Titles Are Meaningless

As titles go, some are pretty disconnected from the gist of the text, and since they aren’t always chosen by the author, it’s a double-edged sword, a "chicken or the egg?" question: who’s to blame? The author or the editor?

Take this gem from The Barre-Montpillier Times Argus:

Is new music cutting edge anymore?

Thinking to myself: Hmmm. That’s good question. Isn’t it? I suppose I have my opinion, but I’ll reserve that until I read the rest of the article. I’m reasonable, right? Right.

To all the Detritusites: Given the title, it would seem to follow that we’re about to read a piece about how new music is, or is not, pushing the boundaries. Are you on the same page with me?

Good. Let’s go.

It's been a long time since Vermont audiences have had to be conned into listening to contemporary music, particularly music from their own state.

Uh, two things. One, define “a long time,” please. Seems to me I remember a concert on November 15th, featuring Elliott Cater and Olivier Messiaen, another the 14th before that, and two more October 18th and 17th before that. And those just by the ensemble about whom this article was written.

Moreover, “conned?” If the title is any indicator, then it sounds like our author hasn’t been conned for a long while, the last time only because they featured a raffle for a brand new Sega Genesis.

But it was the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, a group of central Vermont professional musicians, that broke the ice – beginning its crusade to bring today's music to today's audiences more than 20 years ago.

Huh. So really our author means, “Back in 1989, it had been a long time since Vermont audiences were conned.”

Or the title’s “cutting edge” refers to breaking the ice, somehow. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the rest of the article is a neutral sort of puff piece, kindly describing the new pieces on the upcoming program, putting the performers under the spotlight, etc., etc.

So what gives? Is new music cutting edge? Hello? Did the editor actually read the piece? Or did the author decide to inject his opinion in the title and proceed to write some rather pleasant puffery?

Titles are meaningless.


One more “chicken or the egg?” gaffe:

Unlike the recent [Vermont Symphony Orchestra] program titled "Romance," there's no theme here.

But earlier:

Next weekend, the VCME will present "Enchanted," [...].


Anonymous said...

I don't think that's as illogical as you make it sound:

It seems to be saying (somewhat awkwardly, sure) that VT audiences are accepting of new music -- they don't have to be "conned" means they come willingly. And have for a long time. Then the article says they didn't always used to be so accepting, and credits VCME for bringing about this change over the years. That doesn't answer the question of whether new music is cutting edge, but it does makes sense at least.

Gustav said...

In any case it's, at the very least, sloppy journalism. How incredibly depressing that music gets such banal and adolescent coverage. Perhaps if the discourse of music in newspapers and in the media were to become more sophisticated, the people themselves might rise to the occasion. As it stands now, the audience and the media coverage are reading at about a 3rd grade level -- they know the some of the basic vocabulary, but are still flummoxed by the big words. [Strini: do you like my use of flummox?]

Empiricus said...


You're probably right, anon. I just don't see the connection with the title, or, at the most, really weak connections. That one, about being conned, was the only thing that really jumped out as the culprit. The other possibility was that the pieces Jim described were sort of non-representative of the composers' current work (several were student pieces). So, is that the not-cutting edge bit that the title was hinting at? Seems like an odd light to shine on a puff (read: promotion) piece. That's like saying, "Come on down to hear ineffectual, not-really-new music by your fellow Vermonters!" That's flummoxing.

Anonymous said...

Hey Gustav, you're probably right about about the literacy thing. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) found in 2003 that only 13% of Americans were proficient at a sophomore (HS) reading level*. By my estimate that puts the average at around 3rd grade. Thanks public education. Great work-- give people HS degrees when they can't read!


*The survey included people aged 16 and up, and how the study quantified "proficient" is buried somewhere deep in the site, probably with good reason. Nice graphs though, state employees-- A+ work.


Gustav said...

You're preaching to the choir with that literacy stats, CM. And as awful as a high school education seems to have become, universities apparently are not much better. When I was teaching, a few years back, at a major university, the head of our department circulated a study that had included graduates from our university that indicated that only 1 in 4 college graduates were functionally literate to operate in the job market. It pointed to the inability to compose emails, understand data, and most importantly, synthesize ideas. We've created a generation of the most educated group of morons ever.


Anonymous said...

Preaching to the choir... sorry, seems like I do that all week long. I have just a few questions out of curiosity for you, Gustav.

1. Do you see any reason why the US government would want to oversee a massive compulsory education system that renders people unable to come to logical conclusions on their own?
2. How (and why) do you think we have arrived at a point using academic models and methods very similar to the 1930's in German education?
3. What can we do to get ourselves out of this mess?


Gustav said...

1. Do you see any reason why the US government would want to oversee a massive compulsory education system that renders people unable to come to logical conclusions on their own?
Yes, I see many reasons why the US government should want to make education mandatory. I’m sure that we agree upon the benefits of an educated populace, but that your questions goes more to whether the government is the best administrator and also something to the effect of the libertarian ideal that no one should be required to anything. Well, to the second point, home-schooling and drop-out policies (which can be applied as young as 14 in some districts) make for a nearly non-mandatory system. There is certainly some oversight to home-schoolers, but teach them a few times-tables, what a gerund is, and memorize a few state capitols and you’re golden. You don’t want to go to school, its certainly possible. However, I’d say that a mandatory system is necessary to combat neglectful parents, and (as socialist as this may sound) create a viable daycare system for the youth to relieve the burden facing working parents.

To the first point, on whether the government is best administrator of education. Now, I’ll never defend the standardized-test driven, illiteracy promoting, self-confidence obsessed system in place currently. Those detrimental policies are the product of years of horrible leadership of people like William Bennett who view education as though it were business, and the PC thuggery of liberals in the 1980s. Actual equality, methods, and quality of education are secondary to bullshit issues like increased standardized testing, eliminating meaningful evaluations, and performance based pay for teachers.

But the primary reason that the government should remain responsible for making education available to every child, is that it’s the only institution in the country large enough to make it happen. If education were privatized, then it would either need to be highly subsidized (which would be the equivalent of public schooling) or it’d cost people money directly. Of course, then we would have a classist system in which it’s likely that the poorest would never be able to afford school, and richest would be able to afford a better quality of education. I personally believe in an education that is a right, not a privilege, so I would reject any system that would seek to shut out any segment of the population, or create a system with noticeable and discreet inequalities.

If, however, you wish discuss matters like allowing for school-choice, and more significantly, why property taxes are used to determine school budgets (and are subsequently so inequitably dispersed), then there are certainly valid points to consider.

2. How (and why) do you think we have arrived at a point using academic models and methods very similar to the 1930's in German education?
I can’t speak intelligently on the methods of education in 1930s Germany. However, I see the fundamental problem in education as being obsessed with achievement (especially fake achievement). Students are taught to pass banal, yet pointless state controlled guideposts, forced to into dozens of “accelerated” courses, participate in summer school programs, magnet schools, extracurricular activities, while never given an adequate sense of their performance. Simply put, students need to be forced to read (and read lots!), forced to say out loud the unwavering superiority of science to explain the natural world, and then told that they suck. You can’t be anything when you grow up, and ignorance isn’t cute.

3. What can we do to get ourselves out of this mess?
Well, I’ve often thought that one of the positive changes that we could make (to borrow from current education systems in Germany) is different schools for different students. Why should every student have to learn everything? The answer is, they shouldn’t. Most people are just stupid, and that’s not their fault, but the average human is not terribly bright and we should stop coddling children with dreams that everyone could be president. Sorry, but most of us are too stupid. Not that is the end of the world – it’s actually quite a good thing. High school students, especially those without high academic prowess, should be taught skills—a trade. Start by offering significant and practical courses in accounting, business, skill trades (like electricians, plumbing, mechanics, computer related work like system analysts). Why waste time teaching people who are destined to menial jobs (some that pay a lot like sales manager at Dell, or not so much, clerk at the TryN’Save) advanced math, or poetry? Create a world that doesn’t require that everyone attend college, and assume that there is only one path to happiness in this country. Those who wish to attend college can still follow a more traditional path if they so choose, but give real choice.

Secondly, change the focus of elementary school. By the end of 5th or 6th grade, students should have acquired basically one skill – to think critically. Teach them to read and to understand. That is the one skill that is universally required across all disciplines.

And oh, fuck statewide-standardized tests. All teachers should be field specific (education majors will only be allowed to teach 6th grade and under), should hold at least a masters in that field, eliminating all stupid certification process and reshaping the hiring process to look more like colleges, and pay them a starting salary of $60,000 a year (with senior faculty making $100,000).

Anonymous said...

Gustav-- love many of your points. Here's some additional commentary on points you made.

1a. Homeschooled children score on average 30 percentile points higher on standardized tests throughout K-12 (irregardless of race). I have several homeschooled kids in my classes at college, and the best students were homeschooled.
1b. While teaching methods are important and critical thinking skills are essential, I think it is important for national standardized testing. Though of course, this can be done through private organizations. Most importantly, tests shouldn't be "taught to." That being said, the SAT (even watered-down) is a better determiner of acquired and potential skill than the HS diploma.
1c. I like school choice, and given the overwhelming general success of homeschooling and private schools. Additionally, I think it's important to negate education taxes for the homeschooled, and at the maximum, give them the check for the same amount that a public student gets. Why not if the parents are achieving a result greater than the school system? It's unfair that a parent pay double for their child's education.
2. Quick briefing on NAZI education:
-Decreased academic standards.
-Emphasized sports.
-Taught socialism and a racist form of Darwinism.
-Had school to work programs that de-emphasized the tradition "3 r's".
-Chose professional trades for students based on government/economic need.
-Denied the authority of parents over their children's education. (see recent CA judicial rulings)
-Parents had no right to question the teachings of the school on social issues. Parents who questioned religious or scientific questions were arrested. (see recent MA and CA judicial rulings)
-The Marxist/Darwinist foundations were anti-religious. In 1934 all church schools were shut down (despite higher standards for education, no doubt).
-Emphasis on process over result.
-Emphasis on emotion and subjectivity.
3. Ultimately, I think we need one set of standards. If someone can't do geometry (correctly), they shouldn't have a HS diploma or be in college. By my estimates, probably 50-75% of people are misplaced in college. I disagree with you about "most of us are too stupid [to become President]." If President Obama's IQ is really 130 as some sources say, than at least ten or fifteen people that I went to school with, would be "smart" enough to become President.

I agree that education is a good thing, though I disagree that there exists a "right" to it. The concept of rights is artificial in a godless world. We systematically deny "rights" as defined by our Bill of Right and the Declaration to millions of Americans a year. Do children vote? Can you yell "fire" in a theater? Do we have the right to shoot people in our "pursuit of happiness?"

Many of your education system solutions, Gustav, are that of the NAZI model. Of course, we wouldn't teach that to people in our failing system that is becoming remarkable similar to that of pre-war Germany. History repeats itself, it might be a good thing for you to study the successes and failures of their system-- especially since at it's core it was anti-"critical thinking."

"A man who wanders from the way of understanding will rest in the assembly of the dead."


Strini said...

Nice flummoxing, Gustav! I might not be helping you guys with music, but I'm sure improving your Scrabble games.

As for education: I'm 59. The first time I heard someone complain about "These stupid illiterate kids today," I think I was 8.

My wife is chair of the art dept. at a big, public, urban university. I've been helping her grade papers for 24 years, and for 10 or so I've been teaching once class a year there, mostly in the Honors College program. I have to say, student writing has improved markedly over the last 20 years. Yes, truly good writing is rare among undergrads, but it was always thus. They're students; they're supposed to be dumber than sticks. It's our job to teach them to do better, and not only in terms of, say, the circle of fifths or subjects, verbs and objects. The greater part of teaching is instilling life-long biases toward curiosity and self-improvement. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but I got something from them, from my working-class high school, and most of all from my poison-ivy-league, no-reputation colleges. All of the above made me want to continue to learn and get better at whatever I took up. By graduate school, I was at least a coherent writer. I did not become a good writer until about 38, after five years learning by doing at a newspaper. I became an excellent writer at about 48. Today, I'm a frickin' genius.
Seriously, though, lambasting students for not knowing anything doesn't help. Teaching and guiding them does. -- Strini

Gustav said...

I'm not sure how I feel about being compared to Nazi policies...but you and agree on many points, CM.

In any case, I only suggest vocational training as an alternative to the system which is gearing to overworking and overeducating (i use this term lightly) high school students. I once read that the average HS student in the 1950s did 1 hour of homework a night. And now, it's closer to 4 hours a night. And yet, 75% of graduating HS students could not locate Iraq on a map of the world -- wait for it -- with the names of the countries written on the map. Stupid may be a harsh word, but people are mostly...stupid. [I'm not sure how large your class was, but the number of people in my high school with IQs over 130 was way less than half, which would make my qualification of "most" applicable.]

I also have the sense that we are creating a noticeable delay in adulthood. College has become a necessity to get any sort of decent job, but most use those four years to screw around (which, I must say, is quite understandable). Going to school everyday from ages 4 through 22 is quite excessive.

But to my point, CM, you and I are not so far apart on the emphasis on rigor in the classroom. The three Rs are winner in my book. For example, I often suggest that calculators should be banned from K-12. There isn't a form of math that shouldn't be able to be done in your head or on paper (even calculus, although I see no reason that a HS school should be learning calculus). Calculators are a crutch.

And to your point about tests and barrier standards -- we actually agree. Although, standardized tests can monopolize a classroom curriculum to the point of drowning out any substantive learning. The SAT however, is a voluntary test that isn't taught in school. That's cool with me. In fact, if I were in charge of the SAT I'd outlaw all prep courses and study guides. The SAT is meant to test general academic skills, to study for it defeats its purpose.

I would also strongly advocate the failing grade. As is probably indicated by my tone, I don't really care for ignorance, so like you, I believe strongly in creating a system in which students are not allowed to leave unable to read, unable to add, and unable to understand. Those are difficult to quantify and probably difficult to test accurately, but those would be my starting objectives.

On the issue of education as a right, clearly no ideal is fulfilled entirely in this country, as your examples illustrate. However, free speech is still the ideal, and whenever possible (and when extremely unpopular) we err on its side. An educated populace is a must for a developing country, and its behooves us to make the best possible education available to every child. A child may not choose to exercise this right (and many don't, even those who attend school regularly), but the government should do everything in its power to create the opportunity.

I imagine this conversation would be a lot more entertaining in person. ;-)

Gustav said...

Thanks for dose of perspective, Strini. You're obviously correct the rise in achievement for the average student -- it does no good to compare across generations. This is also why I say we are "overeducating" our students.

When I was in high school, they were contemplating the move to the ubiquitous "block" scheduling that dominates schools now. The goal was to cram an extra 4 classes into each calendar year -- yeah! That's just what every student needs...more homework. The result, however, are students who, while in high school, perform quite impressive feats of learning, but leave and retain nothing. They go through school today being crammed with information, but are, for the most part, never taught to think. There's no perspective -- while students may write better at the undergraduate level (and I do find it quite hard to imagine writing worse than I have encountered), they do (quite demonstrably) know less history, spell worse, read far less both during and once leaving school, and can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map (at least according to National Geographic). Again, I agree that general despair is quite unhelpful when the larger picture in taken into account, but I question our fundamental values as an educated society when, even for a single moment, debates ensue over whether or not to teach intelligent design in schools. Something is indeed rotten in our educational system when intellectual dishonesty become accepted points of view.

Anonymous said...

Gustav, I appreciate your clarification on some previous matters, though I outrightly reject your statement "it does no good to compare across generations" as comparison through time IS THE FUNDAMENTAL PROCESS of learning.

Also, could you explain "intellectual dishonesty" in terms of intelligent design? As far as I knew, the theory of intelligent design is already an accepted part of science and is used to convict people of crimes. It's called forensic science, and it relies on evidence and reason to find intelligent causation.

And of course achievement is going up (for Strini too) as tests become easier and participation and attendance are credited are overweighted.

Take for example this recent AP article:
"Girls’ math skills now measure up to boys’"
If you make it to the second page you'll find that--
"As [the researchers] looked across the data for states' testing, they found something they didn't expect: In most states they reviewed, and at most grade levels, there weren't any questions that involved complex problem-solving, an ability needed to succeed in high levels of science and math. If tests don't assess these reasoning skills, they may not be taught, putting American students at a disadvantage to students in other countries with more challenging tests, the researchers said."

The title of the article should read, "Girl's math skills now measure up to boys on easier tests." If we really want to make gender study process, I would advise not doctoring results.


Anonymous said...

...gender study progress...

gustav said...

Well, we may be getting a bit off topic of Detritus, but I'm not sure why you are conflating "intelligent design" with forensic science. Intelligent design is the (and I'll just quote the first line of the wikipedia entry) "assertion that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."

That's intelligent design in a nutshell, and it's at best intellectually dishonest. Please see the transcript from Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District for a lengthy account on the supreme levels of bullshit in the "intelligent design". NOVA has a fantastic documentary recapping the trial -- it should mandatory viewing for every student, because that's how you make an argument.

Anonymous said...

State appointed judges decide science?

I would be happy to discuss this, but I have a strong feeling that you are not open to scientific evidence contrary to your religious beliefs. I love science, so, Gustav, in the interests to this site and music (why we're here) I'm willing to let this one go.

Gustav said...

Your response is indeed cryptic, CM.