Justifying music theory in a time of crisis?

Recently, the usually reliable Current Affairs put out a puzzling article by chief editor Nathan J. Robinson. The article turns on a bit of Internet nonsense, a response to a response to an abstract Robinson wrote for a hypothetical essay. The abstract is titled “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time of Crisis?,” and it’s about exactly what you’d think. Now, I’m never one to shy away from calling academics useless, but Robinson goes awfully far in suggesting that philosophers have some kind of moral imperative to give up and retrain as public health professionals.

Someone called the “Maverick Philosopher” bristled at this suggestion, and Robinson’s article is largely a response to this little-known blogger. On its merits this dispute is hardly worth paying attention to, but I suspect that many Current Affairs readers are, like myself, aspiring academics of one stripe or another. It would be unfortunate to let this deeply flawed argument go unchallenged.

I’m a graduate student in music theory, a field not known for its social conscience, vision, or utility to the broader world. I’m also, if I may say so without bragging, a reasonably smart person with skills that might fruitfully be put to use elsewhere. How do I square this?

As it happens, I considered this question at length during my undergraduate studies, and again before choosing to pursue academia rather than become a performing musician. I’ve never come to a definitive answer, but I’ve managed to satisfy my guilty conscience after wrestling with the issue for a long time. Some questions and comments that come to mind are:

Is music really so useless? (You could easily substitute whatever “useless” activity you like here.) Or perhaps a healthy society is one that has many people pursuing a variety of different activities, including and especially ones that are not directly related to daily sustenance? Obviously becoming a musician or music professor is a withdrawal from the social or political realm in a way that becoming, say, a union organizer or a nurse isn’t. But many people with respectable careers are several degrees removed from any useful or urgent activity, or even actively doing harm – why then is teaching and researching in the humanities a uniquely questionable pursuit? Is it good enough to say that I’m doing what I like and harming no one in the process?

Ultimately, is my choice of career that important? Is it not presumptuous to lavish so much attention on this question, as if I’m some kind of potential messiah? More realistically, I’m someone who has the potential to make a modest contribution to one of a handful of fields, and must make a choice between them. In terms of broad systems, the outcome of that choice scarcely matters.

In his response to the “Maverick Philosopher,” it never seems to occur to Robinson that his question is an elementary one that most people have answered hundreds of times over by the time they have a career in a useless humanities field. When people are short with you, it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether they’re truly dazzled by your logical prowess or just sick of rehashing the same arguments to justify themselves – especially to half-bright Ivy League shitheads.

Throughout his article, Robinson relies tacitly on a notion of fungible skills – the idea that some people are just “smart,” and could become advanced metaphysicians or public health professionals just as easily. This is obviously false, as anyone who has met a philosophy student can attest. Different fields of endeavour require different skills, and not everyone is equally suited for everything. In a perfect world, everybody would devote their life to something they’re well-suited for and happy with. In this fallen one, we do what we can. I would never blame anyone for taking the opportunities available to them.

In general, we should feel some sort of imperative to be good citizens – to be active in our communities, to help others, to push for a better, more equitable world. But this can look different for every person. For an academic, this might mean striving to make academia a more hospitable place for all its inhabitants. The primary role of even the crustiest professor is, after all, to teach the young professionals whose futures Robinson cares so much about. Or it might mean putting a lot of energy into political activism in one’s spare time. Or it might mean keeping one’s head down, doing good work, and being decent to one’s students and colleagues. We have to recognize that not everyone can or will contribute equally, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as you’re not doing evil, or actively blocking the path of those opposing evil, you’re doing good enough.

In most spheres of life, no one person has an overwhelming influence. A sober look at this fact might lead one to conclude that cultivating personal virtue is not the be-all and end-all. People who devote their lives to running charities or curing diseases are admirable – but this does not mean that those of us with less exciting lives are somehow slacking off. Individual effort is overrated. We may be in a time of crisis, but that does not mean every available person must devote every available bit of energy to solving it. It’s not possible to mobilize the entire population in this way, even in times of war.

Ultimately, Robinson’s problem is that, despite his no-nonsense attitude, he’s bought into the delusion peddled by the elite universities: that meaningful change will be driven by the problem-solving exertions of the professional class. Does it really seem plausible that the reason poor Alabamans get medieval diseases is that not enough smart people are getting degrees in public health? Or is there a more systemic problem, perhaps requiring some kind of large-scale collective solution? I’m pretty sure there’s a word for such a thing, but I can’t quite think what it is. Maybe I should have paid more attention in political philosophy class.

Feature image credit: excerpt from Heinrich Schenker’s Harmonielehre (1906). Public domain.