Alexander Jakobidze-Gitman, Witten/Herdecke University
How did a musician and music historian like me become interested in the debates on classical education dating back more than a century? Like many other Russian humanities scholars, I realized only in my twenties that without knowledge of Latin, the access to European culture would remain very limited. I found it deeply regrettable that while Russia has long adopted and actively developed the musical tradition of Western Europe, classical education was abolished there a hundred years ago. After having studied at three music academies, lecturing on music at universities and collaborating with a few music festivals, I have noticed an affinity between the current state of Western music education and classical studies. While the necessity to justify claims to get grants and state support is common to almost all fields of humanities, classical scholars and classical musicians are brought closer together by additional challenges – facing accusations of clinging tightly to an old-fashioned canon and being Eurocentric. Therefore, they often feel particularly awkward when they must promote and sell their fields.
Awkwardness of marketing your discipline
No one questions the usefulness of practicing languages, but the insistence that Latin and Ancient Greek deserve special attention among the great many other invites criticism and even ridicule. Similarly, no one questions the usefulness of music lessons, but why, among all the many music traditions, is priority given to the Western classical music with its demand for daily drill and tedious exercises? Citing the “glorious history” of instructing European children in classical languages and classical music is no longer tenable for political and demographic reasons.
Classical education, however, is in an even harder position than classical music. Firstly, the defenders of classical music can at least point to the hedonistic aspects of its consumption. When I would return to my dorm after classes at the Royal Academy of Music and turn on Classic FM, I was amused at the way the announcer was presenting the same music that required me and my classmates to do hours of grueling hard labor, for the means to “enjoy and relax.” In contrast, a call to relax to the poetry of Horace or Virgil will cause laughter from experts and outsiders alike. Secondly, advocates of classical music are now able to cite neurocognitive studies showing its benefits for brain development. Notwithstanding unique features of the grammar of classical languages, the neurocognitive research has not yet paid much attention to its specific impact on brain activity.
Overcoming defeatist attitudes
Despite all these advantages, sober-minded people working in the field of classical music cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that their audiences are getting older and older, and fewer and fewer young people are coming to classical music concerts. The defeatist mood in their field is very similar to that among classical scholars at the turn of the twentieth century. The latter realized that in the long run their case was lost, and all they could hope for was to delay their surrender and try to make it incomplete. Although this situation was common for almost all European countries, in Russia on the eve of revolution with her exacerbating social cleavages the resemblance to a military siege was more pronounced than anywhere else.
At the time when the opponents of classical education in Russia were at the height of their powers and its defenders were pushed into a corner, the classical scholar Tadeusz Zielinski accomplished a feat. He managed to refute nearly all possible allegations: that classical education is useless, that it is against social justice, that it does not pay off financially, and that it is an instrument of reactionary forces. He did not hesitate to refer to the late nineteenth-century findings in social and natural sciences to back up his argument that classical education contributes both to personal development and to common good. Even though many of Zielinski’s arguments are now outdated, the defence tactics he used are perfectly transferable to other objects, situations, and agendas. I hope that the readers who work in humanities and arts may find in his legacy a source of encouragement for defending the values of their disciplines.
Jakobidze-Gitman’s latest paper for the History of Education on ‘Adaptations to global changes: strategic evolutions of an elite school, 1961–2011‘ is available now.
Alexander Jakobidze-Gitman is a curriculum manager in the arts at the Witten/Herdecke University in Germany. In 2017 he was a visiting scholar at the University of Sheffield. Jakobidze-Gitman holds his PhD in film studies and published the book “Rising Phantasms: The Stalinist Era in Post-Soviet Film” (2015). His main research focus, however, is the history of musical thought of the Early modern period. Currently he is working on the monograph on Jean-Philippe Rameau. Having earned degrees at the Royal Academy of Music (London) and the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatoire as a pianist, Jakobidze-Gitman also presents public lecture-recitals. In 2022 he made a videorecording of the Well-Tempered Klavier by Johann Sebastian Bach.