of some pretty radical (by our standards, anyway) ideas about the best way to approach the intimidating task of education. Let’s talk about this idea in particular:

Why not eliminate schooling between age 12-16? It’s biologically + psychologically too turbulent a time to be cooped up inside, made to sit all the time. During these years, kids would live communally — doing some work, anyway being physically active, in the countryside; learning about sex — free of their parents. Those four ‘missing’ years of school could be added on, at a much later age. At, say, age 50-54 everyone would have to go back to school. (One could get a deferment for a few years, in special cases, if one was in a special work or creative project that couldn’t be broken off.) In this 50-54 schooling, have strong pressure to learn a new job or profession — plus liberal arts stuff, general science (ecology, biology), and language skills.

Sontag, of course, isn’t an education scholar or child expert, and a lot of what she says is likely conjecture. (There is, it turns out, some science to support this proposal, but that’s another story.) But part of her point is well-taken: the regimented and prescribed course of American subject-based education leaves a typical student little to no time to figure out who they are… on their terms. Most kids can probably find something to help define them in the smorgasbord of their educational experience, but probably not everyone, and definitely not always at the right time. If we allowed – or compelled – kids to leave the reading, writing, ‘rithmetic grid for some of their formative years, maybe they’d return knowing better what they needed or wanted from their education. If we go far enough down the rabbit hole, maybe this means fewer college students changing majors, lower unemployment due to fewer unqualified individuals, better art, science and literature…

But let’s return to composers.

We all know the composer who has, for better or worse, lived in the academy. From the time they seriously started composing – about 17 or 18 – to the time that they’re in their late twenties or early thirties, they’ve done their creative work in the protective auspices of the academy. Every project has been a student project. Every piece has been guaranteed a performance by dedicated performers for a dedicated audience. And certainly they’ve grown up in the meantime, but artistically, they’ve never faced the world as an “independent.” They’ve always had the power and prestige of The Institution at their back.

In many ways, that’s for the best. Being an artistic “grown-up” is, after all, pretty damn overrated. The academy or conservatory means a safe place for composers to experiment, innovate, and grow. It means you aren’t compromising esthetic to get more performances or commissions, working bad day jobs or thankless adjunct hours to support your art, and surrounded by talented and motivated colleagues who might otherwise be impossible to meet. These conditions have given birth to some amazing music, and some amazing artists.

But living in school means that by the time you graduate, you are an adult. You are a mature human being with responsibilities and worries. As an artist, your formative years are behind you; and they were all from the same perspective, that of the apprentice in the guild. Chances are, once you finish that terminal degree you’ll end up looking for a way back into the academy as a faculty member of some kind – just switching positions in the guild. Is that kind of one-dimensional experience the best way to make art? What if every student was forced to leave school, experience the real world, and then come back? How would our composers change? What would our sound be?

If you’re a composer, or any artist, what has your experience been? Did you ever leave student-hood over the course of your education? What did you learn? And if you didn’t, do you ever wish you had?

1 Comment

  1. As a writer, as a musician, and as an academic, I firmly believe that everyone who works within academia would benefit from spending time outside it — especially time interacting with people outside it as regards their chosen field. Academia, no matter the discipline, is quite a closed community, and it very frequently serves as an echo chamber. The result is often a startling disconnect between how people within academia view their subject and how those outside do: even most college-educated people prefer John Williams to Thomas Adès, or, in history, David McCullough to Constantin Fasolt. Academics can argue (often turning up their noses as they do) that their perspective is better due to their study of the field. But “better,” in art even more than the humanities, is a very shaky place to stand. In history, it doesn’t often correlate to popular success, which I feel is a great failing: isn’t one of the historian’s goals to educate?

    The echo chamber of academia can also have a serious dampening effect on the most interesting and original ideas. People are by nature fond of their own opinions and don’t much care to have them challenged. And when those people are in a position to reject the work of others, the result can be artistic and intellectual stagnation. Debussy was considered a disappointment by many of his teachers and the Impressionist painters had to hold their own shows. I have friends, highly talented, strong-willed and successful, in both composition and studio art who faced criticism from professors because their work was too “accessible,” too tonal, too not what the professor did in grad school. I’ve had professors look askance at some of the ideas I’ve had about doing or writing history (though a couple of my ideas MAY have been a bit crazy). For those who choose to stay in academia for the long haul, the process doesn’t even end with being a student: your work has to appeal to the collective opinion to get hired and to get tenure. What good can that sort of resistance possibly do for the development of the field?

    An aside about Susan Sontag: I’m no more an educational expert than she, but I do remember my bio-psych textbook from college. Not educating teenagers would be detrimental to all the rest of their lives. Adolescence is the last great flowering of synapse development in the brain, and unused synapses start to be pruned soon after. What we learn up to the age of 18 has a massive impact on our brains for the rest of our lives. Want someone to know music? Teach them in childhood and adolescence. Want someone to have a framework of self-discipline on which to build a working life? Lay the foundations in childhood and adolescence. Want someone to be good at physical activity in the countryside and not much else? Well.

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