Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


Drowned by music, etc.

A maestro says, "Whoa, accelerando!"

Dressed for conversation in a T-shirt that reads SUBVERT THE DOMINANT PARADIGM (a gift from his daughter), Leon Fleisher speaks slowly and often closes his eyes to concentrate on what he's saying. The renowned pianist and Peabody faculty member thinks that modern daily life would benefit from less speed and more concentration. So would music.

"Our society is not geared toward giving us time for contemplation," he says. "In music, you have to be aware of each note, discovering its function and purpose. At the same time, you have to back up far enough to discern the overall shape and quality of these notes."

Fleisher continues, "In our society we're being drowned by endless facts. We're not trained to discard the chaff and keep the wheat, and certainly not trained to organize the wheat in a structure for the good of humankind. Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom."

Fleisher sees Americans not only drowned by facts, but drowned by music--in their cars, in shopping malls, on the street, even at the ballpark. As a result, he says, "we begin to treat this music as background. It's a kind of trivialization. Listening to music should not be passive. It's an activity."

He continues, "Art suffers from a basic misunderstanding, which comes from the industry that peddles the arts. That misunderstanding is that the arts are entertainment, something one does only if one can afford it and has the time."

When the public reduces art to mere entertainment, Fleisher says, less art gets produced. Musicians don't work hard enough on pieces, as Fleisher puts it, "to make them part of their DNA," and conductors don't work hard enough with orchestras. George Szell created great music with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Fleisher says, because he spent most of his time working with it, training its musicians and molding it into a superb ensemble. Today, says Fleisher, conductors win acclaim and high remuneration not by dedication to creating art with a single orchestra, but by jetting around the world to make guest appearances and be the high-profile directors of two or three different ensembles, most of which rehearse less than they used to because they can't afford to rehearse more.

The recording industry increasingly favors product over art, Fleisher believes. He recalls a time when a relative handful of great musicians went into studios intent on making the authoritative recordings of major works. Now, he says, recording companies are more often intent on simply getting every available piece, good and bad, out on compact disc. "Since there's 100 times more trash than treasure," he says, "musicians you've never heard of are recording trash."

There are still great musicians, Fleisher says, including "a whole cadre of younger giants who have arisen." But in trying to train new giants, Fleisher must combat the effects of contemporary life on his students, who come to him, he says, with their emotions kept behind defenses.

"They defend themselves against the beauty," he says. "They tend to not allow themselves to get emotionally involved in what they're doing. So they become focused on the physical act of playing, they become like circus performers. That's not what music making is about." --DK

Let's get serious

"We're not in a period when the life of high culture is thriving," says John Irwin, chair of The Writing Seminars in the School of Arts and Sciences. "We're in a time of popular culture, and I have this growing sense of the trivialization of American culture. People want you to take seriously what is not. Yet, how seriously do people take their emotions? If they don't take their emotions seriously, they can forget about art of any kind.

"In part, the problem stems from television," he says. "Television puts everything in the world cheek-by-jowl with everything else, so it gives everything equal importance. Which means it gives nothing importance."

The trivialization of culture extends to contemporary fiction writing, in Irwin's view: "In the second half of this century, if you think of writers of English, there are no writers you'd be comfortable naming as major writers, as years ago you'd have been comfortable naming Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. The achievements now [of contemporary writers] don't seem as unequivocally lasting as those of 50 to 60 years ago.

"The great writers of the past were serious novelists, serious writers. The whole of their energy, will, and talent was centered on creating a fictional world of as much emotional power and fidelity to the real world as they could. More and more today, you get the feeling about so many people that they're not serious. They're just not serious. They don't engage in the activity of their life with a once-and-for-all manner. They don't take responsibility for the things they do."

Even if writers were producing work Irwin considered comparable to that of Faulkner et al., he wonders how it would be read. "Attention spans have dramatically declined," he notes. "Anyone who works in a classroom can tell you that." People do not seem interested in doing the work of reading well.

Irwin is speaking a few days after the televised police pursuit and apprehension of former football star and accused murderer O.J. Simpson, and that event is on his mind. "One of the emblems of the trivialization of American life is our obsession with pro sports," he says. The Simpson spectacle was the sort of increasingly common television event that, as Irwin describes it, you are present for without being present at. You watch in real time, but at a far remove. "When that happens," he says, "it seems to cut you loose from all responsibility for what happens." The audience then doesn't care what the outcome is, so long as it gets to see something--too often something violent or sensational, in Irwin's view. "When you see things, you pay a great price if you're in no position to do anything about them. You develop a habit of looking at things in a morally irresponsible spectatorship. If everything is reduced to the category of spectacle, everything becomes morally indifferent." -- DK

Still stuck in relativity

Human ideas of morality grow out of the underlying scientific worldview, believes Laurie Zabin, professor of population dynamics at the School of Public Health. In the Western world, "we used to believe there was certainty. Even after we knew the earth wasn't the center of things, we had very clearly defined and rigid moral codes," Zabin says. In the early 20th century, physics moved to relativity, "and we became much more worried about this person's moral code rubbing up against another's."

The new physics focuses on chaos theory--"and so does our moral reflection," she says. "I think we do have a morality, but we're having a hard time. We need now a morality that is as suited to our understanding of chaos as the Ten Commandments were to the belief that the world was a rigid system. That's not to say that the old principles of justice and mercy and love are outdated--but the ability to translate them into appropriate behavior in a rapidly changing world is certainly a cause of real concern.

"Some of us are still stuck in relativity." --EH

The MTVization of sports

Sports writer Phil Berger '64 has spent the better part of three decades covering professional sports like boxing and basketball, and he's dismayed by "all the bells and whistles at sporting events" these days. Go to an arena or ballpark, he notes, and you have non-stop stimulation. There's not just the play on the field or the court, but, competing for your attention, animated computerized scoreboards, blaring music and sound effects, and giant-screen TVs showing replays or blooper tapes. "Is the game not enough?" asks the former New York Times writer. "It's like an insult to the intellect." Berger pauses. "But maybe the intellect deserves it." -- DK

A decline in deportment

"Notions of shame have really disappeared," observes Mark Crispin Miller, media critic and professor in The Writing Seminars. He lists celebrities such as Madonna, Charles Barkley, and Roseanne Arnold and says, "Their shamelessness is part of their appeal." People now seem eager to confess any shameful act, preferably on Oprah Winfrey or Geraldo Rivera's television programs. It's all part of what he terms a "desublimating of human behavior, marked by a decline in general deportment."

Says Miller, "People are generally less restrained, less courteous, less modest. They have become more explosive." As examples he offers the increased incidence of students attacking teachers in public schools, and the aggressive, often violent behavior of drivers in traffic.

In addition to changes in the family structure and the receding influence of once-powerful institutions like churches, the mass media are to blame for our decline in deportment, in Miller's view. To grab the attention of an increasingly blas‚ public, media have become more shrill and sensationalistic. Listen to the tone of talk radio, to Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern, says Miller. Notice changes in the nature of advertisements, which have become much less humane since the 1970s. At one time, a print ad or television commercial was likely to portray friends sharing a soft drink or a dessert. Now, he says, the situation portrayed is more likely to be "'I have it, you don't, and I'm not giving it up.'"

Just as advertising must be louder, shriller, and ever more gaudy to break through the clutter of pervasive media, Miller thinks some people feel a need for more extreme behavior to call attention to themselves: "What it takes now for a criminal offender to make an impression on his friends is much more horrific." Shoplifting just won't do it anymore, but murder might. --DK

A return to fundamentalism

Sociologist Thomas LaVeist points to the rising popularity of the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, and says, "He's the only black leader capable of putting up a sign that says 'I'll be here at 4 p.m.' and have 20,000 people show up."

The growing membership of the Nation of Islam is part of what LaVeist believes is a return to religious funda- mentalism. He cites as evidence the names of the fastest growing American religions: the Protestant fundamentalist Church of God in Christ, the Nation of Islam, and the Mormon church. He thinks people want guideposts, anchors in a rapidly changing world.

At the same time, too many people have moved entirely away from religion. "That's how you get people shooting each other over leather jackets," LaVeist concludes. "When we don't have an anchor, what becomes important is, 'Do I have a pair of Air Jordans? Or a Starter jacket?' It's the MTV culture." --DK

"I am only one person, but..."

Clyde Shallenberger, chaplain emeritus of the Hopkins Hospital, sees much despair in the world. "Looking at the global world is such an awesome task, it's so overwhelming," he says. "I feel totally impotent about what I as an individual could do about Rwanda."

Shallenberger's response, however, is not despair. "For me there is always a glimmer of light. When I feel there's nothing I can do to change the global world, then I think, maybe it's me that has to change, not the world. Maybe I need to change my understanding, my perspective_. Someone once said--it may have been Florence Nightingale--'I am only one person, but I am one person, and what I can do I ought to do, by the grace of God.'"

"You can sit on the sidelines and wring your hands, and that only enhances the despair," says the legendary chaplain. Instead, he recommends action.

"I think sometimes, when I look at the world and see what is giving me unhappiness, maybe I'm taking too big a bite. It's awfully easy for me to be so concerned about what's happening halfway across the world that I become blind to what's happening in my own community. What can I do in Baltimore City? What can I do in the community where I live and work? These are different kinds of needs, but they are just as overwhelming as in a place like Rwanda." --EH

In sports: "raging selfishness"

Television, by the enormous amount of money it has pumped into athletes' pockets and the exposure it has given to sports stars, has resulted in "raging selfishness and egotism," observes longtime sportswriter Phil Berger '64. Berger cites as an example the tantrum thrown during the most recent NBA playoffs by Chicago Bulls star Scotty Pippen. Pippen refused to go back on the floor for the decisive last seconds of a crucial game against the New York Knicks because the Bulls' coach had hurt his feelings. The coach had called for a play that put the ball in another player's hands. Pippen sulked on the sideline until the game ended.

Players have become exhibitionists seemingly more interested in calling attention to themselves than in winning a team game, Berger believes. In pro basketball players trade obscenities with their "fans" in the stands. In football, linemen dance over fallen quarterbacks after a sack. "When I was at Hopkins," says the former New York Times writer, "you didn't have taunting and spiking the football and sack dancing. To me that's a change for the worse. This exhibitionistic streak is getting nasty and rotten."

Berger says it's not just the players who are getting more nasty. Crowds at sporting events have become meaner, he says, responding to player brutality and exhibitionism with approval and encouragement. Of spectators he says, "What you feed them is how they're nourished." The more boorish and unsporting behavior they see, the more boorish and unsporting behavior they exhibit. --DK

Sometimes "decline" is actually continuity

"I'm always suspicious of people who see change, especially radical social change," says Grace Goodell, chair of the social change and development department at Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "As an anthropologist, I look at non-change. People who claim to see radical change probably haven't seen past the surface."

Consider the Mohawk Indians, says Goodell. In the 19th century they lived as hunters in the forests of upstate New York. Now they are renowned as the men who work 60 stories above New York City constructing the steel superstructures of high-rise buildings. A dramatic change in Mohawk culture? Not at all, says the anthropologist. "High-steel welding really is just a new way for them to be brave, the thing their whole tradition has prepared them to do. To an anthropologist, what they're doing does not represent change but continuity." She says Mohawk social structure is as it always has been: the men go out, and through bravery accomplish tasks that provide for their families, and the women at home admire them for their Mohawk courage. The specific circumstances may have changed, but not the fundamental culture.

Likewise, Goodell is skeptical about certain pronouncements of change in modern American society. While many observers contend that respect for and participation in the arts have diminished in America during the last 10 or 20 years, she does not regard this as a new and troubling development, but as a continuation of an American tradition. "We are Ben Franklin's culture," she says. "Ralph Waldo Emerson has never been our hero. Our heroes have been Edison, Franklin, Carnegie--the tinkerers. My parents could not have named one prominent intellectual. Henry Ford was their hero, not Aaron Copland. We're very practical people. It may be an enduring shortcoming of our culture."

She's skeptical too about predictions that computers and the wiring of the world constitute a revolution in progress. "Just because I can talk to someone in the Philippines by electronic mail doesn't impress me as radical change," Goodell says. She's not anticipating a world suddenly made better by global electronic communications: "The invention of printing did not get rid of superstition or wars."

In her field of social development, she's impatient with Western schemes for large-scale social change that are meant to "improve" life in developing nations. At large Western institutions, she says, there is too little respect for cultural continuity. An agency like the World Bank will decide that a developing country needs some sort of large, expensive project to further its development along Western lines. The indigenous culture may have its own ideas about what it needs and the most appropriate way to proceed, but the Bank ignores that, says Goodell: "It comes in and says, 'There isn't time for you to do it the way you want. If you don't let us do this, horrible things will happen.'" Such an approach erodes the social fabric of developing societies, Goodell says, because it imposes change on a scale and of a pace out of proportion to what the local people are prepared to handle. It imposes external control on their lives instead of helping them to develop their societies by their own methods.

"Instead of respecting continuity, we march in with external control," she says. "It doesn't work. Latin America has lost a generation as a result of it, as have India and China. Africa is even worse. "If we're going to be activists about change, we have to respect continuity." --DK

Kindling the fire for international development

Instead of just doling out economic aid, international development organizations are now promoting programs that "influence the quality of life directly," says Carl Taylor, professor emeritus of international health at the School of Public Health.

Until recently, says Taylor, aid organizations like the World Bank lent money to developing nations with the idea that if governments had money they would do their own social development. "The problem is it doesn't happen. The poor get left out. People who already have money get more money. In some ways there is too much direction and guidance and red tape on the part of the aid organizations, which feeds bureaucracy locally."

That problem has been particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where countries now pay more in interest on past loans than they receive in current aid. In order to defray the payments, nations have slashed health budgets by a third to a half. Social programs have disintegrated. "The responsibility for healthcare has been dumped back into the local communities," says Taylor. "The governments can't afford it."

"Most international agencies like the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program have realized that what we've been doing isn't working," says Taylor. "They agree that we need to concentrate on getting services directly to the people in greatest need rather than to the rich. It's a worldwide shift in orientation. We're getting away from talking about economic development to talking about social development"--a shift from "productivity" to "people."

The new approach comes under the definition of "sustainable development," he says, "a catchword" for integrating into the community a variety of development programs that local people can run themselves, with little or no government involvement. For instance, he and his son Dan are involved in one recent program near Mt. Everest that helped establish canals for irrigation, small low-tech hydroelectric plants, and knitting cooperatives. Carl Taylor is also helping to start local maternal and child health services. The development groups kindle the fire; local people do the rest.

The "new" paradigm is something Taylor has been working on for years. In India in the 1960s and as UNICEF director in China in the 1980s, he introduced the village health worker model--basically trained villagers who travel from home to home to help women with their healthcare needs. "We're training local people to solve their own problems," says Taylor. --MH

Health consciousness goes mainstream in America

"There's no question there's been a major shift toward prevention over the past two decades," says David Kessler, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Doctors are spending more time educating patients about ways to prevent disease, and people are more attuned to reading food labels, the dangers of smoking, and cutting down on fat and cholesterol. More manufacturers now market foods for their health benefits. "Fifteen years ago, manufacturers would have laughed at you if you asked them to do that," says Kessler, who did his internship and residency in pediatrics at Hopkins's School of Medicine.

But with the positive side of the new health-consciousness comes a negative side. "With people wanting control over their health, they are also reaching for solutions that do not really have a scientific basis," he says. "The anti- establishment/anti-medical model is on the rise, for example, the notion that if I wake up in the morning and take six dietary supplement pills, I'm going to be better for it. But the jury is still out on anti-oxidants. Those data may show that these are premature conclusions. They may not help you." --MH

Stretching and flexing to accommodate change

One of Emily Martin's early memories is living in a quarantined house in 1951 as her brother was dying of polio. She remembers posters and teachers exhorting children to wash their hands and stay away from crowded swimming pools. Germs lurked everywhere and were to be feared.

Americans no longer feel powerless in the face of "germs out there." We know more about the immune system, our defense against polio and other diseases. Indeed, says Martin, the concept of the immune system is becoming a larger presence in our everyday lives, not only for scientists but for all of society. It's become the guiding metaphor of our day, she says, to explain how things ought to work. It replaces the metaphor of the "machine," which carried a value of top-down discipline and control.

Martin, with her graduate students, traced the roots of our views on immunity while a professor of anthropology at Hopkins. (She left Hopkins this month after 20 years of teaching to join the anthropology department at Princeton University.) "In our fieldwork, no matter how far away from immunology labs and HIV/AIDS contexts we went, even into the training sessions of Fortune 500 corporations, we found people actively using the immune system to organize and comprehend their lives," she notes in her recent book, Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture From the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS (Beacon Press, 1994).

Organizations and individuals, she says, are incorporating one particular aspect of the immune model into their everyday lives: the notion of flexibility. The immune system is capable of producing an enormous variety of antibodies and disease-fighting cells to respond to the myriad types of intruders that can invade the body. The system is pervasive, flexible, and creative, and it responds to environmental change in a flash. Likewise, Martin points out, a popular form of organization management called Total Quality Management (TQM) embraces these same traits. In TQM, organizations continuously look for new ways to improve their organization in response to change. Workers are encouraged to upgrade their skills. "Flexibility," the ability to adapt to change, even to the extent of taking risks, is revered.

Corporate trainers even use the metaphor of the immune system to represent the new flexible and non-hierarchical corporation, says Martin. "It's a perfect metaphor for them," she says. Unlike the nervous system, which is directed by the brain, or the cardiovascular system, which has as its core the heart, the immune system has no hierarchy.

Flexibility may even become a requisite for survival in our society--possibly in an evil way, spurring on neosocial Darwinism, Martin suggests. Survival of the fittest could mean survival of those who are flexible and adaptable to change.

Already, certain individuals are losing out. As corporations abolish hierarchies and downsize, even mid-level managers are fired. Flex time and telecommuting give workers more flexibility but sometimes also mean sacrificing benefits like health insurance.

It's both exciting and terrifying to be part of the new corporation, says Martin. Terrifying because, "if you fail, you're dead. The human cost is that you have to be able to meet any challenge, even the challenge of being fired. But people also need safety nets and security and a place to rest when they're sick. Yet there are no more guarantees of 'life employment.' We're not always able to walk that tightrope," she says.

Martin writes: "Even as economic processes may seem to force our corporations to become flexible, lean, and agile, perhaps when it comes to persons we could relish both the flexible, lean, and agile and the stable, ample, and still." --MH

Addicted to speed

Hopkins President Emeritus Steven Muller glances at his watch, then takes note of the habit. "How many times have I done that since we've been sitting here? Four or five?" His unconscious wrist checks drive home the point he has been making.

"What is unusual in the time in which we live is the rapidity of change," Muller says. "And one of our big problems is that the speed of change is still accelerating. That's extremely disorienting for all of us.

"We have commercialized our lives to an appalling extent," he adds. "We really believe that time is money, and we reckon that time in seconds. We've developed a totally compulsive sense of time. We feel guilty if we're not doing anything. We've become addicted to speed. Now, as a teacher you try to get a lecture done in 20 minutes. People like short books. Jokes are one-liners.

"Most people are happiest when really interested in something. But we've become addicted to ever higher levels of stimulation."

Muller looks at his watch again and has one last thought about the relentless pace of American life: "Why in the hell do we have instant coffee?" --DK

Written by Elise Hancock, Melissa Hendricks and Dale Keiger.

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