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Asking Good Questions: Dean Blocker’s Commencement Address
ASKING GOOD QUESTIONS
The Henry and Lucy Moses Dean of Music
In the library of questions, there are many different types. Some are social, such as a greeting like “How are you?” Others are personal, sometimes gossipy and intrusive, like “Can you believe she moved in with him?” Some have short-term implications – “When do we get out of this rehearsal?”, while others have lasting meaning – “Will you marry me?” Some require one-word replies, and some cannot be answered. This morning, I want to focus on questions that pertain to you and your life as a person, an artist, an educated citizen, and a cultural leader.
Isidor Rabi, the Nobel Laureate in Physics who died earlier this year, was once asked why he became a scientist rather than a doctor, lawyer, or businessman like the other immigrant kids in his neighborhood. His answer was profound and an inspiration to all educators: “My mother,” he said, “made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a good scientist!”
Educated people – scientists, artists, physicians, teachers, lawyers, ministers, business owners, to name a few – are intellectually curious. If you wish to achieve your personal goals, to develop your talent, and to live a rich, satisfying life, asking good questions is, I believe, the best possible outcome of your educational experience.
Much has been said and written about the Information Age and its digital implications, but we have no singular claim on this term. What of the people who first encountered the alphabet, or those who lived when Gutenberg invented movable print, or more recently our grandparents and great-grandparents who witnessed the advent of radio and television?
Some say the book is dead. Hardly! In 2011 over one million new titles were published. Some say anything and everything is available on-line. Not so! The average life span of a URL is 44 days. Libraries are not yet obsolete; we simply choose not to examine and use their treasures. Nonetheless, we have at our fingertips unparalleled access to information, and this access is altering the very fabric of our civilization – culturally, politically, economically, morally, educationally, medically, psychologically. In educational institutions, faculties are grappling with what and how to teach. The professorial lecture, with its passive learning paradigm, testing for regurgitation of facts, and little hope for retention, is increasingly moving toward extinction. And small seminars, or for us individual studio instruction, do not address the content question of basic literacy – and that is what I want to explore with you for a few moments.
Consider the concerns of our faculty as we greet a new class – forty percent of you come from at least twenty-five or more nations, and the remaining sixty percent arrive here from all across our expansive country. All of you bring to Yale different educational backgrounds and artistic experiences. What do we establish as a baseline for musical literacy, or better put, what must you have at your mental fingertips to permit you to ask good questions which then deepen and broaden your artistic understanding? In the world you inherit, the solitude of the practice room is necessary but not enough in itself. In the global society, referring to your latest iPhone app, or quickly going to Wikipedia, will not be enough IF you are to fulfill your responsibility to yourself, your talent, and to those who enter the circle of your presence.
Aristotle reports to us the common, plain, personal background of Socrates. Socrates became impatient with the type of teaching he encountered, and he was clearly affected by the inscription over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – “Know Thyself.” His egalitarian approach to learning and his passion for epic inquiry by raising independent questions is one of western civilizations important legacies.
Have you dared to know yourself as an artist? Is the score in your hands a sacred trust, its notes waiting to be explored not only for their sound but for their meaning yesterday and today? Do you, do we, always appreciate and understand the inextricable link and relation between performance and scholarship? Do you seek the quick, pat answer or the question that takes you to the edge of knowing? Do you have the courage to discover your musical voice and to raise the artistic expectations you have for yourself? Can you experience wonder and mystery, or have incessant rehearsals, commitments, and the world itself left you numb and immune to being emotionally and physically transformed by music? These are important questions for those of us who must balance the necessity of ego against the penchant for narcissistic self-aggrandizement.
The exploration of your role as an artist is the primary focus of your days as a student, but there is another dimension that is more important and that is, quite simply, you as a person. Who do you say you are – artist, musician, violinist, composer, guitarist, teacher, undecided? Who do you say you are, and what do you value most? What do you seek in your time on this planet, and what can you give in return?
William Sloan Coffin, perhaps Yale’s most notable chaplain in the past century, said that “the longest, most arduous trip in the world is often the journey from the head to the heart. Until the round trip is complete, we remain at war with ourselves.” Musicians spend most of their early years developing technical skills and acquiring basic information needed to recreate a particular piece of music. To a great extent, the early journey is intellectual. Only later do life experiences, and all their concomitant emotions, infuse our artistic explorations and discoveries which then lead to the heart. Then the music flows from inside you rather than from the instrument itself.
But do we trust ourselves enough to feel emotions? During your brief time at Yale, many of you experienced seminal life-changing events that will forever alter who you are as a person and as an artist: the birth of your child, the death of a parent, the notice that you won a position and can now be removed from your parents’ payroll, being named a prize winner in a major competition, learning that a friend has an incurable illness, witnessing firsthand the sheer joy on a child’s face as they perform the piece you taught them in our Music in Schools program. Some of you took the emotional journey from head to heart – and you will never be the same nor will we.
Ask good questions. Ask them with humility and open-mindedness. The power of an honest question is staggering, for truth without questioning is false. When you create or re-create music, artistic integrity enables the listener to trust you and to listen with both the heart and mind. When you teach , be assured that you are expected and trusted to tell the truth about what is being done and how it is being done.
At Yale, we believe that your talent is not an entitlement. You have the responsibility to give your gift back to the world, to be generous with your art and your life just as those before you have been. We expect you to be a cultural leader, to make a difference in your community, to enrich and sustain our profession. We expect you to be connected to this School – your School – to ask good questions of us in the days ahead, and to nurture its future with your gifts of talent and money as those before you have done. Who do you say you are? You are a part of us, and we are a part of you.
Several weeks ago a great friend of music died. For several decades, Peter Gomes was the Minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church and the Plummer Professor of Morals. He was the quintessential asker of good questions, and they flowed plentifully during his frequent visits to Yale. His words are prescient for us:
We live in lean times; I know that and I know you know that. There is a sense of urgency , even of despair, in the air, and we live under the threat of a cloud. Fear and caution abound, and you and I wonder what we can do. Life is harsh and unfair, and judgment swift and arbitrary. The rabbis tell us that when a wise man heard that the end of the world was near he went into his garden and planted a tree, an act of courage, audacity, and hope – the only possible response. Perhaps it is John Wesley to whom we must turn, who, in times not dissimilar from our own, and on behalf of the cautious to the question, “But what can I do for the world (Kingdom)?” he replied:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.
Always ask good questions. May God grant you courage, wisdom, peace, love, and joy in all the days that are yours.