In a stinging critique of American higher education titled “The Closing of the American Mind,” University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom argues that Americans need to re-think the nature and purpose of their colleges and universities. Perhaps surprisingly, Bloom addresses music, claiming that education has abandoned all things classical for the “bodily contact, the sensual grunts, and the premature ecstasy” of rock.
Bloom’s book is over two decades old, but is still considered a definitive examination of higher education. No wonder. Bloom touches every base, a few being values, the academic disciplines and academia’s “emphasis on feeling rather than thinking.” His purpose is to describe how colleges are treating these matters and how that treatment is shaping students. Bloom fearlessly takes on music, asserting that much modern day music is responsible for the “impoverished souls of today’s students.”
Interestingly enough, he argues that music should be one of the centerpieces of education. Bloom believes that music shapes the character of children and youth. Like the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, he fears that because music is viewed as recreation, it can easily be considered inconsequential and harmless.
But harmless it isn’t. Who would deny that music can soothe, but can also incite and cast off restraint? Like literature, movies and every other art form, it can inspire or it can debase. Bloom dwells on music’s power to debase, arguing much of what youths listen to is vulgar and primitive. No moralist, he is less concerned with lyrics than he is the music itself, or the beat.
Of course, the beat! Even in ancient schooling, it was understood musicality in general and cadence and rhythm in particular were useful tools for learning. In modern schooling it is the same: what we learn as children becomes more indelible when set to rhyme or music.
Two venues in which music particularly thrives and influences us are church and school. Anyone who has attended an evangelical church lately knows that rock rhythms are well established in evangelical Christianity. The so-called music wars are over and rock rhythms won. Hymnody lost and so did harmony (or “parts”: soprano, alto, tenor, bass), once considered the very soul of music and the source of music’s beauty.
Defenders of “contemporary music,” the rock-oriented sound in churches, contend that new wine cannot stay in old wineskins, meaning the Christian message cannot be contained in any one particular form — such as hymns — and will of itself burst out. This is a true, compelling argument. However, if the new wineskin has holes, it is flawed and questioning it is neither unreasonable nor heretical.
For instance, much of today’s church music is commercially inspired — composed and promoted by professionals. This doesn’t make it evil, but it’s still hard to conceive of Martin Luther, Charles Wesley or John Newton hawking the hymns they have penned or touring and getting rich on them.
It’s equally hard to conceive of any contemporary Christian song with the words “Yeah, yeah” lasting as long as Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress,” Wesley’s “Oh, For a Thousand Tongues” and Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”
Because of rock rhythms, worship is no longer a needed respite from the previous week’s noise, but a continuation of it; no longer a time for “the still, small voice,” but an absolute drowning of it. Its cul-de-sac repetitiveness is numbing.
The biggest hole in the new wineskin, however, is that it is simply youth music. Even the Beatles’ Paul McCartney, who has recently dipped into classical music, remarked: “We can’t be teenagers forever.”
As for schools, they checked out from anything classical years ago, except for what school band members and choral groups might get. Schools have also caved in to teen culture in tolerating the ear-splitting volume of today’s music. Complain at a mid-winter basketball game in a tight filled gymnasium, and all you’ll get is “It’s for the kids; it pumps them up.”
Reasonable assimilation of the old and new can be good, but leaders of youth need to learn that youths need and actually desire something transcendent. For 20 or so years adults have yielded to the tyranny of the present, being all too willing to surrender to youthful tastes instead of cultivating them. In effect, we are teaching youth to be disdainful of anything older than last week, particularly musical compositions.
Essayist Thomas Carlyle once wrote, “Let me have the nation’s music, and I care not who makes the laws.” Carlyle, like Bloom and Plato, understood music’s power. Would that more of us moderns could do the same.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.