The age of ignorance: Today's Americans point the remote rather than read, converse or play a musical instrument


August 22, 1999|By Scot Lehigh | By Scot Lehigh,BOSTON GLOBE

It is an old-fashioned idea, but once upon a more self-reliant time, what you could do sometimes counted for almost as much as what you had acquired.

In an era where entertainment took effort, accomplishment was social capital, and the acquisition of talent meant as much in the assessment of a person's worth as, say, owning stock in the latest Internet company or driving a Lexus does in the salons of the new economy.

Part of it, of course, was that necessity made a social virtue of individual skill. In the days before recordings, if a family wanted melody, someone in the family had to be musical. Indeed, the delight such a talent could bring was valuable enough that it might well improve one's marriage prospects.

Conversational ability was also valued, and knowledge was cultivated. Joining a conversation required more than having watched the most recent "Ally McBeal" episode. It might have meant reading a notable novel or essay, or being conversant with the issues that enlivened the day.

"You had an enormous incentive for self-development and activity because the passive, consuming media weren't there," says John Silber, former chancellor of Boston University.

Now that's a distant notion.

Today, the home-entertainment center has become the center of the home. From TVs to PCs, from CDs to DVDs, an alphabet soup of high-tech entertainment options beckons in the modern living room, most of which require no more effort than reaching for the remote. Still, there's a cost in that absence of effort, an opportunity cost. Rather than entertain ourselves, we've grown accustomed to being entertained. It's an invitation to passivity -- and America has accepted.

As a result, we are not nearly as interesting as we used to be.

Consider a century ago. Those who have studied that era say that same impulse made music central to domestic life and put a piano in every parlor.

"From mid-1850 to 1910 or 1920, pianos were in every middle-class living room," says Michael Lewin, chairman of the piano department at the Boston Conservatory, and a professional concert pianist. "And every time there was a new symphony or opera, it was immediately published in piano four-hand version, and people sat and played through them."

That's an aesthetic America's founders had revered as well. Jefferson, who counted music "the favorite passion of my soul," rose with the sun to practice his violin and dreamed of having an orchestra at Monticello; Benjamin Franklin not only wrote and published music, he also invented the glass harmonica; Sam Adams organized singing groups in Boston, promoting both music and patriotism.

They might be surprised today to see how amusical America has become. Although precise figures are difficult to find, a series of Gallup polls done for the National Association of Music Merchants gives some sense of the modern decline.

In 1978, more than half of households reported that someone over 5 played an instrument, but that percentage had slid to 38 percent by 1997. Only about one quarter of people over 12 currently plays. Remove high-school students, and that percentage falls to just 16 percent of adults. All told, only about 10 percent of Americans seems to play an instrument with real frequency.

Richard Ortner, president of the Boston Conservatory, says one reason for the decline is that music has lost a place of primacy in the public schools. Ortner, who graduated from high school in 1966, says that during his school days, "It was unthinkable to enter a classroom that didn't have a piano or to encounter a teacher who couldn't sit down to play `Happy Birthday' to someone. Music was considered a natural, normal part of being alive.

These days, Asian and European cultures seem far more eager to pursue music than does America. Maryte Bizinkauskas, a professional voice teacher in Massachusetts, says the United States now puts sports on a pedestal reserved for music in many European cultures.

It's not just musical ability that's been lost in American life, however. It's also the centrality of conversation and books in domestic life.

Silber remembers his parents reading to the family as entertainment in the evenings. And he recalls the value the raconteur had in social situations, entertaining with droll observations about the issues and personalities of the day.

Like musicality, the value of the spoken word hasn't undergone quite the same deflation in other cultures. In Dublin, for example, even in this day and age, one would scarcely venture out to a middle-class social affair without his or her "party piece," a well-known poem or song or speech that can be recited on request for the entertainment of the company.

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