A Rant

2002-01-27

The Mary Lou Williams CD that I got from the library is extremely good. I've heard some of her earlier big-band recordings before and they never touched me, but this CD -- a solo piano recording entitled Nite Life and made much a later in her career (1971) -- is powerful stuff. I hear influences here from James P. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Lennie Tristano, and Thelonious Monk, as well as intimations of Keith Jarrett in places. This CD is definitely going on my wish list. :-)

I was less impressed by After New Formalism, a collection of essays edited by Annie Finch on the recent poetic trend toward meter. I guess I just don't derive much value from a bunch of professors holding forth in their academic way, even on a topic that I find of interest. Yes, even in a movement so outside the poetic mainstream as "new formalism", most of the contributors are just a bunch of professors, teaching literature or creative writing alongside their postmodernist and free-verse brethren. The poet I respect most in this collection is Dana Gioia, who worked in business for a long time while pursuing his writing on the side, and who a number of years ago decided to devote himself full-time to the writing life. Gioia strikes me as someone who has maintained at least some distance from the insidious tentacles of academic thinking, and who remains tied to the reality of poems and their readers, as opposed to the false world of critics and their theories. Last night I started reading his latest volume of poems (Interrogations at Noon) and it feels like a keeper.

Perhaps it's not fair of me to be so hard on academics -- perhaps it would be more beneficial for me to see professors as people who have made a certain career choice (simply one different from mine -- although I nearly ended up going to graduate school so "there but for the grace of God go I"). In a way I feel sorry for those stuck in the university system, because all too often there's not much else they can do in life but pursue their research and teach their students. I certainly doubt they'd make it in the high-pressure world of a high-tech startup company like the one I work for. Similarly, I often feel sorry for many full-time artists -- they are so single-minded (or single-talented) in their art that they're otherwise fit only for low-value jobs like waiting tables and clerical work. Usually I'm glad that I'm more multi-talented (or just less focused) than that, because it seems that I have an aptitude for at least a few things other than music and poetry.

That said, I do resent the intellectual hubris and detachment of the academic system. Far too often, academics are concerned only about their little area of specialty and care not about life itself. I suppose one could say the same about those of us creating and documenting software (how important is it really to create an instant messaging application?), but my experience is that engineers don't usually project any greater significance onto their work, and they certainly don't reduce the meaning of human experience to software. I remember back in college I read in the New York Times a roundtable of perspectives on what's wrong with the world and how to fix it from a number of professors. The historian (Gertrude Himmelfarb, I believe it was) said that obviously people are lacking in historical perspective and if we'd just become more aware of history, all would be well; similarly the economist was convinced that an understanding of economics was the key to solving the world's problems, the biologist made a pitch for biology, the mathematician bemoaned rampant "innumeracy", and so on. Such limited horizons. And those horizons become even more limited when one realizes that any given historian (say) looks askance at those benighted generalists who seek to derive greater lessons from the vast sweep of human history, and instead focuses on some suitably publishable topic such as villas within a day's chariot ride of ancient Rome or necromancy in southern France in the period 1100 to 1300.

What I find especially galling is that those in universities fail to realize that a vast system of "crass" production (and taxation) is necessary to sustain the privileged class of scholars who because of the productivity of others are able to delve at their leisure into such arcane matters. To top it off, most scholars are proud leftists who rail against the free market and capitalist exploitation of the working class -- never thinking that perhaps it's the academics themselves who are the true exploiters of the labor of others.

Yet I mustn't personalize things too much. In fact the problem is not with individual scholar-teachers (many of whom may be quite competent and thoughtful), but with the very system of university academics itself. The same can be said for pre-collegiate education, where many dedicated teachers try their best to focus on the children in the context of a system that in most ways is positively inimical to true learning.

But rather than complain about "the system" (as most Randians and libertarians do), I have long found it more productive and emotionally satisfying to concentrate on my own life and the value I can create within my own sphere of influence. So enough ranting. I think I'll get back to work now. :-)


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