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Basic musicianship and reading, and academic standards

Bradley Lehman
wrote (April 23, 2004):
<< It is even possible for a beginner to have a fresh insight, but this seems anathema to the "expert". >>
< Indeed it certainly is, and I doubt anyone here would suggest otherwise. But what causes hackles to rise is when certain people seek to lecture others who know better than they what is right and wrong. That is a quite different matter. >
Indeed it is. At issue in the music are several of the very most basic points of musicianship and score-reading:

- (1) That notes that look the same as one another on the page might still be vastly different from one another in sound, whether marked or not, due to their musical context. And especially so with regard to their placement on strong or weak parts of the bar, and their membership in different musical figures. This varies from piece to piece, and from passage to passage within a piece, even within a single bar of music sometimes. Good musicians draw upon every available clue of musical analysis (and many also draw upon historical record) to decide what to do.

The basic point here is: this musicianship is NOT musicians being cavalier with the material, on any whim or any desire to put themselves forward as unique/interesting, but it is a quest to find and bring out the musical content clearly. This is studied craftsmanship; it is not arbitrary. Most of it is objective study of the material, and diligent hard work. Important details exist even though they are not marked; it comes from context and from deep knowledge of basic principles, and experience with similar situations. The corollary is: composers did not and do not mark everything performers need to know, even if the articulation marks may look complete enough (to a non-performer). A document I prepared about this, some years ago: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/performance-preparation.htm

When non-experts dismiss all that objective and diligent work as if it's worthless, just because it's not immediately understandable to them and/or sounds "wrong" to them, it's an expression of disdain: both for those who do the work, and for the music itself (even if the non-expert doesn't realize that's what is being said within his opinion). It's an assertion that serious study means nothing, really; that a naive or
dilettante approach is just as good or better.

- (2) That markings on a page may mean the performer should DE-emphasize certain notes in some situations. The hierarchy of the notes is not at all obvious from the page; performers work hard to parse it all and present it in a reasonable balance of emphasis and de-emphasis, through analysis and rehearsal and inspiration. The composer has provided some clues through the markings, but markings have meaning only in immediate context: to clarify some choices that otherwise might not be obvious. One must understand the basic craftsmanship behind it all to know why the markings are there in the first place, and to figure out what they might signify. One must know what the norms are before understanding how the markings might change any of the expected norms.

A listener who comes to all this only as a consumer of other people's work (through recordings and live performances, and reading written analyses) still has no basis to decide what is really right or wrong in that matter, but only to form some preferences of favored ways that seem to work well. It's still other people's work being digested, and judged for relative value. With no solid basis for comparison, not knowing the craftsmanship behind it all, it's all just an arbitrary preference for things that seem right (according to whatever criteria such a listener might choose). Such a listener certainly does not have the qualifications to lecture others on what they must do, or must believe. Such critical assessments are merely a personal preference, even if the critics have deluded themselves that they are being objective.

=====

Diligent listeners may have gone through every Bach cantata (or whatever) with multiple recordings, and following along carefully with good scores, and studying what musicians and scholars have written about the music; and that process alone gives some level of familiarity. It is worth something. But still, without those most basic tools of practical musicianship (years of training and experience, directly in interpretation) the result is not "expertise" of any stripe. It's all still a shortcut around knowing the material, and being directly conversant with it as a living language. The reproduction and manipulation of other people's work is not expertise. It's consumerism.

If one doesn't know how to treat marked and unmarked notes, considering every musical situation separately in context, building an interpretation from the ground up (not copying what one has heard elsewhere), it's not expertise. It's consumerism.

And when such consumers lecture people who do have expertise how the job should be done better, that's right out. Teaching credentials do come from mastery and experience, and a demonstrated competence; that's what credentials and accreditation mean. People without credentials are free to have whatever opinions they do, but these are not expert opinions.

When such opinions are mistaken as expert, or as viable teaching, either by the people who present them (fancying themselves as experts) or by other consumers (lauding non-experts as experts), it all just becomes an expression of personal preferences. And personal preferences are fine, IF PRESENTED AS SUCH, and not as pseudo-objective delineations of absolute truth. When non-expertise is lauded as if it were expertise, real expertise means nothing.

=====

I had a discussion with my wife this afternoon as she grades the final exams she gave yesterday, in a university course she teaches. She feels bad that so many students bluffed answers or made up things that really don't follow the directions; should she give a good mark anyway?

But what does academic integrity mean? Either the students learned the material and grappled with it, or they didn't; and those who didn't should not (in my opinion) get good marks as if they did. It's not fair to the students who didn't learn it (to convince them that they know things they really don't), and it's not fair to the students who DO know the material. Yes? We have this discussion just about every time she has papers to mark.... Yes, it's desirable to have students feel good about their work...but only if they really DID the work. If they didn't do the work, the instructor's professional duty is to challenge them to do better next time: and to have their education (and resulting credentials) mean they really did learn, and learn how to learn.

If the students skipped over the basics, or skipped over processes of real reasoning, they did not learn...except learning how to bluff and sometimes get away with it. A good student should be able to look back later and realize that he/she learned the most through experiences of failure, of having bluffs called by an instructor who would not settle for less than best work. It is the duty of an accredited instructor to provide such a challenge, along with appropriate encouragement when work is well done: enough encouragement to keep the student engaged and attentive. The instructor's approval is not the correct reward for work being well done: the correct reward is that the student now knows something worth knowing, REALLY knows it.

If there is too much approval, in situations where it is not really deserved (and especially where the student's bluffs are outright wrong, being based on no solid evidence), the material is not learned to the student's best ability; and the student does not grow. Worse: if that student goes on to teach others, the whole field of inquiry is degraded by the misinformation that that student has invented...whether he/she realizes it's of his own invention, or not! It's that problem I mentioned ab, of a lack of objectivity, and of preferences masquerading as objectivity. The student doesn't really know what's right or wrong, until he/she has actually done the work (and not merely reproduced or manipulated other people's work), really learning the material from the basics on up.

Brad Lehman
(feeling pedantic at the moment)


What is the aim of musicianship?

Tom Dent
wrote (April 26, 2005):
There is a saying, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Even if the cook is known as the best in the world, is working from the most famous recipes, using the most expensive and freshest ingredients, having practiced all his adult life, it is still possible that he has a lapse in judgment and puts in too much salt, so that one cannot taste the fines herbes that were put in the stock, or forgets to check that the pearl onions are sufficiently cooked ... at the end of the day, the power rests, and properly so, with the consommateur, to tell him that this is the case - at least, with an informed diner with a sensitive palate, who knows what is in the recipe.

There are those cooks who say that a mere customer cannot possibly read a recipe in such a way as to tell whether a dish is correctly cooked or not - it is for the cook to judge whether the salt should drown out the fines herbes, or the pearl onions be crunchy. Only the cook has sufficient cooksmanship to make objective judgments, and the layman has no business to say that anything he does is incorrect. But I cannot agree. Even the dullest reader can deduce that there would be no point asking for herbes if there was no chance of tasting them, and that if the onions were supposed to be underdone, the recipe would not have said to add them at the very beginning.

The situation is markedly analogous to the interpretation of the Bible by the Roman church and the Reformation. On one side, the hierocracy saying that the only people qualified to attain a correct interpretation of Scripture are ordained priests, and it is positively dangerous to allow every layman to read his own Bible. On the other side, the Lutherans...

Returning to cookery, what can we say if a well-known cook makes a dish one way, then twenty years later a totally different way, creating a quite other taste? Does that not explode the notion that there was something authoritative about what he was doing twenty years ago? If he was telling us then that his way of cooking was the authentic taste of the dish based on the best old recipes, what can we think now?

Well, I am fed to the back teeth with metaphor now, so I will simply say that Harnoncourt's recordings, like Karajan's, are to me almost incredibly variable in musical effect, even in recordings of one single work - some of them utterly convincing, some of them cranky, bizarre or even downright unmusical. I am at a loss to explain such huge variability, except that Harnoncourt is a person who is unusually open to the influence of new ideas and enthusiasms, to the point of pursuing them to extremes and sometimes losing sight of basic principles which are commonly recognized as essential. Neither he nor any other music-director can be thought of as an ex-cathedra source of correct interpretations regardless of the listener, since any interpretation which leaves the listener cold is, de facto, incorrect. (It is a different case if listener recognizes the expressive intention of the musician but dislikes it.)

To descend to particulars for a moment, and steal a concept from Robert Sherman: although Baroque handbooks tell us very clearly to play the second note of two slurred together softer and shorter, the application of this recipe may easily lead to results as mechanical and phraseless as playing each note equally. What the listener appreciates is not the dynamic shading and articulation, but the intention behind it, which is not written in the treatises but has to come (or fail to come) from the musician's instinct.

So what is the correct defence against the objective criticism that "With Harnoncourt the resolution to this cadence is inaudible, or this sentence sounds disconnected, or there is no long phrasing in this movement"? The Argument from the Professional's Authority does not work. Everyone will agree that notes and words should be clearly heard, even if very soft, that words should be connected into sentences, that long phrasing is necessary, etc. You can either say "I myself have no trouble hearing the cadence, the words, or the long phrasing" - or "Harnoncourt brings such other qualities to this performance that these failings are not important".

Historical study helps us to remove our current errors and misconceptions, it doesn't prevent us from introducing others.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 26, 2005):
< There is a saying, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Even if the cook is known as the best in the world, is working from the most famous recipes, using the most expensive and freshest ingredients, having practiced all his adult life, it is still possible that he has a lapse in judgment and puts in too much salt, so that one cannot taste the fines herbes that were put in the stock, or forgets to check that the pearl onions are sufficiently cooked ... at the end of the day, the power rests, and properly so, with the consommateur, to tell him that this is the case - at least, with an informed diner with a sensitive palate, who knows what is in the recipe. >
These are good points. But, watch out for a fallacy too: the assumption that the consommateur staring at a recipe (let's say, a good Urtext score of a Bach piece published by the NBA) has the music-reading skills to know what all those markings--and the LACK of markings--had as normal meaning to Bach's own musicians. The meaning has changed, subsequently, for some of those markings that look similar to modern ones. [Take the obvious and controversial case of trills notated with the little zigzag: how fast, how many iterations in which contexts, and what notes do they start and end on, and do they continue through the duration of the main note or not? And do they start on the beat or between the beats, or differently placed in different situations? And are terminations with the lower note implicit, depending on speed and metric placement and the direction of the next note?]

Furthermore, a musical score describes a process of performance; and how is a consommateur to know what such a process entails, having no experience putting one together...especially when some important parts of that performance are to be appropriately controlled improvisation? How is a consommateur to know why the elements are written into that recipe at all, except for his own expectation (which isn't necessarily the composer's) that he should be able to taste every single atom of the soup if he sees that atom described on the page?

Just because the script of a Shakespeare play says nothing at all about costumes, and doesn't have the normal strong and weak syllables and words marked to stand out from one another, should we do the whole play in the nude and with no staging and with scrupulous attention to having every single syllable be audible? Would that be somehow faithful to Shakespeare's intentions? How do we know?

< There are those cooks who say that a mere customer cannot possibly read a recipe in such a way as to tell whether a dish is correctly cooked or not - it is for the cook to judge whether the salt should drown out the fines herbes, or the pearl onions be crunchy. Only the cook has sufficient cooksmanship to make objective judgments, and the layman has no business to say that anything he does is incorrect. But I cannot agree. Even the dullest reader can deduce that there would be no point asking for herbes if there was no chance of tasting them, and that if the onions were supposed to be underdone, the recipe would not have said to add them at the very beginning. >
Let's take a very simple recipe: cooking rolled oats to make oatmeal. The recipe says to add salt to the water before adding the oats. Does the eater of the oatmeal expect the results to taste salty, just because it says so? Does the eaterof the oatmeal, if he's never tried cooking it, know what the result is to add the salt too late, or to omit it altogether, or to know specifically why his oatmeal tastes weird this time?

< Well, I am fed to the back teeth with metaphor now, so I will simply say that Harnoncourt's recordings, like Karajan's, are to me almost incredibly variable in musical effect, even in recordings of one single work - some of them utterly convincing, some of them cranky, bizarre or even downright unmusical. >
I'm not very happy with his recording of BWV 31, myself.... But on the other hand, I know that I myself would probably get even worse results than he did if I tried to conduct any group of teenaged musicians, even though I have plenty of experience conducting university students and older adults. So, I don't go around splattering comments across the internet about the way Harnoncourt is allegedly some loser who can't even read music correctly, which is the type of derogatory commentary to which I'm reacting here.

< I am at a loss to explain such huge variability, except that Harnoncourt is a person who is unusually open to the influence of new ideas and enthusiasms, to the point of pursuing them to extremes and sometimes losing sight of basic principles which are commonly recognized as essential. >
Agreed.

< Neither he nor any other music-director can be thought of as an ex-cathedra source of correct interpretations regardless of the listener, since any interpretation which leaves the listener cold is, de facto, incorrect. (It is a different case if listener recognizes the expressive intention of the musician but dislikes it.) >
Who's expecting Harnoncourt--or anyone else of sufficient experience--to be such an infallible interpreter? Or, the even more difficult task, to be able to move every possible listener, no matter how hostile to his approaches? I'm not expecting that. I do know from the experience of listening to some 200 of his recordings (across the gamut of his repertoire) that I usually find them at least interesting, if not always convincing. I can't think of a single Harnoncourt recording of anything where I felt afterward that the listening experience was entirely a waste of my time and attention.

A Harnoncourt performance works--or doesn't work, as the case may be--not BECAUSE he is Harnoncourt (the argument-by-authority method) but because he gets his musicians and listeners to rethink the music, to hear it from different angles. He knows how to make such a process happen, usually in ways that call quite a bit of attention to musical details in the texture. (And sometimes with a corresponding loss of the big-picture sweep; that's something to be balanced also....) Another conductor who was very good at bringing out details was Klemperer. And, listen to the astounding recording of Webern conducting the Berg violin concerto!

< To descend to particulars for a moment, and steal a concept from Robert Sherman: although Baroque handbooks tell us very clearly to play the second note of two slurred together softer and shorter, the application of this recipe may easily lead to results as mechanical and phraseless as playing each note equally. What the listener appreciates is not the dynamic shading and articulation, but the intention behind it, which is not written in the treatises but has to come (or fail to come) from the musician's instinct. >
Agreed. A mechanical application of anything is probably wrong, most of the time.

< So what is the correct defence against the objective criticism that "With Harnoncourt the resolution to this cadence is inaudible, or this sentence sounds disconnected, or there is no long phrasing in this movement"? The Argument from the Professional's Authority does not work. Everyone will agree that notes and words should be clearly heard, even if very soft, that words should be connected into sentences, that long phrasing is necessary, etc. You can either say "I myself have no trouble hearing the cadence, the words, or the long phrasing" - or "Harnoncourt brings such other qualities to this performance that these failings are not important". >
Or, "Long phrasing is not necessarily a historically appropriate goal in this repertoire, because it stems from much later expectations that had nothing to do with Bach's milieu...." Or some such. And, there can also be "long phrasing" that is made up of smaller components having silence within and between them. Again, that's part of musicianship to be able to project such connections even across the silences.

< Historical study helps us to remove our current errors and misconceptions, it doesn't prevent us from introducing others. >
Agreed!

Charles Francis wrote (April 27, 2005):
Tom Dent wrote: < There are those cooks who say that a mere customer cannot possibly read a recipe in such a way as to tell whether a dish is correctly cooked or not - it is for the cook to judge whether the salt should drown out the fines herbes, or the pearl onions be crunchy. Only the cook has sufficient cooksmanship to make objective judgments, and the layman has no business to say that anything he does is incorrect. But I cannot agree. >
Indeed, one doesn't need to be a plumber to perceive a problem with the drains.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 27, 2005):
[To Charles Francis] This "trout in the milk" argument has been discussed before: see part C at: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/secret-gershwin.html
(That's about discernment of "Bach's intentions" by consumers, judging "correctness" by their own subjective expectations, and convincing themselves that they provide meaningful objective analysis that's somehow not available to experts.)

Excerpt:
"Things that appear obvious or certain to a casual observer still might not be credible to a more trained or experienced eye. The expert observer is supposed to know the broader background around a situation, and know the possibilities that things might be coincidences and/or explainable by more elegant theories (such as the normal behavior of the material being studied). (...) How is a non-practitioner in any field placed well for objective judgment of work that is done in that field? Or to judge the 'intentions' of the people doing that work, past or present? Let alone, to expound any supposedly exclusive knowledge of such intentions, knowledge that practitioners in the field allegedly do not have! The absurdity mounts."

Alan Bruguiéres wrote (April 27, 2005):
The "trout in the milk" debate is fascinating.

Of course specialists who have devoted long years of study to a subject have earned the respect of mere amateurs. Clearly the amateur should utter his views with respectful humility in the presence of the specialist.

However I believe that the specialist should also retain a certain degree of humility. Indeed, in the history of science, there are quite a few examples where an 'amateur' brought about major progress and was reviled by a large majority of specialists for many years before the truth was reluctantly acknowledged... let me give two examples:

- when Michael Ventris, an architect, deciphered the linear B script thus proving that the language of mycaenian grece was greek, the archeological community was incredulous because the official creed was that the language could not be greek. In fact there was absolutely no objective reason to exclude greek, and moreover that's a linguistic problem, outside the field of competence of archaeologists. Indeed, the tablets were found in Greece so greek was a reasonable candidate (to a layman)...

- when Alfred Wegener, another amateur, propounded the theory of continental drift, he based his arguments on remarkable coincidences in the shapes and geological characteristics of continents which were rejected by most specialists as amateurish nonsense. At that time the same specialists thought that the continents had always occupied the same place, but, in order to account for the puzzling distribution of fossiles, they explained that at certain times in the past bridges were made or unmade the continents; they even drew maps of those bridges. Still anybody in their senses would recognize that such coincidences demand an explanation, while the maps with the bridges coming and going across thousands of miles of ocean in order to allow species to migrate seem completely crazy.

I'm not sufficiently learned in musicology to say whether similar collective mistakes were made - probably not - but in a larger sense, as a scientist, I'm sometimes slightly ill-at-ease when I hear certain fellow scientists professing absolute certitude as to their views, notably in archaeology, biology or computer science (of course mathematicians are completely blameless in this respect, mathematical truth being absolute truth;)

Sorry for this long message so remotely related to Bach's cantatas!

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 27, 2005):
[To Alan Bruguiéres]
Agreed!

And there's a difference between:

- (A) amateurs presenting ideas quietly and respectfully, pointing out objective observations and then letting the specialists come to their own conclusions as to what to do about it, if anything...

and

- (B) amateurs trying to exact vigilante justice (i.e. a lynching of any prominent personnel who dare to explain their own art) by playing hooky and playing God, and trying to force specialists to listen by first alleging that the specialists are incompetent, ignorant, and improperly motivated next to themselves. Broader category: amateurs "teaching" material they really do not understand and are not properly qualified to teach; the material suffers.

It's a matter of approach.

=====

Likewise, there's a difference between:

- (C) specialists listening in silence as their field is pilloried by people who don't know the answers but make up absurdities, being unwilling to listen to established answers and objective reason (no matter how carefully and thoroughly they're explained)...

and

- (D) specialists standing up in defense of the material, to explain why the established answers (and the reasoning) are the way they are; both in profound respect to the material and its accuracy, and in profound respect to one's superiors and colleagues.

The amateurs have no responsibility to the material or to any structure of expertise, where trained specialists really do know what they're doing and the investment in training is worth something. And this amateur license (leveling the playing field on their own terms, reducing everything to their own understanding, and expecting to be listened to as equals) lets them get away with any murder that occurs to their arbitrary and subjective whim.

There appears to be no appropriate specialist response to this. If the specialist chooses approach (C), the material gets buried under a mountain of absurdities, and innocent bystanders get "taught" a bunch of nonsense. Or if the specialist chooses approach (D) he gets accused of causing trouble and disrespecting amateurism and being closed-minded; all accusations that stem from self-defensive amateurs taking the arrogant approach (B) rather than recognizing their own limitations and sticking with (A).

Eric Bergerud wrote (April 27, 2005):
[To Alan Bruguiéres] If one wishes to define an "amateur" as someone without a degree in a field then much good research has been done by amateurs. Ventris, for instance, was not an archeologist but he was an extremely keen self-trained expert in Bronze Age Greek history and, obviously, a skilled linguist. In Bach's era science itself was advanced by people with money and curiosity who played the same role as Ventris in the 1950's. Benjamin Franklin was a fine example.

Like anyone in scholarship I've seen academic pomposity at work and it really is funny. It bothers historians no end that most of the people that sell books in their fields are either mere "writers" or, worse, journalists. David McCullough, a splendid popular biographer in the US, did a stint with Sports Illustrated, before becoming one of the richest biographer/popular historians of the century. But his stuff is very good. Most historians, I would like to think, grant him his success with good grace and envy his bank account. And so they should. Like Ventris, McCullough is a dogged researcher and has mastered his craft. I should think that there are hundreds of highly skilled self-trained musicologists around. The study of music, after all, would be a very obvious accompaniment to playing music.

The picture is a little different when dealing with fans. Most people that buy Bach CDs or go to concerts are not trained musicians anymore than the readers of my books are trained historians. There are fields so specialized that research can only be understood by the initiated but music, thankfully, is not one of them. (Nor is history.) Above all music is art. Furthermore, historically it is an art created specifically for a public audience of one sort of another. And for the most part musicians very much want to please their public: it's good for the career and the ego if nothing else.

So I see nothing wrong with a music fan expressing opinions about things that please them or don't. I go on the assumption that classical music is no different than pop music at one level - there are many more people that would like to get paid for making music than the market will allow for. Consequently, I should think that anyone playing for a professional orchestra is a very skilled musician. Conductors are in their own way up a notch. In any case, it would show real conceit for a run of the mill music fan to criticize the musicianship of a performer. It's perfectly okay for one to say, I like one performance better than another. It's quite another to say I like one performance better than another because the second conductor is a moron. To claim that ignorance of a field is some kind of advantage would be the ultimate conceit. (The only exception here concerns opera divas. It appears to be "common usage" to adore or condemn the diva of your choice, and as this tradition is an old one in music, we must respect it. So if someone doesn't like Cecilia Bartoli they have cotton in their ears.)

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (April 27, 2005):
What is the aim of musicianship? somewhat ot

[To Eric Bergerud] I would agree 100 per cent with you that many gifted people have made very valuable contributions to various fields with little or no formal education in this are. The word Amateur is and should be a very honorable word but certain snobby people and denigrated it and dragged amateurs through the mud as people who have no depth in their knowledge and who know alot about nothing and nothing about alot.

The problem arizes from the petty jealousies of so-called formally trained educated people who believe in the fallacy of looking down their snobby noses that just because they may have a Ph.d they are far more qualifed in a particular area than anyone who may not have a High School Education but are like Ventris and Edison and have educated themsleves to a finnese that the Phds do not have and never will have.

The great tragedy of this is that these degreed folks discriminate against such people and deprive many others of achieving the heights that they could have had had they not been blocked by the snobby nose formal educated types who seem to think that if you do not do well in academic work you will never amount to anything.

These non-degreed or sufficiently degreed people could be teaching at Univeristy but never will be allowed to just as a black man was not allowed a professorship at Johns Hopkins University (which he deserved) during the 1940s period because of the color of his skin and having only an eight grade education originally but later getting a high school diploma. Yet this man discovered medical treatments that resulted in many of us being alive today. With little money and only a high school diploma, an African-American lab technician named Vivien Thomas in 1944 pioneered a groundbreaking heart operation at Johns Hopkins that saved thousands of children's lives and ushered in the modern era of cardiac surgery.

Vivian had taught himself everything he knew and taught MeDoctors how to do the surgery who then tried to take credit for Vivien's work.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 27, 2005):
< To claim that ignorance of a field is some kind of advantage would be the ultimate conceit. (The only exception here concerns opera divas. It appears to be "common usage" to adore or condemn the diva of your choice, and as this tradition is an old one in music, we must respect it. So if someone doesn't like Cecilia Bartoli they have cotton in their ears.) >
Florence Foster Jenkins sang as if she had cotton in her ears. :) Whenever I hear her repertoire sung by somebody else, I still can't erase the memory of her interpretations: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000003F97

Or Jo Stafford doing it on purpose, as Darlene Edwards: http://www.counterpoint-music.com/specialties/interview.html

John Reese wrote (April 28, 2005):
[To William Rowland (Ludwig)] There was a scene in the movie "Good Will Hunting" that seemed to make this same point. In it, the uneducated prodigy Will Hunting put a snobby academic to shame in a battle of wits. He went on to taunt his opponent by claiming he had paid big money for the same knowledge that the movie's hero had acquired for free in a public library.

While it may be comforting to think that someone can lift himself by his own bootstraps without the benefit of a formal education, it is important to remember that formal education does much more than put knowledge into peoples' heads -- it teaches them how to use that knowledge. Most importantly, it teaches them how to discern truth from pseudo-truth; that is, something that is presented as true by using flowery language, references, and other impressive devices, but which is not actually supported by evidence or even sound logic. In short, it teaches critical thinking. Without this skill, learning by reading a lot, in isolation, can lead to the absorption of a LOT of misinformation.

Although there are some deluded academics and some brilliant amateurs, they are the exception rather than the rule. For every Edison, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of people who think they know better than the experts, but do not. As the saying goes, ignorance breeds confidence far more than knowledge does.

Robert Sherman wrote (April 28, 2005):
[To John Reese] An interesting example: Harry Glantz was Toscanini's trumpeter in the NYPHil and then the NBC Symphony. Toscanini called him "the Caruso of the trumpet" and made him the highest-paid member of the NBC Symphony in order to get him to leave the NYPHil. Today most trumpeters regard him has having had the best sound of any trumpeter, ever. He had a thrillingly immense, dark and heroic Wagnerian tone nobody has been able to match before or since. (Unfortunately for us, he did little or no baroque, but set that aside.)

Harry Glantz was denied an appointment at the Yale Music School because he didn't have a college degree.

Tom Dent wrote (April 28, 2005):
John Reese wrote: < While it may be comforting to think that someone can lift himself by his own bootstraps without the benefit of a formal education, >
like Furtwängler, Borodin, Beecham, Sammons, HC Robbins Landon and a thousand others in music...

< (...) formal education does much more than put knowledge into peoples' heads -- it teaches them how to use that knowledge. >
People without formal education typically lack that ability?

< (...) it teaches critical thinking. Without this skill, >
People who leave school at 17 are typically incapable of critical thinking? Anyone falling into this category would quite justifiably be offended.

Practical musicianship is one area where the self-taught are remarkably successful, if they have any talent: in my opinion, because they are just as able as the conservatoire student to tell a good performance from a bad one. Of course, to teach oneself to sing, compose, conduct or play the violin is if anything more arduous than going to a professional teacher.

William Rowland (Ludwig) wrote (April 28, 2005):
[To Robert Sherman] If what you state:
"While it may be comforting to think that someone can lift himself by his own bootstraps without the benefit of a formal education, it is important to remember that formal education does much more than put knowledge into peoples' heads -- it teaches them how to use that knowledge. Most importantly, it teaches them how to discern truth from pseudo-truth; that is, something that is presented as true by using flowery language, references, and other impressive devices, but which is not actually supported by evidence or even sound logic. In short, it teaches critical thinking. Without this skill, learning by reading a lot, in isolation, can lead to the absorption of a LOT of misinformation."
First of all most univeristy students,especially at State Universities in the United States, teach themseleves the subject matter---there is little learning that can take place (especially in classrooms of 500 students) when the professor thinks he can teach simply because he knows the material. Not everyone is able to teach---Einstein for example was a very poor teacher at best. The professor serves more as a guide than a teacher in University.

In the English and European system; one has tutors that one visits ever so often but the rest of time is given over to Library research and reading. The only difference here is that the non-degreed person learns outside a formal institution and the degreed one learns within such a setting.

If what you claim is not a fallacy then Benjamin Franklin by rights should have never risen to the status that he did. Certainly Andrew Carnegie would have never gotten anywhere had he never come to America. (there is a story that Andrew's mother,who was very poor and of low class, dreamed that she could ride down in a fancy carriage,High Street of her town looking down her snobby nose at those who had given her the same treatment. She did just that when Andrew's money made her someone to be recogned with).

If your claim is not a fallacy them all liberal arts degreed people would be able to find jobs to apply their skills they learned with. Yet you find in the United States people with Phds in History driving cabs and doing menial labor who should be doing something more worthy of their backgrounds. By the same token you have someone who has been able to overcome the lack of a degree and getting kicked out of school becoming great sucesses in life----Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind on this score.

Immigration has been good for America but the downside of it is that the snobs brought their discriminatory class baggage with them--the very sort of baggage and class structure the sought to get away from in Europe. It makes presumptions that just because someone who is not degreed but just as well read and knowledgeable is less than someone who is degreed. This is violation of American Civil rights and now most of the Western world as one is innocent until proven guilty.

Finally if what you claim is not a fallacy we would not have Phds scammed by scamming artists because through the trainining of logic, you speak of, they should see through the scam. Yet this happens to very intelligent logical people.

E. Douglas Jensen wrote (April 28, 2005):
[To John Reese] Usually scenes like that in the pop media are intended to make the unschooled majority feel better about themselves by staging versions of such cases that occur extremely rarely in the real world. That we can remember and post a few such very rare cases attests to how rare and thus memorable they are. Almost always, people who are talented and educated and experienced on a topic make most of the contributions, and most of the most important ones, and have insights and judgments superior to people who lack that talent and/or education and experience.

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Last update: řApril 28, 2005 ř22:26:48