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Excellence in the Age of Ratings


​Abstract

This paper, which was presented on July 2nd 2010 at the Dostrovsky Forum for Music Education, at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, tries to discuss the differences between excellence and professionalism while also attempting to reframe the goals of the projects run by the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in the peripheries of Israel. (These projects won the Israeli Council of Higher Education Award for community involvement in 2009 and in 2011). At the same time, the paper also attempts to make a connection between the theories of Abraham Maslow and a festival of young rock groups in the south of Israel.

Excellence in the Age of Ratings

Michael Klinghoffer

It all started at the end of the summer, on a pleasant evening in the south of Israel, during a festival for young rock bands. Several young artists, who began their career at this festival, have gone on to win fame and recognition. Among the players, there were a few whom I knew from a project of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (a project that has won the Israeli Council of Higher Education Award for community involvement). Since I was not “on duty” that evening, but rather playing the role of father (my eldest son, who was volunteering at that time in one of the towns had joined one of the bands), I kept a demeanor of anonymity and listened with much interest and, much of the time, with pleasure as well. At one point, my younger children, who had come to see their big brother and the guest stars perform, whispered to me: “Dad! There’s Mr. Mitelman!! ”Mr. Who?” I asked naively. “Mitelman you know the keyboard player from TV. He’s on the jury. ”

From that moment on, dozens of questions kept surfacing: I thought, for example, about the excitement the presence of a celebrity raises in young people. I thought about how these young artists, blessed with talent, were performing in the south that night, but how they were thinking about the moment that people would recognize them on the street. I thought about how they were dreaming of the money and the glamorous life that went with a megastar status and I thought about the fact that unfortunately for some of them reality might not be as glamorous as the dream and for some the dream might shatter completely.

As time went by, these thoughts were replaced by new ones: "Wow, what a talent… a convincing performance… great talent… true musician… authentic… suitable for The Academy… oopps!!... Not for the Academy… why does she need it … straight to the television… she can swim in her own water… rock needs to grow on the street not in the university…but wasn't this one of our measurable goals to have as many young people come to our academy? Was it not one of our goals to have as many first generation higher education students as possible?

I asked myself if there was a similar phenomenon in other fields. Let us imagine a young man with excellent achievements in the fields of math and science. He is just about to make a choice between a quick and glamorous position in high-tech, and the possibility of working on scientific research. Despite the fact that this young man has all the traits assuring him great success in scientific research, his chances, especially in our country, of earning a respectable living from research are much smaller than his chances of providing for a family by working in high-tech. Even if he were successful in the field of research, the academic path has fewer opportunities, is less financially rewarding, and is much longer. If our young man’s field is in humanities, his situation is even worse.

Just a few weeks ago, the tragically small number of Hebrew literature students was published. What is the likely career path for an articulate student with excellent verbal skills if he chooses to study communications as opposed to the career he should expect if he finished a PhD in literature or history?

Having said this, who are we to claim that the work in literature research is more important than that of advertising? Or that it is better to be involved in classical music than in commercial music? Who am I to use the power that I was given as an educator, in order to influence the future occupation and lives of young people? Can I even promise them that they will be better off in academia than in economics? Or in history research rather than in communications? Can I guarantee them self-fulfillment as musicians and as people, as Music Academy graduates? And what is the most sublime goal of education if not to maximize the potential in each student as a professional and as a person?

Self-actualization is much talked about these days. The psychologist Abraham Maslow drew a straight and obvious connection between self-actualization and excellence. Unlike Freud, who focused on studies of extreme mental disorders and unlike the behaviorists, who studied the average person, Abraham Maslow believed that we should study instead that group of elite excelling people he calls “Self Actualized”.

In his research, Maslow found that creativity is the most distinguishable common denominator among all the subjects he ascribed to that category. This creativity is characterized, among other things, by spontaneity, courage, the willingness to make mistakes and humility. Maslow claims that in some senses this creativity is similar to the creativity of children who have not yet learned to be afraid of the ridicule of others. “Almost any child” says Maslow, “can compose a song or a poem or dance or a painting or a play or a game on the spur of the moment, without planning or previous intent”. 1 If we return, for a moment, to that festival in the south, I can say for certain that the words above are accurate regarding most of the young participants, especially those who preformed original material. Their material, itself, was simple, without sophistry and the performance was spontaneous, expressive, natural and honest. “For this reason” says Maslow, “these people waste little time or energy protecting themselves from themselves. They are not afraid of their own desires; their appetites agree with their judgments.” 2

From the performances of these youngsters, it was clear to me that they had worked very hard. One could not help but notice that they had enjoyed the process at least as much as they enjoyed the results. Maslow also mentions hard work “Inspirations are a dime a dozen. The difference between inspiration and the final product is an awful lot of hard work.” 3 With that, Maslow claims that creative people’s love for games merges with their diligence and thus work and hobby, or game, converge with one another.

Everything seemed perfect on that lovely summer night, maybe too perfect, but I wasn't convinced. Something was missing. My head was once again filled with disturbing questions; does that “childlike” creativity necessarily lead to scientific discovery or groundbreaking artistic creations? Does hard work guarantee that we achieve results that hold meaning for us or other people?

I returned to Maslow and discovered that there are several other traits ascribed to the special people he had researched: for example openness to new ideas and experiences and a deep understanding of themselves, of other people and of processes. Many times, they were people with inner paradoxes. From those seemingly self-paradoxes, Maslow found that these people have the ability to penetrate deep into latent and cluttered realities more efficiently than other people. He calls this trait dichotomy transcendence - the ability to transform opposites into unities. 4 In other words the outcome of our educational work should be a person who asks questions, casts doubt, and from his own self unity tries to find principals of world unity from elements which had been considered unrelated to each other. 5

Let me repeat this last sentence, which for me is the essence of education: At every level and at every age the student must be encouraged to ask questions, to cast doubt, and to find new and interesting connections.

If that is the case then education has to defend itself against three main fallacies:

A) A child cannot be creative if he does not have tools.

Maybe a child cannot write a story if he does not know how to write, but he can make up a story or tell a story. There is no connection between the child’s writing skills and his ability to create a story and express himself with the tools available to him. At least from my experience with the festival in the south, I feel that natural creativity exists in everyone and as educators, we have to nurture it and keep it safe. As Maslow says, we have to help children overcome the fear of other people’s reaction. Those teenagers from the festival in the south, had no academic training in music, and I think most of them had learned by themselves or studied with a teacher for only a very few years. This fact did not stop them from expressing what was in their hearts in order to achieve a degree of professionalism that would not shame any popular television show. However, the road from here to the masterpieces of rock and pop is still long. The greatest danger in this assertion is to assume that if indeed we should not touch the “things that are beyond” until the students have learned enough skills, we might find the students have grown up and we have yet to engage them. This assertion “helps” teachers and students to avoid dealing with the real issues, which are probably more complex for both.

B) We should strive for professionalism.

With the help of correct methods, practice, determination and diligence, we can achieve results of the highest degree of professionalism in every field. An orchestra that plays perfectly together with a beautiful sound, in perfect intonation and with all the right notes is certainly a great accomplishment but not always a great pleasure to hear. We must remember that all these are mandatory conditions, but they are not sufficient for a musical experience to occur either for the performer or for the listener. Unfortunately, we are so blinded by the idea of professionalism, that in most cases we stop at this stage.

C) If it cannot be measured, it is does not exist.

In the age of ratings, where success is a measurable thing, there is no place for excellence. Professionalism is measurable: how much this or that group has played together, how many mistakes were made, how clear the text was (what percentage of the text did we understand correctly) all of these are measurable. On the other hand, how much a song challenges convention is immeasurable, how many musical and non-musical connotations does it stimulate for the listener, even how original and how soulful the performance was is immeasurable. We can check how many correct answers a student had on his mathematics exam, but we cannot quantify just how original or elegant a particular solution was. When we stumble upon a brilliant solution or a brilliant creation, we identify them immediately, but we are afraid to approach the subject because of questions such as how can we measure success? How will we be able to grade? Maybe it is all a subjective matter?

Being part of an academic institution, I went into the process of evaluation and assessment of our project in the community. In order for the evaluation to be even more objective, we hired ZOFNAT, a company that is known for its work with educational institutions. The results were surprising to all of us - students and faculty, as well as, to the people from the communities we worked in.

The highest-ranking statements in all three locations were, in the first place: "I have learned that in order to improve I have to work hard and put in much soul", (Average 4.91 out of maximum 5), and in the second place was the statement: "I like working with my student instructors", (Average 4.78). These two statements were rated far ahead of all the other ones, including the ones that dealt with the various musical experiences and with the individual musical progress.

“Had we failed musically?” I asked myself, “Shouldn't we be teaching music? Shouldn't we instill musical skills? Shouldn't we make them better young professionals? What about all the measurable outcomes?”

But then I tried to think what I felt were the most cherished moments that I had experienced with this project. The first one was quite frightening: one afternoon the bus was late, when we approached we saw the children waiting for us in the parking lot. When they noticed us coming, they started running enthusiastically towards the bus. I cannot forget how I panicked at that moment. Neither can I forget the excitement and happiness on the children's faces.

The other event was when two drummers came for the first time to the Academy in Jerusalem and we took them into the percussion room. Just looking into their eyes said everything. A new and exciting world of mystery and possibilities had just opened up for them and for us. These were strong experiences, but like the statements that we discovered in our survey, they had nothing to do with measurable musical success. Rather, they had to do with the vague term "values". Was that then what we had been doing? Should we reframe our goals?

If indeed education is about actualizing the potential of everyone, as a person and as a professional, we must acknowledge the fact that instilling knowledge and skills, important as they may be, must forever remain only within the boundaries of the necessary conditions and we must therefore always strive to go beyond the measurable into the real world of values.

It was late; the young musicians were saying their last goodbyes. We went back stage to congratulate my son on his performance. A few of the musicians came to me and said: "the project will continue next year, right?" and one of them added: "and by the way, what do I need to do if I want to study at the Academy?"

Notes

  1. Goble Frank, G., The Third Force: The Psychology of Abraham Maslow (Maurice Bassett Publishing). P. 39

2. Ibid p.41

3. Ibid p.40

4. Ibid p. 113

5. Ibid p.42

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