Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Ancients and the Moderns: Or Yo-Yo Ma and the Honkers

As I was doing some general reading yesterday about the writers and readers of the c18, I came across a passage (in J. Paul Hunter) describing the so-called "ancients" (Pope, Swift, Johnson) and the "moderns" (Defoe, Fielding, and other novelists that would certainly include Haywood), and I realized that if one were to insert "teacher" and "student" in the passage to substitute for "writer" and "reader," we'd get a pretty good description of the laments and concerns of contemporary English teachers. You know the how the complaint goes; it's the whole idea that students aren't good readers anymore, that they can't think (or write) in a complex, linear way. They only think (and write) in a fragmented webular way. The fear that good books and quality sources are disappearing from our students' repertoire and that all we'll have left will be Wikipedia and some falsely authoritative blogs.

Then, I saw Yo-Yo Ma on Tavis Smiley last night. Is he (Ma) not amazing or what? He is, indeed. And he is a great example of the ideal combination of the ancient and the modern--what most of us actually try to offer our students, I think. He knows and loves the classics, but he goes beyond them. He's interested in music played by bush men in Botswana. He plays Appalachian music with Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck. He's got a new album that includes duets with people like Diana Krall and James Taylor (among others). I've seen the man pluck his cello with both hands--including thumbs!--for goodness sake.

I'm sure there are musical purists who criticize some of the ways in which he strays out of the classical box, but I love his passion. His lack of fear. Specifically, he doesn't seem to fear that a sacred tradition will be lost or polluted by his experimentation. Last night on Tavis, Ma said that he hadn't found any tradition in the world in any culture that wasn't invented. He was suggesting (if somewhat implicitly) that the inventedness of traditions means that they do not need to be absolutely static, unchanging, or sacred. He does not seem to believe that some traditions (of music or whatever) are better merely because they are old. He believes that traditions (and music) are valuable because they give us meaning, thus his appreciation of the musical traditions of the bush men--along with the musical traditions of the hills of Appalachia.

As I keep thinking about how I want to change my teaching methods and content (now that I've been doing it for over a decade), I will keep Yo-Yo Ma in mind. Because as much as I lament the fact that my students are not giving due respect to the literary canon and its traditions of greatness, the reality, if I look at it squarely, is that we don't go to the bookstore to pick up books written in heroic couplets (a la Pope). Rather, it was the novel, and all of its "modernity," that, in the c18, won the day (or century). It is true that my students have a difficult time thinking (and writing) in depth, and I do want them to know some of the valuable literary traditions, but Yo-yo Ma seems to offer a great example about how we might can, in many ways, reject the ancient/modern dichtomony, opting instead for harmony.


baxie said...

I like Yo's genre-bending.

Appalachian Journey is one of my faves.

Good Enough Woman said...

Me, too.