Una fotografia è insieme una pseudopresenza e l’indicazione di un’assenza. (Susan Sontag)
As a writer, as a msuician, 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 Ade8s, 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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