Sunday, June 20, 2021

In Prison with E.D. Hirsch

Let me confess. I, like everyone, am constantly judging my fellow human beings— sometimes generously, sometimes harshly. This is natural.  Who we dislike and why we dislike them is one of the ways we cultivate our own values, one of the ways we grow a self. If we are lucky, we mature enough to criticize the behavior rather than the person, coming to realize that the behavior is not the whole person. That is a handy thing to know when teaching children and trying to guide them toward a better version of themselves.


If we mature a bit more, we might come to realize that the very quality we don't like seeing in others is a hidden part of ourselves that we need to come to grips with. It's much easier to dismiss someone else, of course, than own the fact that the same dynamic is at work within ourself. 

And if we mature yet further, we make an attempt to hear a person’s story. A child curled up in the corner refusing to participate in our music class or acting out bothering others makes us an unsympathetic and frustrated teacher as they thwart our lesson plan. But if we take the time to talk to them later and discover that their loving grandmother had just passed away, we immediately switch from anger to sympathy. 


Of course, this is a challenge when the behavior turns truly destructive. No police are likely to have the time, energy, inclination to ask terrorists holding innocent people hostage why they’re being so mean. And even if we did hear their life story and understood better what led them to this action, we still need to stop their behavior and hold them accountable for their actions. 


And so I arrive at E.D. Hirsch, the Southern University professor who wrote the best-selling Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know and then further versions: What Every 1stGrader Should Know, What Every 2nd Grader Should Know etc. The book was based on this premise that Americans need to recover a sense of shared cultural knowledge, both to empower them as informed voters and unite them as fellow citizens with a shared socio-political vision. Sounds good, yes?


And yet. while including some 22 European classical music composers and such musical forms as the sonata and the fugue, he only includes 4 American jazz musicians and unforgivably so, leaves out THE BLUES!!!!!!!!! How could he do that?!!! And what made him think that he alone, a white male university professor, had the knowledge, the insight, the depth and breadth of cultural knowledge and vision, to decide all by himself what every American needs to know? Did it even once occur to him to gather a committee including black folks, Latinx people, Native Americans, women, poor people, rich people, middle class people, LGTB people, elders, kids, artists, scientists, politicians, cab drivers, disabled people, etc. etc. and again, etc.? Or at least have them as readers of the first-draft before submitting it?  And once again, how could he leave out the blues?!!!!


After raking him over the coals to my 8th grade students all these years, and more recently, to my adult Jazz History students, it struck me that while he is accountable, the transgression is not his alone. Why didn’t the publishers notice what a weird premise this was? His editors? His friends reading the first draft? What about all those folks who bought the book? His reviewers? Did the blues ever come on to his radar screen and did he consciously reject it? Or did he grow up in the United States of America not knowing anything about it? And here the accountability goes back yet further. If the latter, why didn’t his teachers teach him? How did he get to be a University Professor with such an underdeveloped education.? How could all of this happened (or not happen)?


And the answer in two words: White Privilege. The entire-deeply-embedded-often-invisible infrastructure of White Privilege that allowed him and millions others to go through their days ignorant of the power of the blues and its place in American musical culture and its place in the history of social injustice and the first steps to healing. Sure, a lot of these folks listened to and enjoyed Rock Around the Clock, Hound Dog, Rockin’ Robin, Charlie Brown, Johnny B. Goode, Barbra Ann, I Got You (alias I Feel Good), Money, Route 66, Highway 61 Revisited, Crossroads and hundreds more rock and roll hits without ever considering that these are all 12-bar blues, without understanding who Bill Haley, Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream and countless others were indebted to, as well as Chuck Berry, the Coasters, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and countless more black artists. Why don’t we know that? Well, now you know. And that gives you the responsibility to know more and to pass it on to others.

In my 8thgrade class, I sentence E.D. Hirsch to a prison term where he has to listen to every blues ever recorded and every song derived from the blues 8 hours a day and have the class imagine how long his prison sentence would be. So, dear reader, you might turn yourself in and volunteer to do the same. Then let me know when you get out. 


Such a delightful and powerful life-changing prison sentence that would be!

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