Diversity, Education, Music, Top Stories

The Attack on Timothy Jackson Is an Assault on Liberal Education

Those interested in campus culture may have followed the debate concerning the Journal of Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas. Though limited to a very specialized discipline, that debate is no tempest in a teapot. Its implications go well beyond the borders of music theory and should be read as a symptom of the larger problem of higher education in the age of the fetishization of identities.

The protagonists of the Schenkerian studies case are Philip Ewell, a professor of music theory at City University New York, and Timothy Jackson at UNT, also a professor of music theory. The debate is about whether we should teach an Austrian Jewish musical theorist of the early 20th century despite the fact that said theorist was also a German nationalist and, in certain writings, expressed his belief in the superiority of German culture.

British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley once wrote: “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.” I do not intend to whitewash Schenker’s bigotry. A bigot he was—no less and no more than his German contemporaries—and putting his bigotry into context, as Timothy Jackson and others have done, cannot hurt historical truth. He was imbued with self-righteousness, as were many members of the educated elite at that time (and have they really changed?), about the superiority of tonal music. He did not mince his words about other musical forms despite his admiration for spirituals—which is more than we can say about Theodor Adorno, one of the pillars of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, who denigrated jazz as a form of mass entertainment and who preferred elite avant-garde music.

The academic press has covered the controversy, so I will only briefly summarize it here.

In the wake of a lecture delivered two years ago before the Society for Music Theory, Professor Ewell presented his argument for “decolonizing” the “white racial frame” of European music, using as a central illustration Heinrich Schenker and his heirs in the United States. He alleged that Schenkerian analysis is inherently racist and promotes white supremacy, and that this bias is legible not merely in Schenker’s writings on culture but also in his hierarchizing of sounds in tonal music. In classical music analysis, we use words such as “dominant” and “subdominant” to indicate certain chords and harmonies, and Ewell made a literal use of those metaphors to denounce the hierarchical essence of European music. Jackson, as a faithful scholar of Schenkerian analysis, and co-editor of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, offered a rebuttal to this argument in a special issue of the journal. As a result, he was denounced in a petition signed by students at UNT, an open letter signed by members of the Music History, Theory, and Ethnomusicology faculty at UNT, and a more general open letter signed by the luminaries of the music theory world.

They objected to the special issue on Ewell on the grounds that it was biased and one-sided—even “racist.” Incidentally, the special issue contains articles by major voices in the field who sided with Ewell’s argument against the “white racial frame.” On the other hand, Jackson, in his own contribution, contemplated the possibility that Ewell, by not mentioning Schenker’s marginalized status as a Jew in German culture in the early 20th century, had overlooked the anti-Semitic context of the time. Jackson also suggested that Ewell’s solution to the dominance of the “white racial frame,” namely the introduction of hip-hop into the music curriculum, was dubious. Rap is far from unbiased when it comes to women and LGBT people, let alone when it comes to Jews. Jackson also took a standard liberal stance in his article by advocating reaching out to students of color rather than misguidedly trying to interest them in music theory by changing and downgrading the discipline, which would be patronizing.

As we know, the new anti-racist movement has abandoned that classical position and embraced a radical deconstruction (today called “decolonization”) of the traditional disciplines of the liberal arts. The signatories of the largest of the open letters (all colleagues of Jackson’s in the field of music theory) pressurized Jackson’s employer (NTU) into investigating him and his editorial ethics. Jackson has responded by bringing a lawsuit against his university for suspending the publication of the journal and against some of his accusers, as well as employees of the university, for accusing him of bigotry and being unethical.

I wish to go beyond this particular debate and argue that it points to a larger problem in higher, and indeed secondary, education. Reading one more article about the case in VAN magazine, I realized that one of the core contentions bears perhaps less on the racism of European music and of Schenkerian analysis than on what we think the mission of education is.

Professor Ewell and those who side with him claim that the curriculum in music education should be modified to include extra-European music, genres, and geographies. Why not? The problem is when educators modify a curriculum based on the assumed cultural, social, and ethnic identity of students. Students, some argue, should feel that their culture is acknowledged and celebrated, rather than feeling alienated by the material they’re exposed to. This idea that education should make students feel “at home” with what they’re being taught is, I would argue, the exact opposite of the mission of pedagogy. In order for education to achieve anything at all, it needs to introduce students to material they’re unfamiliar with.

Philosophy, Plato wrote, begins in wonder. At the beginning of thinking there is an affect of astonishment. Will students who grew up with hip hop music experience wonder and astonishment if they’re just taught about hip-hop, its history and its internal grammar? Some may perhaps be surprised that hip hop has a history, as well as historical antecedents, and that there is also a technique of composition, at times complex. But compare that with the radical defamiliarization entailed by exposing the same students, say from urban areas, who listen to pop or hip hop, to the French baroque or to the Art of Fugue. Are we so sure that students who chose to attend music school want to hear and analyze what they are already familiar with? Are we so confident that students in literature want to read and reflect on rap lyrics or Beyoncé rather than Faulkner or Melville or Samuel Beckett? Should colleges and universities situated in rural America teach country music and reality TV? Should they not instead fulfill their mission of exposing students to Fellini and Bergman and urban culture, their mission of taking their students to a different intellectual and aesthetic space?

Let me indulge in a personal note. A French Jew from a modest background in provincial France, my experience of wonder and astonishment came up first with hearing a friend of mine playing Bach on the piano. We were 10 at the time. He came from a family of musicians, and I was enthralled by the music I was hearing for the first time. Back in the 1970s I bought all the Bach LPs I could find, then came a passion for Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms. My family had no musical sophistication whatsoever. Later at university I discovered canonical works of literature and philosophy. I was intoxicated by Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, and even the dry Kant and the byzantine Hegel were able to transport me. For my undergraduate studies in literature, my most meaningful experience was reading and commenting and being lectured on Louis-Ferdinand Céline, one of the most infamous anti-Semitic novelists of the past century but also one of the most revolutionary. Did I need to shelter in a safe space to avoid reading and hearing about Céline? Quite the opposite. I was amazed by Céline’s innovative prose. The critical judgment would come later, once I started reading about the author’s notorious anti-Semitic writings. Did I feel betrayed by my teacher at the time for downplaying or overlooking Céline’s anti-Semitism? Not at all. I still feel grateful for his guidance in Céline’s baroque and psychotic universe.

Still later, I decided to write a dissertation on François-René de Chateaubriand, a French Catholic aristocrat of the early 19th century—light years away from the experience of a French Jew, son of a shopkeeper in the north of France.

Those “lightyears away” are what make education so valuable.

To abandon the familiar, to forsake the already known, and take the risk of reading and listening and encountering the irreducibly unfamiliar—such is my conception of aesthetic and critical education.

In the 1970s, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze founded the intriguing concept of “deterritorialization.” His idea was that art and literature and philosophy are forces of deterritorialization, of defamiliarization. Educators and artists should promote the uncanny instead of repatriating their students within their social, cultural, and ethnic milieu. Deleuze also spoke of “lines of flight,” or “lines of escape”—all those strategies that we imagine to weigh anchor from the familiar, the homey, the comfortable and invent new narratives and ways of being. The mission of education consists in providing students with the means of departing from familiar territory.

Education is an unsafe business. Forsaking the familiar is always an existential risk. An education based on reinforcing identity will end up weakening it, because identity is a process rather than a thing. Identity politics, today, is reifying and fetishizing identities instead of recognizing their fluidity and dynamism. A strong identity is one that has been tested against unfamiliar ideas and destabilized by literature and art. To my many friends on the Left who seem to buy into this new identity politics, I would remind you that this politics has a disturbing corollary—the rise of social media and of their commodification of identities. Today, one’s identity has become a currency used and exchanged by “surveillance capitalism.” (See Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.)

The only way students can resist this commodification of their identities is by occupying an unsafe space—getting an education that will encourage them to escape what they think they already are.

Now I believe this is precisely what Timothy Jackson and his colleagues in music theory have been doing with their students for decades. They have introduced them to different landscapes—landscapes that we could call scapelands—lines of flight of complex musical syntax, the dry yet enthralling intellectual exercise of diagramming a music score in order to heed its nuances. Like learning a foreign language, studying the grammar of classical music opens what Aldous Huxley called the “doors of perception.” Whether this approach is irrelevant when it comes to studying non-tonal, non-European music, as some opponents of Jackson argue, does not matter. The method is an ascesis that, in an age of massive distraction, requires what philosopher Simone Weil considered the cornerstone of education: attention. The opposite of self-absorption, attention consists in turning toward something other than oneself—be it a language, an art, a philosophy, a painting, characters in a novel, etc. Attention is the ability to turn away from the self, to forget oneself and welcome the other. No identity worthy of the name can establish itself if you don’t let yourself be affected, and destabilized, by such an encounter. The reterritorialization of identities is endangering students’ healthy escape from a reified self and reinforcing, albeit unwittingly, its cynical monetization.


Bruno Chaouat is Professor of French and Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota.