Saturday, 22 July 2017

Perseverance and Challenge



I read this in a book review a while ago, and it struck me as an interesting insight into the way certain things have changed:
Though Hajdu doesn’t address this particular issue, he does pinpoint a subtle yet profound transformation digitization has brought about in many people’s listening habits, including his own. Consider, to begin with, what things were like in the pre-digital age:

'I remember buying the album Hejira in 1976, to use the example of Joni Mitchell […] and finding it tuneless and confusing. But, damn it, I spent a whole $7 on the thing. So I stuck with it, hoping to find a way to appreciate it and get my money’s worth. Within a few days, I did, and my taste expanded in the process.'

The situation is quite different now. With a streaming service at your disposal, you can skitter from one song to another (and not only within a single album) until something hooks you from the very start. Hajdu, by his own admission, does just that. Such an approach, he pointedly remarks, “inhibits perseverance and impedes challenge.”

review by Rayyan Al-Shawaf of "Love For Sale: Pop Music in America" by David Hajdu (LARB 16 Jan 2017)
Setting aside the totally baffling reaction to Hejira –  tuneless and confusing? Perhaps he played it backwards? –  the general point being made is sound. Those used to be the keynotes of education, didn't they: "perseverance and challenge"? Even though you might forget every poem, date, fact, theorem, constant, and equation you had encountered along the way, the main takeaway from a solid education was that sticking to difficult tasks brought rewards that far exceeded those of more easily-achieved satisfactions. And, what's more, that is a true truth, universally acknowledged, copper-bottomed, and unconditionally guaranteed.

I knew my career in university libraries was coming to its end when our profession, in its over-eagerness to please, decided to smooth away as many as possible of those little difficulties that, essentially, constitute the real, actual educational benefit of using a research library. You know: learning how to look stuff up, determine whether it is relevant, and whether it exists in your institution, and if so, where and in what form, and if not, how to get hold of it. Above all, to discover the variousness of the world of books, information, and scholarship. Yes, it's inconvenient and frustrating that different catalogues, databases, and reference works all make different assumptions, contain different materials, index them in different ways, and deliver them in different forms and to different degrees of completeness, but learning to navigate these peculiarities is all part of the art of becoming a competent researcher. It's also a genuinely transferable life-skill: how to be indefatigable in the face of systematic bureaucratic obfuscation.

Or, so it seemed, until we decided the best way to serve our students and staff was to disguise and package up these many inconvenient differences – which still exist – into a one-stop automated vending-machine, capable of delivering instant gratification. Why, kids, you don't even have to know how to spell what you're looking for: we've taken care of that! Better, you don't have to get out of bed, as all the stuff on your reading lists is online, right here, ready and waiting! We've spent hours of staff time getting hold of all those reading lists, tracking down the copyright holders, and getting it all legally scanned and digitised for you. So no more boring note-taking and queueing for photocopiers! We've even made an app, so you can "research" your essay on your phone, and it's all so damned seamless, frictionless, and flavourless that you won't know or care whether you're reading a chapter from a book, an article in a peer-reviewed journal, a newspaper column, or a website put up by a 15-year-old as their school project. Spoon feeding? You're kidding me: this is more like force-feeding geese for foie gras...

Sorry, I'm ranting. Also, I should confess: although I did eventually take myself out of that picture because I was no longer comfortable in it, it was precisely me and people like me who, like willing but unwitting atomic scientists, wrote the code and developed the systems that made it all possible. What harm could it do? We had no idea how it would end! It was really good fun! We voz only following orders!  Sigh. In my darker moments, I suspect that some combination of the drive to save time and effort with the desire to be seen to be astonishingly clever will result in the killer app that finally sees off Western civilisation. My little satire of 2010 (on humanities education delivered as a placebo pill) comes to seem less and less far-fetched.

Isn't it interesting, though, how – in the days of the tweeting president and the instant dissemination of false "news" – those of us nominally on the oppositional left should find ourselves taking up what are essentially conservative stances towards things like research skills, attention spans, and reading and listening habits? I suppose there has always been a strong puritanical streak on the Left which, let's be honest, is precisely what has turned most people off. If your idea of the good life is a lively meeting to discuss housing policy, followed by an invigorating run, some green tea and a light, nutritious vegan supper, then an hour or two's reading and an early night to bed, then you are not so much out of touch with the majority population as a separate species sharing the same planet.

But it is important to learn how to tug away at the masks worn by the would-be manipulators of mass society, as they continually assimilate good things to bad ends. Look at how managerialism has co-opted the languages of community, mindfulness, and "personal development" and yet has created a precarious ant-world where people must learn to be corporately on message and to regard themselves as flexible, disposable human resources, lucky to be in work and always needing to justify their continued employment and, if necessary, to take one for the company. Job for life? Final-salary index-linked pension? Trade unions? So last century, grandad! Similarly, the glossiness and invasive ease of use of our "devices", coupled with social media and celebrity culture, have become the lubricants for a know-nothing, "price of everything" popularism that places no value at all on those old-fashioned virtues of perseverance and challenge. TL;DR!* After all, why bother to learn, to seek out, to question, to discriminate, to overcome lazy disinclination, when you are being hosed down with personally-targeted torrents of shiny, sexy, ephemeral infotainment all day, every day? Every hour spent learning irregular verbs or practising scales is an hour that could have been spent catching up with Facebook.

So, have we finally said goodbye to seriousness and difficulty? Many might hope so. As long ago as the book of Ecclesiastes, it was lamented that of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. And will the daughters of musick be brought low, and will there now never be another Hejira, in the sense of a coherent body of work from a serious artist, carefully thought through, and delivered without condescension to a minority audience? Well, of course there will! Except it won't be nine songs on a 12 inch disk of vinyl in a cardboard "gatefold" package. I look forward to it, although I do hope it won't come in pill or implant form**. But, be glad, for the song (and the making of many books) has no ending...



 * Too long, didn't read!
** ImplART ™ ... You read it here first! Just stick it in your sockART!

12 comments:

Paul Mc Cann said...

A very perspicuous piece.

Hmm..... the LP you bought that had only a few tracks you liked but you had to listen to them all or get up to move the arm which you couldn't be bothered to do so eventually you began to appreciate all the tracks. I think the advent of the cd with ability to skip tracks easily was the start of the downfall.

Mike C. said...

Paul,

The first CD player I bought back in 1991 (actually the main one I still use) was an add-on unit to a Sony "music centre". I had to choose between "with or without remote control", and went for "without", on the grounds it was cheaper and I couldn't understand why anyone would want one...

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Lovin' the semi-colon in TL;DR! How many of those young whipper-snappers would bother with that, eh? How come it gave place to a comma in the explanatory footnote?

Andrew Sharp said...

Mike

Two points.

The first a happy memory of wandering out to the Royal Free Hospital Library in Hampstead just to check on one reference. The association with the journey has been enough to prompt the additional memory that it was probably something about parthenogenesis. Though I can't for the life of me now think why that might have been important.

The second, last week, when, as Acting Chair of Governors, I asked the Head about the possibility of children being able to take home science textbooks "in the interest of serendipitous discovery". Of course there'd be cost implications, but he didn't really get the barely stated (I was determined to end the meeting within two hours and wasn't going to push too hard at a firmly shut door) point that with a book your attention at least stands a chance of getting drawn onto pages, or into diagrams, that would otherwise get clicked past or swiped through.

Andy

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

One is a slip of the finger; but which?

Mike

Mike C. said...

Andy,

It's odd, isn't it, being forced into the role of a "traditional skills" reactionary by the short-term league-table-results focus of the contemporary educational world? Good of you to play your part in local governance, though.

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

I just like the idea that someone who couldn't be arsed to read something, or even to express that fact in whole words, would take the trouble to punctuate their abbreviated dismissal -- for clarity, presumably? Excellent use of the semicolon, though. Wasn't there a writer whose dying words were: "I should have used fewer semicolons"?

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

Not one that I've ever heard -- seems a curious regret to have. "I ... should never ... *gasp* ... have used ... so many "quote marks" ... Argh"

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Turns out it's something Lynn Truss mentioned in Eats Shoots that she thought she'd heard, but had been unable to track down. So probably apocryphal. This one, too:


"Er-r-rgh... full stop ..."

Zouk Delors said...

Seriously, the thing everyone should learn about at school is fallacious reasoning.

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

To a certain extent, surprisingly enough, they do (or have done): "critical thinking" was well established on the secondary curriculum, though I think it's been under threat from the increasingly narrow focus on a Tory view of "core subjects".

My pet beef in this regard is the confusion of "correlation" and "cause"...

Mike

Martin H said...

I'm not a huge fan of Joni, but Hejira is in my collection. Haven't played it for a good while, now. I should remedy that. And i hear you, re higher ed. After I qualified in Information Science (at the grand old age of 49) the wheel had turned past the point that had sparked my original interest, three or four years beforehand. I was interviewed for a "professional" post, and was offered the job. But at 03:00 the next morning I woke up with a start, realising that I just couldn't face spending my remaining working years delivering information skills sessions. Bad for me. Bad for the institution. As I have said before, I came to work in the ship's engine room too late in the day. By the time I arrived at the business end, the writing was both on the wall, and on my severance agreement.