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The Lost History of Music?

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The Lost History of Music?

I ran across an article heralding an upcoming report for the National Association of Scholars titled: The Lost History of Western Civilization.
Thirty-two years ago, this country was divided by Stanford University’s decision to ditch its Western Civilization requirement in favor of a multicultural alternative. Claims that Stanford had built a racist curriculum around the likes of Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Marx, Freud, Voltaire, and Darwin made for a sensational cultural side-show. Today, the Stanford dust-up has become our politics.
This is specific to the United States, of course, but there are echoes of this in other developed Western countries, certainly including Canada and the UK. The author, Stanley Kurtz, goes on to say:
The report draws on a deep refutation of academic “deconstructions” of Western Civilization to develop a new way of looking at the battle between multiculturalism and traditional American conceptions of citizenship. The report then explains the link between the relativist skepticism of academics and the moral certainties driving constant accusations of racism and bigotry on campus and beyond. By unearthing the work of great but long-forgotten historians who taught generations of Americans about Western Civilization, the report also casts a new light on the meaning of American exceptionalism.
I have a bit of a problem with "American exceptionalism" because it is not quite as exceptional as is usually claimed. Western civilization ultimately derives from two ancient sources: Jerusalem and Athens, was given a profound alteration during the High Middle Ages by people like Thomas Aquinas, was further developed by a host of Europeans during the Renaissance and Enlightenment (try and imagine Western art without the Renaissance or Western politics and philosophy without the Enlightenment). True, the Founding Fathers of the US were a brilliant group with both courage and will, but the so-called "exceptionalism" consisted in adopting ideas, such as the separation of powers from the French thinker Montesquieu, the "laissez-faire" free market system from thinkers like Adam Smith and Jean-Baptist Colbert and the whole of the English common law tradition to name just a few examples.

As a Canadian, whenever I hear about American exceptionalism I want to say, hey, we're a bit exceptional as well! But never mind, my point is just that the US is not the only heir of the traditions of Western Civilization--indeed, there is a large group of nations that share the benefits.

Two questions come to mind: is Western Civilization being lost and if so, can it be rescued before it is too late?

I tend to be an optimist. For one thing I have lost my taste for dystopian fictions. I find none of them believable. What I do find plausible is a continuation of the amazing success of Western Civilization over the last five hundred years. I also find less and less credible all those artworks that depend on a deep belief that we are on the verge of a horrific future. Makes for a nice story, but a lot of fiction by people like Joe Haldeman I just find unreadable now. And wow, is there ever a lot of dystopian narratives on television and Netflix these days. The Walking Dead, for example. In order to find these stories plausible you have to stop believing in the competence of scientists, doctors, and a host of other professions. Now I admit I am pretty skeptical about a lot of the so-called "clerisy" these days, as they seem to have a seriously flawed set of assumptions, but still the accumulated human capital of Western Civilization, even if a bit worn around the edges, is astonishingly immense. (Joel Kotkin has a very illuminating essay on the "clerisy" at Quillette.)

Another problem for me is that a lot of the right-wing critique of the culture is based on a variety of anecdotal evidence: Stanford University cuts the Western Civilization requirement, another university drops the requirement that English majors actually study English poets, and other examples do not really prove that the history of Western Civilization is being lost. I know the field of music best of all and I really don't see any evidence that music schools are dropping the requirements of music theory, ear-training and history. They may have added some courses in pop music, but the others are still central. In fact, our understanding of the history of music is better now than it has ever been. Not only that, but there is near universal access to recordings and scores of this history. What would concern me would be solid data on dropping enrollments or the lowering of standards of admission. Haven't seen that either.

But it is very likely the case that the familiarity with classical music of the general public, at least in North America, has diminished. How much? It would be good to know, but I don't seem much research in that area. All that being said, I will have a look at the upcoming report to see if has much to contribute.

We haven't had much Schubert for a while. Here is Grigory Sokolov with the Impromptu No. 1.




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