Mad Genius and Angry Pedagogues

by zunguzungu

In my mind, Glenn Gould and Bobby Fischer were sort of one guy, one eccentric genius figure that I didn’t know much about. There’s no reason for that, really, just the kind of subjectivity that ignorance of particulars settles upon your mind when names float by. But with Fischer’s passing, and with Gould becoming the music I’ve been obsessively writing with, it’s been nice to observe that one was a delusional fascist and the other a charming eccentric. There is no reason for Fischer to make Gould look better, really, no reason to compare them except the subjective coincidence of how my mind happened to have heard about the two of them, little more than a sense of them as geniuses and strange. But I did.

Part of the interest one tends to have in people like this is that they see something you or I could never see. I look at a chess game (one of Fischer’s, for example) and it means almost nothing, certainly not whatever it is he saw. The same with Gould: I’ve been listening to him talk about the difference between the 1955 and 1981 Goldberg Variations and much of what he says I can understand, in the abstract, but could never really see. This goes beyond the simple erudition in classical music that he casually tosses of, references to other composers and comparisons of Bach with them; that’s stuff I could sort of learn, if I put the time in. I kind of got when he talked about a variation with its “neo-Scarlatti-isms,” since I have a Bela Fleck recording of a Scarlatti piece, and I could kind of see the resemblance. But that sort of thing isn’t the meat of what I got out of listening to Gould speak. He’s very open about preferring the later recording to the former, and while he’s aware that this opinion isn’t widely shared, it is his own opinion and he has a very firm notion of why he’s right. The problem, as he sort of tactfully dances around, is that most listeners don’t “see” the music the way he does, don‘t hear the harmonies the way he does. So he tries to explain it to us, talking about the “pulse” of the piece as a whole, and describing the ways that different variations talk to and feed off of each other, and so forth. But the more he talks, the more you just realize that while he sees these things (and you’re convinced of that), that doesn’t mean you’ll ever be able to see them.

But you kind of want to. And that’s the real difference between the two: Gould is a musician and Fischer was a chess player. I’m listening to Gould now, because he wanted to be heard, and Fischer took himself away from world chess because the point of his gift, it seems, was to distance himself from his opponent and all other people who didn’t share his gift. That’s part of why it makes so much sense that he would find anti-Semitism and a wild joy in destructive violence so attractive; for a guy who’s reason for existing was to be better than everyone else, fascism makes a nice fit. So the Bobby Fischer as cold war hero narrative makes something attractive out of something that shouldn’t be, I think, making a fascist into our fascist. Rah-rah!

Gould went to Russia, on the other hand, and tried to play modern music for the Russian music students (music they had not heard and didn‘t, sort of comically disapproved of) because he wanted to share it, because he liked it and wanted them to like it too. There’s something vaguely deep in that. Both people were, in a certain sense, removed from the public, but with Gould it was something different. He just didn’t like performing in concert, not because he didn’t like people, but because he just wasn’t that sort of person. But he had a joy in talking about music (that comes through in the bonus tracks to both versions) and it illustrates how much he wanted you to be able to see what he saw.

I’m trying to be a better teacher these days, to go beyond being just comfortable in the classroom and actually teach well, so I find myself wanting to be more like Gould and less like Fischer. And in my mind, they are useful ideal types to think about, not least because talking about music and talking about writing are much more similar than they are to chess. But as my implicit likening of myself to mad geniuses like Gould and Fischer should imply, in and of itself, my problem in the classroom is trying to find the right kind of authority, the right kind of “superiority.” I also “see” things that my students don’t see–that’s why they’re paying for the class and why I’m paid oh so generously for teaching it–so the question of how to relate to them and how to share this seeing is a pretty complex and difficult one, more difficult than we like to admit. There is a lot of authority and force in teaching; the discourse of pedagogy often seems designed exactly to deny that this is the case, but this is the case. But this liberal fascism, this authoritarian practice of forcing our students to learn to be free, has something to recommend it as well. And maybe the example of Gould and Fischer, so different and yet somehow, too, the same, is valuable to me for this reason: an idealized hope and a cautionary tale of the same kind of potential. How do you get them to see what you see, without crushing their own sight, without disparaging it and making them lose to ability to look for themselves?

Part of my dissertation is driven by this problem, to connect the necessary violence of pedagogy for developmental educationists like W.E.B. DuBois to the kind of political practices and ideologies that would come to characterize developmentalist postcolonial African states. When DuBois set off on safari into the wilds of Tennessee, there was as vast a divide in his mind between himself and the students he was going to teach as there had been for missionaries determined to teach Africans to read, use soap, and purchase English textiles. It was for their own good, he thought, that he would teach them to read, just as he looked back in fond nostalgia to the days of radical reconstruction, when benevolent northern generals had put shiftless freedmen back to work on massive cotton plantations. The English textile industry had to sell its products and get the raw materials from somewhere, of course, but that wasn’t what it was about for DuBois, he hoped. But he brooded about it. Even in his published writing, there are cracks just beneath the surface, questions and doubts; he never lost the faith, not really, but he always wondered and I think that these doubts and the way he tried to track the surgical scars his interventions left behind is perhaps the most important thing about him.

I have similar doubts, and the time I spent teaching Tanzanian children to read English made me think a lot about my teaching, about DuBois’, and about why it get’s done. Why, after all, do we teach? DuBois went to Tennessee because the government wanted to make country hicks into tax-paying citizens, however separate and equal; I went to Tanzania because the Washington consensus is that globalization is the way of the future and all citizens of the globe must learn an “international” language (not just Chagga and Swahili, for example); and I teach now because the technocrats of tomorrow need to learn to write. We teach because the skills we happen to have make us useful tools in a system much larger than us, like Bobby Fischer going to war. But we hope that something not quite so useful, not quite so necessary, and much more liberating can happen in the classroom outside of all that. This is the great hope, the way learning to read English helped Africans throw the English out of their country, so many years ago. Is it right? Is it true? Or is it simply a pleasing story we tell ourselves? I get very nervous anytime anyone claims to be showing someone the way to liberate themselves.

But that doubt has little to do with classroom process, or what I do. It’s just a hope, and one I don’t tell my students about very much. After I take roll, assign papers, and instruct them on the correct way to write a thesis, I tell them what John Steinbeck is afraid of, what it’s like to fear the bomb, and I ask them what they believe. After telling them to obey and ordering them to believe that I know best, I stop and I ask them to trust me and to doubt me. I order them to think for themselves, and grade them on how well they do. And despite the contradictions always implied, sometimes, miraculously, they do. But how much because of me?