Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Real Life Professors

When I read David Brooks' op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, I knew I wanted to blog about it. But then I got distracted by teaching, revising the blogroll, and hearing that yesterday was the anniversary of the moonwalk. So it took reading Ezra Klein's take on it to remind me that I had strong opinions, dammit! (Apologies for the vice-presidential language.)

My main beef is with the same point that Ezra comments about, that the only good teachers are those with "practical knowledge" gained from "the real world." I know that academic life is different from other professions, but I challenge the concept that knowledge gained from academic research is not practical, and that the skills and thoughts gained in the academic environment are not the equal of lessons learned from the school of hard knocks. Ezra, as a political science student, feels that good professors should have experience outside the academy, presumably within political organizations or policy-making bodies. I don't know enough about that particular discipline to naysay him, but it seems from my knowledge of other disciplines that there is room in a political science department for both theorists and practitioners. Some of my chemistry professors had industrial experience, others were born and buried in their academic regalia.

In my field of music, we have the practitioners (composers, performers, conductors, etc.) and the theorists (theorists (duh), musicologists, ethnomusicologists), each with their important place in the education of the modern musician. There is blurring of the lines, that makes each of our specialties stronger. But if we did not spend the bulk of our lives pursuing our specialties, we would not push the envelope of knowledge, giving our students the opportunity to learn more than we ever could. Down the path of David Brooks lies stagnation.

Frankly, Brooks' example of a truly educated student does not pass muster in my estimation.

She found what she calls the underbelly of his life, for as astute as Hill was at observing world events, there were gaping holes in his first marriage that he didn't even notice. She found herself reaching conclusions independently. In one interview, Hill said that he is a Burkean conservative. Worthen writes: "I wanted to scream at him, Don't you realize that I figured that out long ago?! Can't I have just a bit of credit?"

Worthen complains that Hill doesn't give her enough credit, and this shows that he taught her well? Perhaps Worthen's biography really does have some interesting insights about Hill, but Brooks does not show it at all.

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