BLOG #11: Becoming a 'Visiting Scholar' -- 'Futile and Stupid Gestures' Revisited
My favorite quotations from movies generally have to do with persistence in a noble but potentially ill-advised enterprise:
From Animal House:
Otter (Tim Matheson): “Now is the time for a truly…futile and stupid gesture."
Bluto (John Belushi): "And we’re just the ones to do it!”
From The Princess Bride:
Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright): “We’ll never survive the fire swamp.”
Wesley (Carey Elwes): “Oh, you’re only saying that because nobody ever has.”
In 2007, I began a sabbatical from teaching as a Clinical Professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Having been heartily encouraged by....uh, well, no one, really, to return for the past fourteen years, I began to explore opportunities to inflict myself upon other institutions. Through any number of synchronistic developments -- facilitated by several dollops of nepotism, I became a "Visiting Scholar" at the University of Cambridge...in the Department of Sociology.
Why Cambridge? For me it seemed the quintessential place of pathbreaking scholarship set in a context of consummate quirkiness. Distinguished alumni included Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, and Jonathan Miller of "Beyond the Fringe", John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman, of Monty Python....and Sacha Baron Cohen, whose comedic works I have not just studied, but savored. Even the signs in restaurants seemed to suggest that the flowering of new paradigms was rooted in a soil, particularly rich in whimsy as a core nutrient.
My original plan was to study how music has been used in conflict resolution and social healing
Mercifully, the fact that I had never actually taken a course in Sociology didn't seem to bother my academic advisor, Darin Weinberg, PhD, Professor of Sociology, and Fellow and Director of Studies at Kings College, Cambridge.
Pop quiz: which one of the gentlemen pictured above is the actual Professor, Fellow and Director of Studies at
Kings College Cambridge?
My original idea for this re-entry into academia was to study how music had been used throughout history in the service of conflict resolution. My inspiration for this focus came from having had the great good fortune to have done a presentation with Tommy Sands at the Iúr Cinn Fleadh (the annual musical festival in Newry in Northern Ireland) in 2019. As many of you know, Tommy is a legendary singer, songwriter, and social activist, whose musical efforts were deemed a “defining moment” in the completion of the “Good Friday Agreement” which ended decades of fighting between Protestants and Catholics. There will be more on Tommy in subsequent posts, but for now, here's Tommy in action:
But then....... the then-UK Secretary of Education recommended cutting the budget for music education by 50%. This struck me as an ill-considered and a potentially dangerous idea so: I began to compose the following note:
'To the (certainly not) Right (not entirely) Honorable Secretary: I have been given to understand that you would propose to profoundly limit access to that which has been empirically proven to enhance neurocognitive development, empathy, prosocial behavior, and produce neurobiologic changes that enhance the capacity for 'bonding with fellow humans at... a time of exponentially increasing fractiousness throughout the world?"Might I respectfully suggest that you reconsider this stunningly decerebrate course of action. Yours sincerely, '
Another disturbing component to this lunacy is that a lot of the pathbreaking research to establish the empiric bases for these benefits of (particularly early) music education, was done at .... Cambridge. This, in turn, further fueled my clearly overdeveloped sense sanctimony: how could The Secretary be unaware of be either unaware or uncaring about these developments that had occurred only one hour and twenty-two minutes northwest on the M-11 (yes, I checked...).
I then decided it made no sense to go to Cambridge unless I could somehow facilitate the amalgamated tasks of transporting these quintessential findings to, and somehow exhibiting them in more resplendent display to the non-Cantabridgean world. It seemed that we would need a 'squadron' to re-establish music and music education as a more central force in academic curricula and the culture at large in the service of individual and social healing.
My goal had morphed into the desire to carry out a potentially "futile and stupid gesture"
My original “scholarly” goal, then, had morphed into the desire to carry out a potentially “futile and stupid gesture.” And mercifully, the same forces of synchronicity and nepotism, that got me to Ireland (see Blog #7), and Cambridge, helped with the 'squadron' formation. So in addition to Darin, Tommy, and myself, our squadron also includes Lisa Wong, MD (introduced to me by my brother). Lisa is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, where she also teaches a course on "The Role of Music in Health and Education."
And our quartet will be doing presentations in England, Ireland, and Greece in the coming year, and with prospects for future ‘gigs’ beyond that.
To me, this feels like a ‘mid-life’ transition, which would make sense only if I were to live to age 137. But if you tell me that no one has ever lived to age 137, I would reply that you’re only saying that because nobody ever has.