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Excellence in the Age of Ratings


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 “Inspirat