Archive for November, 2014

48 Hours

In the spring of 1997, I stood outside my old M.S. adviser’s door in the College of Business at the University of Colorado, waiting to ask him, in person, if he’d write me a letter of recommendation for a second master’s degree. When the door opened, he was delighted to see me, and we sat and talked for a while about what I’d been up to (starting a company) and what I hoped to do in the future (start another one). But the long hand on the clock got to doing what it does best, and after a while, he asked what he could do for me. I told him, and he began guessing all kinds of programs in a wait-wait-don’t-tell-me mode. Computer science? Statistics? Mathematics, for sure.

Anthropology, I told him, and the long hand worked away for a while before he spoke again.

In the end, he did write it, and the anthropology department got a stack of some truly strange-looking recommendations, from their perspective, and I got in. I wasn’t one of the department’s Chosen Ones. Those came with the right degrees in hand, degrees in sociology and biology and forensics, from the right universities, with the right recommendations. We all knew who they were from the first minute of the first colloquium. I was supposed to be an afterthought, one of the students that pads the department’s coffers and scrapes out a degree while so doing. I wasn’t supposed to make the graduate Dean’s List in six consecutive semesters, or wrest the Quiatt Award for Excellence in Anthropological Writing away from one of the Chosen, or get one of the first teaching job offers out of the program. But I did.

After the graduation festivities had died down, I met my M.A. adviser for a beer at a favorite British pub here in Denver, and over one too many Boddington’s, she told me something remarkable.

She said, “everything about who you were and what you did surprised us.”

That probably wouldn’t be the case today. We’re in a transition from a society focused on credentials to a society focused on outcomes. I see it every day in the work I do, side by side on teams built out of a graying Cornell grad at one end of the table, and, at the other, a Colorado College dropout who MOOCed his way to analytics competency and then blogged about sabermetrics until he got noticed. (True story.) What’s the difference between the two? Nothing. They’re both respected project team members. One’s just from the generation prior, when we obsessed over potential instead of product.

So why do I bring this up? In part, because I’m rising to the defense of one of my own. Music instructor-turned-credential ghoul Mark O’Connor has been kicking around the gravesite of venerated violin method creator Shinichi Suzuki for a few years now, turning over rocks in search of wiggly things, and he’s surged to the forefront of pedagogy again this week with more questions. Did Suzuki really study with Klingler? What was his relationship with Einstein? Was he really a doctor? 

I couldn’t care less. In 1977, my parents pushed me – reluctantly – into the Suzuki violin program, and I stood in a gym with what seemed like a billion other kids and crawled my fingers from one end of the bow to the other. It was stupid and pointless, and I would have told you at the time that there was no way this would possibly lead to me being able to play anything in Book One, except it did, and those exercises were equally stupid and pointless; I bitched a high holy storm about those, too, how they couldn’t possibly lead me on to any real songs, except they did, and then I was playing Humoresque, and then I was second-chair viola in an orchestra, and then I was picking up the guitar and the mandolin and the cello and then I was 45 and seven years into performing live in a band as a principal songwriter and lead guitarist.

Stupid bow exercises.

Shinichi Suzuki could have claimed anything, as far as I’m concerned. He could have claimed to have invented the rotary engine, or that he cured Legionnaire’s Disease, or that he designed the bidets on the International Space Station. I couldn’t care less. His method worked, and continues to work to this day. It’s fantastic.

What makes me sad about the entirety of this conversation is not whether or not Suzuki falsified aspects of his background or experience in order to seem like a more traditional, more ‘qualified’ instructor for children. He might have, or he might not have, and the people that could corroborate or disprove his story are all dead. No, what makes me sad is the fact that Suzuki lived during a time when he clearly felt pressure to do so. Today, his experience would be very different. He was an outcome man living out his days in the credential era, and I’m appalled that his accomplishments can’t simply stand on their own, the way the accomplishments of so many others can in the 21st century.

By the way, it’s turned out that O’Connor’s accusations have been largely discredited. It’s quite likely that the word ‘guardian’ was mistranslated from the original text in describing Einstein’s relationship with Suzuki. It’s also quite likely that Suzuki spun Klingler’s noted dislike of teaching to turn a reluctant pedagogy into a unique teaching arrangement. Fine. And enough universities handed Suzuki honorary doctorates as to make the question of his academic authority irrelevant.

But wait.

Before we leave that last concept, let’s spend a moment on it.

Because we have a new arrival on the pedagogical scene, one equally unqualified to be teaching, and he’s making a difference in the academic lives of millions of kids every day, too. And we don’t say boo about his quals and certs, because we’ve jumped that line, that demarcation O’Connor’s pushing into our faces and asking, isn’t this relevant? Isn’t this important?

Sal Khan isn’t technically an educator by training. He’s a mathematician, engineer, former hedge fund analyst, and entrepreneur. But go check out the Wikipedia entry for Sal Khan. I’ll wait. Read the very top line. The first thing on the page.

Back?

That’s what Shinichi Suzuki was: an educator. Not by training; not by credentials. Almost certainly not by association with top-flight conservatories (although maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t). He wasn’t the concertmaster for the right orchestra and he didn’t have the right tutelage and he didn’t possess the right insider relationships to merit being considered an educator in his day. He just became one in part because he simply didn’t give a shit about anyone’s need for credentials. He was too busy with outcomes, with the task of educating millions upon millions of kids in the joys of playing music. He was, essentially, the Sal Khan of his day.

How have things changed since then? Well, Consumer Reports recently reviewed a car and found it to be the best car they’d ever seen. It wasn’t conceived of by a car guy, a Detroit insider; it wasn’t brought to the world by anyone with a finger’s width of degrees. In fact, its designer holds a degree from the not-so-snazzy-sounding University of Pennsylvania. A B.S., by the way.

Oh, he did attend Stanford. For forty-eight hours.

And quit.

Elon Musk had bigger things in mind than credentials. He was already working on the outcomes.