I never know what I'm supposed to be paying attention to when I go to the symphony. In general, wherever I go, I lapse all too easily into sociology, and I start thinking about the posture and the haircuts and the accents of people around me when what I'm supposed to be doing is listening to what they're saying. But at the symphony, where I know so little about what is really at stake, where I am so unskilled in making that judgment learned audiences so love to make as to whether or not the evening's interpretation is a successful one, my reversion to sundry reflexions on anything and everything but the music is almost automatic.
Most recently, I found myself watching Anne-Sophie Mutter playing a violin piece composed specially for her by Sophia Gubaidulina. It was good. I liked it. If anyone was 'off' that evening, I certainly didn't notice, but this may be because I was preoccupied with all sorts of ridiculous and improbable thought experiments, one of which is still with me days later. I tried to imagine, namely, what it would be like if, somehow, I was sent out on stage with a violin in my hands. What could I do? Absolutely nothing. The internal wiring of my body --the neurons and the nerves and the muscles-- simply has not been configured so as to enable me to even pretend for a second that I can play a violin. But look at Anne-Sophie Mutter's body. Is it so different? It is a woman's body, but it is not in respect of that difference that she is a violinist and I am not. Where is the difference, then? The difference, obviously, is in the way we were shaped and tenderized over the years. Her violinist-body and my slouching, contemplative, wholly non-musical body were shaped throughout the course of many years of handling, of dressage.
Now we're getting close to what I actually wanted to talk about: not music, but the humanities, and the state of higher education in general. There is, at this point, nothing we in the humanities can ask students to do that is analogous to what must be asked of anyone who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Anne-Sophie Mutter. We cannot say to students: "Welcome. We are here to rewire your neurons. We are here to completely transform you from the inside so that everything you do with your body (and mind, but that's an afterthought), every sensation and minute experience you have of your own capacities, will be entirely foreign from what you now know." Increasingly, in fact, universities are clamoring to assure students that no such transformation will take place. They promise that they will complement the students' already-existing strong points, fit themselves into the students' busy schedules, speak to what the students already know, and so on. Many universities have by now practically adopted as their slogan: Come join us! No transformation required.
Foreign-language instruction is the one area of the humanities where the promise of non-transformation is difficult to keep, and I believe it is in this connection that we need to understand the rapid disappearance of departments of foreign languages and literatures throughout the English-speaking world (the case of French --not to mention Russian!-- at SUNY being just the most recent of many examples). If there is an argument in defense of eliminating these programs, it is that they were at this point only vestigial anyway: it's been a long time since anyone came out of a BA degree in French who was able, as a result of the course of studies for which the degree was the reward, to actually speak French. To expect students to master a foreign language would be precisely to have a design upon the wiring of their brains, but such a design would entirely go against the trend, now fully dominant across the humanities, of creating, for every course, a parallel universe of so-called 'learning objectives', where the singular and obvious objective of a course cannot be mentioned, and instead one must speak vaguely of enhancing critical thinking skills, nurturing confidence in public speaking, learning to collaborate with others through small-group work, etc. But obviously the only legitimate learning objective of, say, a Greek course is to learn Greek. Once that basic commitment is abandoned, real education in letters is doomed.
Foreign-language programs were, I mean to say, the anchor of the humanities, but it is not only since the recent economic crisis and the massive closure of these programs that we have been adrift. The institutional changes that made these programs irrelevant and ineffective occurred during boom times, and in particular during a time when universities came to realize they could get in on the boom by catering to students as if they were customers, adapting themselves to the 'learning styles' and degrees of motivation of potential tuition-payers. Soon enough, classics departments were spinning out parallel degree programs in 'classical studies', where --following the general rule in academia according to which 'studies' implies dilution, corner-cutting, and compromise-- students could now get degrees by taking courses about daily life in ancient Rome, say, without having to learn any Latin at all.
I will not run through the argument here that it was not the humanization of the university, but rather the corporatization, that brought these changes about. What I want to suggest is just that it is not only cost-cutting in difficult times that has brought about such a dire situation for the humanities. Humanities programs are dying off in this desert into which we've all strolled because they were already weakened by the junk-food diet they adopted while still in their old and bountiful habitat. Faculty members, who did not share the financial incentives of the people whose interests were served by scams such as 'classical studies', nonetheless were complicit, since they held onto the inherited belief that the replacement of learning by 'learning objectives' was a part of the democratic opening up of higher education to all members of society.
I want to suggest also that it is not just language and literature programs that have been seriously damaged by the changes I've described, but indeed all of the humanities. When I say that foreign-language training is the anchor of the humanities, I mean it anchors, or ought to anchor, disciplines apparenty as independent of it as philosophy and history. There is a wonderful model of education that will be familiar to anyone who has read about the Little Russian monasteries in Gogol's stories, and that also existed in classical India and in the Islamic world. In the Byzantine version of it depicted by Gogol, schoolboys pass through four stages: first they are 'grammarians', then 'rhetoricians', then 'philosophers', and, finally, 'theologians'. This seems to me pretty much the proper order of things (leaving off, perhaps, the ultimate stage). In the Indian tradition, claiming to be a master of any of the darshanas or doctrines without first demonstrating a deep, thorough, intimate mastery of the elements of phonetics, grammar, and prosody (and I mean a real mastery, comparable to what enables Anne-Sophie Mutter to do what she does with her violin), would be simply absurd. Without mastery of language, a student trying to spin out ideas is like me trying desperately to scrape a few notes from a stringed instrument. Potentially, that mastery could simply be of English, just as the pandits gave their exclusive attention to Sanskrit. But students today are permitted to remain nearly as estranged from the inner workings of their own native tongue as they are from the foreign languages they were expected until recently to at least sample.
Again, if there is any argument in favor of the decision recently made at SUNY, it is only that foreign-language instruction is already so much decayed, and so out of step with the institutional culture of 'learning objectives', that pulling the plug was a natural conclusion to a process that began long ago. But how much more hopeful it would have been (and may still be, if not in Albany) to see the humanities re-anchor themselves, and to return, against the tide of academic corporatization that first made foreign-language instruction irrelevant, to the old expectation of real transformation.
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