How to Get There from Here

My nine-year-old son, Mark, asked, “Dad, can you put it back to the beginning of the Sea Interludes.,”

I marveled and wondered: how many other nine-year-olds in the country even know what Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes are, never mind keen to hear them played from the beginning?

My computer was open on my desk, and I had gone to YouTube and started playing the Sea Interludes. I got up to get coffee, when Mark came downstairs, noticed the piece had already begun, and began to plead with me about restarting the piece.

Okay, Mark is a special boy, though mainly for sports. It’s not just his father who says this, but also his teachers. But he is not a musical prodigy. He’s chiefly noted for high spirits, and for the fact that he puts a long “i” sound in every vowel. (The police almost didn’t return him when he became separated from our group at an air show: “You said he’s Mark. But he says he’s Mike.”)

So then how does an ordinary boy acquire a love for Sea Interludes? By a mysterious kind of osmosis, which good parents know. His father loves them and plays them – and also talks about them freely and naturally asks his children questions about them. (“Which of the four do you like best? My favorite is ‘Moonlight.’ It seems so sad and thoughtful.”)

Actually, to tell the whole story: His father decided that he would take all six of his sufficiently mature children to the National Symphony. Because that is what adults do: they go to the symphony. Also, the children should hear a live concert. They should see with their eyes what it means for a hundred supremely skilled artists to cooperate together for a single effect. They should dress up, and go out, and do something polite in public. They should be participants, not simply bystanders, in the culture of a great city.

Someone might say that seven tickets in the second balcony at $200 total is an extravagance (and my wife did say so). But surely that is a modest sum, given what one is getting, and it’s an immaterial amount, given what one spends overall, rightly so, for education.

New York Premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes [The Met, February 12, 1948]

On the program were the Shostakovich 5th Symphony, Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, and – the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. Weeks in advance, Mark’s canny father began playing these pieces in the household at every opportunity – in car rides, after dinner on the stereo, in the morning over breakfast on the computer. Not so frequently that it became annoying or became obvious what the scheme was. But just enough that these pieces became familiar. Because we love what is familiar.

It was William F. Buckley Jr. who taught me many years ago that familiarity is the key to passing on a love of classical music. He wrote somewhere that when he was a child, he and his siblings stayed with a relative for a month, who insisted that every day after dinner the family group retire to the living room and sit quietly to listen to classical music for about half an hour. Buckley said that after those four weeks he was hooked. He loved classical music.

The love of classical music has to be prepared for over a long period. Mark didn’t just start listening when he was 9 years old, or 8 years old. His has been a life of hearing it and experiencing his father’s love of it.

Now, this is all very interesting, and perhaps worthy of imitation in some respects by others, but you are no doubt expecting a lesson to be drawn from this instance, and I will not disappoint you.

Mark’s example made me think: suppose a father who did not love classical music wanted to achieve the same thing. Suppose for example a businessman with a tin ear, or a lawyer with no patience for such things. Would it be possible for such a person to raise an ordinary nine-year-old who pleads for the Sea Interludes recording to be started again from the beginning? I suppose he’d have to hire someone to do this. But could it be imparted by a mere hired hand? How exactly would that work?

No, I think he could not get here from there. What the matter requires, is what Aristotle said would be the manner of an ideal king: he’d hardly need to pass a law, since his loyal subjects would by a kind of natural inclination want to follow him. They’d love what he loves.

And here’s my lesson. It is a lesson about colleges, all colleges, though especially Catholic colleges – perhaps, because I am a college professor, and my mind goes that way.

The lesson I wish to draw is that colleges that have businessmen, or generally non-academics as leaders, are greatly hindered in passing on a genuine love of learning to the students. Also, if professors are not tenured, but are regarded as mere employees, they are, so far, “hired hands” who will be hindered in this task.

At least this much can be said for the much-maligned tenure system: it makes the faculty the college, and it makes it at least possible for the faculty to be like a stable “family,” which has its own life, and which the students enter into and share in. Some argue that tenure is incompatible with the “student as consumer.” Exactly.

Yes, there can be islands of love of learning, and individual savant-mentors, and Doktor-Vaters, at such places. But the institutional provisions that allow pathways for the “mysterious osmosis” I mentioned, simply will not exist.

Love is mysterious and strange. This much seems true: love is kindled only by love. That is how the faith is passed on, and culture and learning too, within the faith.

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is acting dean of the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book, on the Gospel of Mark, The Memoirs of St Peter, is now available from Regnery Gateway.