Friday, March 1, 2013

Artie Shaw on the Pitfalls of Academia

Those familiar with Artie Shaw's biography know that one of the defining characteristics of his career was a dissatisfaction with the life of a gigging musician. His various retirements from the music business have been well documented--usually explained within the framework of his literary goals. Less well known is that, when Shaw was still a young man making his way through the New York studio scene, he was deeply attracted to the notion of an academic career. He was dissuaded from doing so by an assistant professor of biology, who encouraged him to continue making a living in music.

[He] pointed out, in an academic career such as I had in mind, instead of achieving any real freedom from preoccupations with petty detail, I would only bog down in more petty details. "You'll find yourself, some twenty years from now, worrying about money, worrying about trying to meet your annual expenses on a salary no self respecting plumber would be willing to work for. On top of that you'll be all snarled up with campus and faculty politics, disillusioned with teaching, because for every one student who wants to learn anything you'll run up against five thousand who are only there for the sake of a degree by which they hope to better themselves financially, and in general you'll wind up a tired, cynical, disgusted old man, wondering why the devil you ever got yourself into such a cul-de-sac to begin with."

At first I tried to argue with him. "But it is a secure life, isn't it?" I insisted. "And in it a fellow can find time to write and think and work toward some constructive end, can't he?"

"Oh sure--I suppose it's secure enough, as far as lives go," he told me. "But it's kind of a living death, too. And as far as constructive ends are concerned, you're better off trying to earn some money in your own profession, where you've got a good chance of doing that, and then figuring out what you want to do about constructive ends. At least you'll have some freedom of choice that way, whereas once you get yourself involved in the life you'll have to live as a teacher, you'll soon find yourself so disillusioned you'll be glad to get away from anything connected with what you do for a living."

I still wasn't convinced, however. I went to his laboratory with him several times, and when he showed me some of the fascinating work he was doing I was more convinced than ever. Finally, though, he managed to show me graphically what he meant.

What he did was to take me to a faculty "tea." After that, I began to see the light. 

One other thing occurred at about this same time, which had it's effect on my ultimate decision.

I was taking a course in American history.  [...] [The] instructor was one of the most narrow-minded, dull-witted, unimaginative, uninspired, insensitive, and downright stupid hacks I have ever run into in my entire life--not only in "his" field, but in any field I have ever even brushed up against.

The blow-off came after I had taken my examination for this "course." He flunked me. It all resolved itself down to one question in the exam. [...] The exam had asked for "three causes of the War Between the States." Although the answers I had given were all correct enough...they were not the ones "in the book"--meaning the particular textbook used for that particular course. [...]

"But aren't there any other books you're willing to recognize as having any authority?" I demanded.

"I don't believe," he said primly, "it is the place of the student to inform his instructor as to which are or are not proper sources."

"That isn't what I was trying to do," I said. "I'm only saying that there ought to be some room for further or even other causes than those given in that one text we've been studying."

"I'm sorry," he replied, more primly than ever. "I'm afraid my decision must stand. Your answer may be correct according to other sources than the ones I accept. In that case, I can only suggest your taking this course with some other instructor."

I walked out of there, and out of the entire Academic Life as well...

Now, that one silly affair by itself would not have been enough to cause such a decision. I knew enough not to blame all instructors for my misfortune in getting tangled up with this one cretin. The point is, this came as the culmination of my gradually increasing discontent with a great many such people I had met during the past couple of years.

So that took care of that.

[ from The Trouble With Cinderella, pp.276-279]

What an irony: to think that we might not have some of the greatest jazz ever recorded, had Artie Shaw simply had a decent History prof ! As J.R.R. Tolkien (who spent his entire career in academic life) might point out, even Gollum has his role to play.

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