Duly Noted

Joey linked to an interview that Branford Marsalis gave, in which he submits that “all [students] want to hear how good they are and how talented they are. Most of them aren’t really willing to work to the degree to live up to that.”
Without disrespect to Marsalis (or Accordion Guy), I’d want to note that I’ve had opportunities to teach such students — but that I’ve also had opportunities to teach eager, hard-working, diligent students. I sympathize with Marsalis’s frustration at trying to suggest to complacent students that they had a lot further to go, that they do not in fact already have a handle on everything they need to know. That’s a perilous claim; it’s not formally different from saying, “I disregard everything you have learned so far, and will now instruct you on how to be more like me.” Critics justly denounce the effrontery of simply writing off students’ previous experience; we know of too many pedagogical narcissists, who operate on the premise that “if you didn’t learn it from me, it doesn’t count.”
And yet — Branford Marsalis can demonstrate a track record of significant accomplishment to back up his harsh assessment of his students’ attitude. Whatever one may think about his bluntness, he has put in the hard work and shown the capacity for excellence that back up his words. And it’s certainly possible — as it always has been — that some proportion of students approaches their education as though they were in a position to dictate the terms of what must be taught, what may be expected.
No easy answers. Parts of the difficulty lie in an educational culture that, like the financial culture that has so dramatically collapsed around us, has in instances tended to confuse hypothetical (aspirational, sentimental) benchmarks for actual accomplishments. If I read Marsalis charitably, he may be indicting an educational culture that awards As for effort, for niceness, on the principle that “everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” That much, I dare say, constitutes a genuine problem that teachers should take quite seriously — at the same time that they’re showing earnest respect for what students actually have learned, understood, accomplished.

1 thought on “Duly Noted

  1. In my own experience, the attitude he describes is especially prominent in “performance” areas like music or sports. There is an idea in these fields that there is a thing called “talent” which individuals display. Each individual, though, has a certain amount of doubt about his own talent and would like to hear from someone else that they do indeed have it.

    I quite often hear parents speaking with pride about their kid’s aptitude for piano or other music.

    By contrast, I saw a review of some research on expert level performance which indicated that those who have achieved the highest level in their chosen field have in common ten thousand hours of practice. For those not quick at math, that’s three hours per day over ten years.

    The work I’m interested in reading on this is The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *