Archive | May, 2013

~[Dying Cats v (Pots & Pans)]

4 May

There is a very important principle of Classical education that I have come to greatly value for its humility, effectiveness, and the ease by which students learn while using the principle. The principle is simply that the classical educator instructs his students to study the Greats of the past and imitate their work.

The principle of imitation can be clearly displayed in the way that a musician learns to play or write music. The music student can read the latest book on theory they can get their hands on, and would be encouraged to do so, but when it comes time to actually learn how to play a piece of music, the student must turn to the past. They look first to simpler pieces, memorize them and then play them over and over until they can do it without faltering. Then, to the next difficult piece of music, and so-on.

By taking this path they are attached to music history, they are learning the grammar of theory in their fingers (even if they aren’t reading theory books), and they are becoming better players of better music. In a word, they are improving.

I paint this picture of the musician to show how natural this method of learning is. We learn many things through imitation. The Proverbs bid us to learn life through imitating the wise, Paul asks us to imitate him, we are called to be imitators of God as his children.

I also wanted to demonstrate this principle to show just how far our culture has tried to remove itself from the principle of imitation. Since the sixties, we have been learning that the generations which preceded us are now completely irrelevant. They are old, washed up, and from a different time. The Enlightenment demands we retract all respect for them, because we do it better now. Now the Millennials, as they call us, are even more independent than our ancestors. We lack respect for the generations which preceded us, but we have the arrogance to presume that every generation which preceded us was full of lunatics. We have taken the Enlightenment as far as we can.

We do not seek the Greats of the past to imitate, because we are our own individuals. We parade our individuality as the means to our self-realization. “I just need to find myself, and I can do that only by looking inside myself. I shouldn’t listen to what others tell me. Rather, I will become truly me without anyone’s help. Any outside influence would be biased, anyway,” we say.

The perfect irony with this mode of thought is the Platonic hotness that is known as the Learner’s Paradox. How can he who has no knowledge apparently have the knowledge to teach himself remaining knowledge? We won’t admit we need past generations to teach us.

We take as a priori truth the notion that the ultimate good is finding ourselves (whatever that means), and that the only way to find ourselves is to spurn outside input and reach deep  inside – where ultimate truth lies.

The view opposite imitation is this self-expression, then. Where imitation encourages one to look to others’ mastery and try to attain it, self-expression’s claim is that no person nor things can do you better than you can, therefore go and “be you”, “do what you do”, “express who you are to the world” ad nauseam. I don’t think I need to demonstrate that this is the lean of our culture. That much must be obvious.

(Before I go on, I want to be clear that I don’t oppose individualism as such. But I do heartily oppose the parts of it that I think are a detriment to both societies and individuals.)

The problem is that self-expression isn’t valuable in itself. It certainly can be valuable – for instance when an artist or musician creates some or other masterpiece – but it ain’t necessarily so.

Back to the young musician – we’ll call her a violinist. Suppose you give her a violin, and lessons on music theory, and any and every other fact about violins and musicianship you can muster. You would want to avoid anything subjective, because the student needs to express herself without being biased by outside sources. If she is to truly express herself, you say to yourself, it must be truly and only her.

So, she has a violin, she has the facts about the violin, and she knows theory. She puts the bow to the strings and starts expressing. And boy, does she express.

It’s true that that form of expression would be the most pure, unadulterated, unbiased expression possible. But it would be terrible. But why? Is it that she is uglier on the inside than other violinists who play better music? If their unbiased expression is better than hers, then it stands to reason that what they are expressing is better than what she is expressing.

This is folly. The reason she doesn’t play well is because she doesn’t have the skills she needs to express herself. If only she could have learned from a leader in the field how to do the things she wanted to be able to do. If only she had had someone to imitate.

Self-expression only works when we know how to express ourselves. When we give children the tools to make noise and tell them to express themselves, we get dying cats or pots and pans. (Or, a more apt example, we give them pen and paper and tell them to express themselves. The result is that even people who want to write (take me, for example) still lack the skills necessary to do it well. )

Even the self-expression crowd knows that the method doesn’t work. Avante garde is the acknowledgement of  self-expression’s failure. “It turns out we aren’t very good at doing this all our own, but we’ll show those prudes. If we redefine our goal to make something ugly, then we will succeed just by self-expression.” And the self-expression purists eat it up like a dog returning to its own vomit.

I’m sure I’ll be back on this subject on-and-off. For now, just heed my point: You trying to “be you” by yourself is not only foolish, but it’s less effective than the alternative. So, strive to learn from those who have gone before you, read history books, and talk to old people. Pick a role model, and try to imitate them.

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