From Mark Edmundson’s Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education:
It’s his capacity for enthusiasm that sets [a favorite student he has described] apart from what I’ve come to think of as the reigning generational style. Whether the students are fraternity/sorority types, grunge aficionados, piercers/tattooers, black or white, rich or middle class… they are, nearly across the board, very, very self-contained. On good days they display a light, appealing glow; on bad days, shuffling disgruntlement. But there’s little fire, little passion to be found.
This point came home to me a few weeks ago when I was wandering across the university grounds. There, beneath a classically cast portico, were two students, male and female, having a rip-roaring argument. They were incensed, bellowing at each other, headstrong, confident, and wild. It struck me how rarely I see this kind of full-out feeling in students anymore. Strong emotional display is forbidden. When conflicts arise, it’s generally understood that one of the parties will say something sarcastically propitiating (“Whatever” often does it) and slouch away.
How did my students reach this peculiar state in which all passion seems to be spent? I think that many of them have imbibed their sense of self from consumer culture in general and from the tube in particular. They’re the progeny of a hundred cable channels and videos on demand. TV, Marshall McLuhan famously said, is a cool medium. Those who play best on it are low-key and nonassertive; they blend in. Enthusiasm… quickly looks absurd. The form of character that’s most appealing on TV is calmly self-interested though never greedy, attuned to the conventions, and ironic. Judicious timing is preferred to sudden self-assertion….
Most of my students seem desperate to blend in, to look right, not to make a spectacle of themselves. (Do I have to tell you that those two students having the argument under the portico turned out to be acting in a role-playing game?) The specter of the uncool creates a subtle tyranny. It’s apparently an easy standard to subscribe to, this Letterman-like, Tarantino-inflected cool, but once committed to it, you discover that matters are rather different. You’re inhibited from showing emotion, stifled from trying to achieve anything original. You’re made to feel that even the slightest departure from the reigning code will get you genially ostracized. This is a culture tensely committed to a laid-back norm. (pp. 7-9)
I wouldn’t try to vouch for how aptly this description applies to student culture today in general; I try never to assume that Bard is typical. But it certainly explains to me for the first time why so many young composers hold it against me that I took an outspoken part in the serialism-minimalism feud of that allegedly horrible decade the 1980s. Composers in academia went on the attack against minimalism and Cagean influences, and I fought back, almost never so much against their music as against their intolerance. That my part in that fight is remembered today somewhat better than the original attacks is due to three reasons: Babbitt, Wuorinen, Davidovsky, et al attacked via scholarly journals and I was in a popular newspaper; much of their power was wielded behind the scenes via prize-giving organizations; and, since I am a better writer than they were, my words have achieved a longer shelf-life. Among the New Music America types Downtown, the situation unified a lot of us together for a glorious cause to which we were devoted. The collective feeling, the sense that we could make something exciting happen, energized and inspired us. If I had it all to do over again, I would change virtually nothing.
But the young, laid-back composers are horrified by all this. They find public argument distasteful; standing up for one’s aesthetic viewpoint an embarrassing faux pas; generalization about a style or repertoire impolite. As Edmundson goes on to say,
What my students are, at their best, is decent. They are potent believers in equality…
What they will generally not do, though, is indict the current system. They won’t talk, say, about how the exigencies of capitalism lead to a reserve army of the unemployed and nearly inevitable misery. That would be getting too loud, too brash. For the pervading view is the cool, consumer perspective, where passion and strong admiration are forbidden. (p. 9)
No one has ever called me cool. A certain perennial emotiveness has been noted, also the presence of passions and enthusiasms. A total insusceptibility to peer pressure was observed in my youth, and I have never blended in. I find the current system unfair, and I’m always on call to help blow it to bits. I’ve always been willing to stand up publicly for what I believe, and I’ve always considered the willingness to do so one of the signal virtues. But I can see now from this laid-back viewpoint what an embarrassing throwback I must seem, as Edmundson, in the book, suspects he is too, with his own passions and principled stands. One is no longer allowed to believe in his or her own aesthetic path so strongly as to extol it above others. Like Robert Frost’s liberals, we are too open-minded to take our own side in a quarrel. I have long known that my style of being a musician had become deeply unfashionable, but not until reading Edmundson did I grasp the process by which all of my most cherished virtues had become reinterpreted as social indelicacies.