Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Silence: Lecture in Progress















On my first trip to Ghana, I stayed for some days at The University of Legon. Universities like this are the legacy of British colonialism and clearly provide a bridge between village wisdom and Western-style thought and education. The bridge was consciously reinforced by a department within the University system called the African Institute of Music and Dance, headed by the remarkable Dr. Nketiah.

But the gap between the two styles and meaning of education—West Africa and West Europe—is not so easily bridged. My first morning, I went to meet Dr. Nketiah and see some of the classes. I followed my ear to the enticing drumming and singing and as I got closer, saw this sign:

SILENCE. LECTURE IN PROGRESS.

The gap yawned wide indeed. The West African lecture was not students in rows of desks dutifully taking notes while the professor expounded, but instead everyone in the dancing circle singing and dancing the lesson while the teacher directed the lecture on the powerful drums.

I thought of this again when my German friend Heidi sent some photos of Carl Orff’s gravesite near Munich. There was a sign there that said:

NO SINGING OR NOISEMAKING

 Ah, the irony. Here was Orff, trying to revive in the West the sense that playing, singing and dancing carry important lessons to children and young adults. Music trains the body, opens the heart, stimulates the mind and releases the imagination. It brings the community together in ways like nothing else, connects one to the past, invites us to be more wholly in the present and paves the way for a future worthy of our best selves. His work as a composer was to do more than just tickle the ear and as an educational pedagogue, to bequeath to children music with such joy, pleasure and fun. What better way to honor him at his gravesite than to sing a song or make a joyous noise with drums, recorders or xylophones?

But the Western sickness, the one he was trying to heal, is to lock all our moving parts away in tidy, specialized compartments and take them out only as the schedule allows. The human being that emerges from such a culture is often someone out of touch (appropriate metaphor) with the body, selective about what feelings are permissible, practiced in abstract thought that floats above the world in its isolated ivory tower.

Perhaps some day, I will take some Ghanaian students to Orff’s gravesite and raise the roof with song and dance. When the security guards come over, I’ll explain:


“Please don’t interrupt. I am teaching them about Carl Orff and my lecture is in progress.”

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