The following is a conversation between Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: How many people do you know who’ve held the same job since Gerald Ford was President of the United States? Not many, I bet. Well, you’re about to meet one. He is Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, who also serves as the Musical Director and Principal Conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, among other posts.
Good evening, Leon, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Leon: Thanks for having me, Denver. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Denver: Most listeners probably have heard of Bard College but might not know that much about it. What makes it such a distinctive institution of higher learning?
Leon: Bard is a very high-quality, unusual liberal arts college that’s two hours north of New York. It has about 1,900 undergraduates. It has a smattering of graduate programs, mostly in the arts, but one in environmental science. It has a graduate center in the Decorative Arts and Art History with a PhD program in New York, and a world-famous curatorial program, training curators. But it’s primarily an undergraduate college. It’s known for its distinction in literature and the arts, for example. It has, I think, 11 MacArthur Prize winners on its faculty. It is also a very prominent place in science – in environmental science and in the social sciences.
It has a very distinct curriculum, so it’s just not like any other liberal arts college. It has an intensive language and thinking program for first year students to perfect their command of language and close reading; a citizen science program, a kind of core curriculum; then a lot of student-centered opportunities where people major in what they want. We’re not organized by department, so we don’t look like a university with four divisions – the arts, the natural sciences, the social sciences, and literature and language.
We have a big international network, so we have connections to institutions all over the world – from Kyrgyzstan to Vietnam to Berlin. We have a campus in Berlin. It’s a place that is also deeply engaged in the connection of education and social justice, so we have a network of early colleges in the public sector in six cities, and the leading prison education program in the country.
So it’s a place with very distinguished faculty – Daniel Mendelsohn; Joan Tower, the composer; Tan Dun is the Dean of our conservatory of music. We have the leading expert on tick-borne diseases, Felicia Keesing, on our faculty. So it is a very unusual but very rigorous and inspiring place to be a student.
Liberal arts is really about connecting the intellectual tradition to the conduct of life.
Knowledge in the 21st century is power.
Denver: It certainly is interesting. Well, Leon, you know in the US, the humanities and social sciences are viewed by many as kind of useless, but you would not be included in that many, and you really believe in the value of a liberal arts education. What’s the case for it?
Leon: First, the case has to be made by doing it. Many places say they’re liberal arts education, but they really are not. They are just simply offering students courses and academic departments who are not connected to what the liberal arts really should be about.
Liberal arts is really about connecting the intellectual tradition to the conduct of life: How am I going to live my life? What are the values in my life? How do I figure that out? What do I want to do with my life, both professionally and as a citizen? What am I going to do in my community? How am I going to relate to the community? Am I going to join the church, the same church as my parents? Am I going to be active in cleaning up the earth in relation to climate change? Am I going to be more concerned with providing social justice or protecting the values of my community in some way? Who knows what I’m going to do!
So the liberal arts are a way of allowing people to expand how they think, how to examine what they might believe in because a lot of the things that we’re asked to decide on as citizens are things that maybe we haven’t thought about.
Denver: So, really, it impacts the real decisions you make in your life.
Leon: Right. The curriculum has to be organized in a way that connects the intellectual tradition to the conduct of life. Why study philosophy? Why study political theory? Why study the basis of our democracy in terms of the theory of what a citizen is in relation to political powers? Why should we worry about understanding the natural world?
In other words, take the vaccination issue: How do we determine what the right public policy is with regard to vaccination? What is the right public policy in terms of how we regulate the quality of our food? These are things about the relationship of the government to our cognitive life where we as citizens need to have knowledge. Knowledge in the 21st century is power.
Entrepreneurship and innovation is born in a capacity to think, and that capacity to think critically is developed by the liberal arts…
Denver: And if I can reduce this to economics, actually, liberal arts majors have more earning power and less unemployment than other majors. Wouldn’t that be the case?
Leon: Absolutely. The popular journalistic account is wrong – that if you have a degree in art history or in philosophy or something like that, you’re useless.
Denver: You’re doomed.
Leon: It’s the exact opposite. In the 21st century employment is an intersection between expertise and improvisation. Can you actually take, let’s say, the state of engineering, or the state of science, or the state of economic thinking and then adapt to changes – some are expected, some of them are not expected in the world? Can you improvise? Can you make what you do competitive as opposed to what the next person does? Is your working as a professional imitative, or is it innovative?
Entrepreneurship and innovation is born in a capacity to think, and that capacity to think critically is developed by the liberal arts, which is why, curiously, places that are not American want liberal arts. Europe is interested in introducing liberal arts in the undergraduate curriculum. Russia is interested in introducing liberal arts. The Chinese are interested in introducing the liberal arts.
Bizarrely, here at home, we dismiss it because we actually don’t understand. And one of the reasons we dismiss it is, of course, I have to say, not many institutions take the task seriously. The American university is dominated by the graduate programs, and by postdocs, and by the professionalization of fields, so the undergraduate, teaching undergraduate, is the low priority, and it should be the exact reverse.
Denver: And your signature program in this, I think, might be that first year seminar?
Leon: Yes. We have a Language and Thinking in first year seminar. This is a required course of all first year students, and it’s really an active course in close reading and arguing and in writing; learning how to formulate an argument and how to listen to another person’s argument and understand it to understand the points of disagreement; and to actually use language as the instrument of thought.
Denver: Let me ask you something, which you may have an opinion on, and that has to do with Yale and their art history course. And as you probably saw, they are stopping that because students believed it was just so overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male in terms of the cadre of artists. Do you have any opinion on that?
Leon: I would refer the critics who use that argument to look at W. Du Bois, and for the Latinx population, José Vasconcelos, the first minister of culture after the Mexican revolution in 1910.
The real issue is: are the traditions of Homer, of Western music, Western art simply images and artifacts of white European men, for example, primarily? Or are they, for whatever reason, the same way that the discoveries of science are something that the entire world can appropriate for themselves and make their own? Is the ethnicity and gender of the creator a determinative factor on the value and utility? There’s no doubt that if you do an art history or music history survey today, because of the nature of the world, the Western part of it wouldn’t be quite so dominant as it would have been 30 years ago.
However, take music, which is my field. In China, in Venezuela, in Korea, all over the world, Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are not viewed as someone else’s; it’s viewed as theirs. You’re not going to tell Yo-yo Ma that Bach isn’t his… and is in fact, a Lutheran white male. That, it seems to me, is completely shortsighted and cuts off all peoples from the access to educational quality.
In that sense, it’s odd to say this, the Soviets, the old Communists had it right. They wanted to democratize the access to all culture – science, literature. That’s why books were so cheap. That’s why José Vasconcelos said to one of the first presidents of Mexico, Obregón, when he asked him, “So what do you want in every village where there should now be a school?” And he said, “I want every Mexican to be able to read The Iliad and The Odyssey.” And this was a theorist of the superiority of the Mestizo race. So, it was not a person who wanted to pass as a white person. José Vasconcelos was not, in that sense, not a patriot of the distinctiveness of Mexican identity.
The right response is to rethink how one actually makes the achievements of any culture translate over the cultural barrier. We have an obligation to absorb. We have, for example, at Bard, an institute which teaches Chinese music to Americans and Westerners. So it’s not only Western music being taught to Chinese, but we have a Chinese-US Music Institute, which actually allows American musicians to learn Chinese instruments and Chinese musical traditions.
So it needs to go both ways, but it is terribly simplistic to simply say, “This is simply the product of a certain kind of type.” I mean, who knows? There are people who argue that Homer and the Greeks were indebted to African traditions, and Aristotle certainly was transmitted to the West through Arabic scholars. This reductive ethnicity, nationality, and gender stereotype is really, ironically, a barrier to democratizing the access to real learning.
Denver: I think you’re right. And it also seems pretty lazy. It’s not rigorous at all.
Speaking about not rigorous at all, you have always cited that one of the weak spots in the American educational system is high school – the way we teach our adolescents, let’s say, between the ages of 13 and 17 years of age.
Leon: Absolutely. And the worst part of it is that the people that suffer most are the students in the inner city that have terrible high schools. And so, the dropout rate from high school and the failure to access higher education is a result of the failure of the American high school.
American high school simply does not recognize that you have to treat the adolescent differently. You have to respond to the need to know. You have to inspire them. You have to put the best teaching into them. You have to have people in front of them, because they are emerging adults, who actually are experts in their fields; they’re not just teachers. In the old system of apprenticeship, you would send a 12- or 13-year-old to a master builder or a real artisan. So you need to expose them to very high-quality adult work early on.
And so we invented the idea of an early college where kids enter after the eighth grade. They do 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, and at the end of the 12th grade in public school, they get a high school diploma plus a two-year liberal arts degree from us. It’s a complete two years of college. So they accelerate over those four years, and it’s public and free. We have now seven of them in six cities: two in New York, one in Washington, Cleveland, Baltimore, Newark, New Orleans, and Cleveland. They’re tremendously successful. Objectively, in New York State, we lead all high school programs in the encouragement, in the success rate of minorities finishing four-year college degrees.
So, it’s about taking the students seriously; being able to compensate for deficits in middle school. It’s not discriminatory. We don’t admit kids by tests, but by motivation, and we have a terrific success. It’s, I think, one of the major instruments of reform, if we want to fix our secondary system because the secondary system is truly broken. We lose the best years of learning.
Denver: Well, let’s talk about tests a little bit because you have always questioned the value and the efficacy of the college admissions system, long before it was fashionable, and way before Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. What are some of these most egregious shortcomings that you see with the way we admit kids into college?
Leon: The testing seems as a completely corrupt operation. Who would ever give a test from what you don’t learn? No sports coach would put a kid out on a field, and the kid makes an error, and send them a note six months later, giving them their cumulative errors. The kid learns nothing from the experience. The moment the kid is on the field and something happens with the ball that is wrong, the coach intervenes right away because you know very well, whether it’s in music or in sports, the time to learn is when you make a mistake. If you make a left turn when you’re learning to drive a car when you should make a right turn, the person doesn’t tell you four months later. They say, “Listen. You have to make a signal right.”
…you need tests, which we can do now, that respond to wrong answers when they are made and teach the person who made the wrong answer why they got it wrong.
Denver: You could’ve got us killed.
Leon: That’s exactly right. So, you need tests, which we can do now, that respond to wrong answers when they are made, and teach the person who made the wrong answer why they got it wrong. You need to use modern technology to improve the test. The tests now are outdated, pseudo social science for the 1940s that make a profit for the College Board and other instrumentalities like that, and make school systems easy to run because you have standardized tests which are dumb and textbooks which teach you those tests. Nobody learns anything, and it’s a complete fraud.
And why are Americans in love with this? Because it’s a way to sort of not have to worry about education. It is a catastrophe, and they happen to be, among other things, discriminatory. So, I’m in favor. Testing is very important because testing is a way to measure what somebody is learning. But testing is an instrument of learning; it’s not a punitive object here. And if you have a test, it should be one from which someone learns.
And so, we need interactive, computer-based tests that are timed. So It’s like a chess game; you get a wrong answer, your clock stops. And then you engage and figure out what you got wrong so the kid understands why, in fact, when two and two didn’t… is not five. They learn something from having made the mistake, and then they go on to the next question.
Denver: Yes. They get mastery as they go along.
Leon: Exactly right. So, it is completely corrupt, and there is very little to be said in defense of it.
Denver: Another exceptional undertaking of the college – now, this one started back in 1999 – is the Bard Prison Initiative, and I see that’s now the subject of a PBS series that was produced by Ken Burns, which was called College Behind Bars. Tell us about that program.
Leon: This is the work of a very aggressive and dynamic undergraduate who came to us. Max Kenner, who came to me when he was, I think, a sophomore. He had this idea. He was volunteering in some kind of prison support program we had at the college. He had this brilliant insight that all of these programs of colleges trying to help out after prison education was removed in the ’90s from prisons… was really not helpful – that what we needed was to provide prisoners the opportunity to get the same quality of higher education that we gave to our regular undergraduates. It meant giving them degrees and credits, and getting real classes with real teachers in there – in the liberal arts, not in some kind of trade. And clearly that wouldn’t be for all prisoners, but there was a section of the population in prison for whom it was appropriate.
He challenged us to join him in trying to make this happen, which we did. He miraculously persuaded the Department of Corrections here in New York State to experiment with it. And he got the beginnings of philanthropy… paid for it. We came up with the accreditation and the approvals to give credits and degrees, and it’s been a fantastic success. We have over 300 prisoners earning AA and BA degrees in five state prisons.
Denver: And what they’re learning in these state prisons is exactly the same that they’re learning at Bard. These are not watered down in any way, shape, or fashion.
Leon: Exactly. No, not watered down at all. And the recidivism rate is minuscule, so it’s a huge success. Max has spawned a national network of programs of higher education in the schools, and it has begun to change public policy and public perception about what we do with incarceration.
The truth is that if you believe really in the possibilities of rehabilitation and redemption, you have to do something in prison other than warehousing people.
Denver: Yes. for sure. And these students in prison, they’ve beaten the Harvard debate team and other schools as well. They are sensational!
Leon: There’s nothing like depriving someone of freedom… to inspire the recognition that the most important freedom you control is the freedom of your mind. And so we have identified freedom with being able to go across the street, pick up the phone, go where we want, buy what we want. It’s a consumer-driven idea of freedom. The real essence of freedom – and that’s why the liberal arts are important – is freedom of thought, which so few of us exercise.
Denver: Yes. Freedom to imagine, and that’s what they do.
You’ve been at this business for some 50 years. You were the president of Franconia College up in New Hampshire before Bard. Leon, are you struck more by how much things have changed or how much things have stayed the same?
Leon: Look, I was in my early 20s when I got started, so people shouldn’t think that I’m on artificial life support and kind of a zombie who is really much older than is plausible.
Over the 50 years I’ve been in the world of higher education, I would say that some things are far different than I would have imagined. I would never have imagined our democracy in such a perilous state. I would never have believed that we’re going to live in a time where people will not trust the distinction between truth and falsehood. That the fake news, the alternative reality, the manipulation of video images, the distortion of fact is so ubiquitous that the average person is at sea about believing anybody; that the success of conspiracy theories of alternative realities; And the loss of interest in politics, the low participation rates!; the fact that the country has been seduced by these smartphones, by Facebook, by being online. People walk around in the street without looking up, without talking to their neighbors that’s their community. Politics is in real time and real space, and that’s true of love as well, and it’s true of teaching as well.
Denver: I saw in London the other day, they had to put pads around the telephone posts and things like that because people were walking into them with their phone. I mean, that’s crazy.
Leon: The problem is not 1984 and Big Brother in government; it’s 1984 and our own voluntary subjugation to the being mesmerized by nothing, by a kind of a narcissistic – we don’t need to communicate every five minutes with whomever it is, whether it’s our beloved or our children or our parents. So that’s number one – the erosion of democracy and the erosion of faith in the possibilities, and the absence of affection for real freedom… That I would never have predicted.
The other thing I would never have predicted is the insensitivity to the deterioration of the environment, and the absolute willingness to ignore the impact on the diversity of species, on the quality of water and food, on the future of the planet, and of our own possibilities.
So those are the two dramatic changes as far as I’m concerned that I would not have been able to predict.
Denver: And I think with democracy, I believe a lot of people at the outset thought that the virtual public space of Facebook and Instagram and the rest of it was actually going to be an aggregator of opinions, but it has really just turned into the opposite.
Leon: No. If you also believe that friendship…Facebook is a puerile, adolescent’s notion of what human relations are about. Those are not friends. It has distorted the meaning of friendship. And so, it’s a shock, I think, that this has been as successful as it has.
Denver: Yes, and it also made us a lot meaner because I may have my opinion of you, but I would be hesitant to say it to your face; but I would not be hesitant to type it into my phone.
Denver: It’s sort of cowardly.
Leon: It is the refuge of cowards, and it is an equalizer, which means someone who’s telling the truth is indistinguishable from someone who’s lying. There’s no filter.
The democratization has actually created also an imaginary crowd phenomenon. It’s scary. If you’ve ever been subject to a real email campaigns or internet, it is truly frightening the amount of vitriol and the volume of traffic. What that inspires in people is censorship, self-censorship. It’s not that some sensor from a government or from a company is going to stop you, but you lose the courage to speak out.
Denver: Yes. It’s because we’ve lost our privacy.
Leon: And the cost of speaking out, the amount of hammering and vitriol and anger that is easy to produce.
It has unleashed what probably was always there in human nature, which was envy, anger, frustration, and a willingness to hold on to beliefs when they are no longer right. We used to think that pasteurization, which we know is still a positive, that certain interventions in the world advance health, that the prejudice against changing one’s mind or altering one’s prejudice, especially about people who are not familiar to you, stereotypes of the others, especially in a world where there’s a lot of migration and a great deal of diversity. It’s a very discouraging moment.
Denver: Yes. And if I can, I’d like to blame the media for a little bit of this because if you’re a politician, and you change your mind on something, you get killed. You absolutely get killed in the media. I was thinking a little bit when Mitt Romney cast his vote the other day… about his father, George Romney, who said that he had been brainwashed on Vietnam, and that was pretty much the end of his presidential campaign in 1968. So, I think sometimes people hold onto these positions because nobody will say, “Hey, they got some new information. They’ve recalibrated, and they’ve come out the other end.” That’s almost a death sentence for a politician.
Leon: I used to say that I would always vote for someone who, in a public debate, listens to someone else’s argument and says, “You know, I never thought of that, and actually, you might be right.” So, someone who is a rational thinker and is not convinced that he or she has the truth is someone I would trust.
I think that it’s not only changing one’s mind, it’s also being able to speak to the American people and to various constituencies in a believable way. If one has to say that the reason Trump is so successful is that he doesn’t sound like a politician, and even though one is troubled by what comes out of his mouth, it’s clearly…he’s talking. And the amount of scripting and absence of spontaneity—
Denver: No. Focus group everything.
Leon: —and a believable belief, and that’s why Bernie Sanders is popular to some because he actually sounds like and acts as if he means what he says.
Denver: He’s been saying it for 40 years.
Leon: That’s exactly right. We’ve made it impossible for people of quality to enter public service. So the amount of money that’s required to run, the time that’s involved, which is excessive, but the money particularly, and that we have obliterated the difference between private and public life. So, who would tolerate the exposure of their family and themselves to the kind of scrutiny and vitriol and viciousness that being in public life invites?
Denver: These are the good old days. Now, it’s really gotten to anything you’ve ever done – a picture from when you were 16-years-old or any little indiscretion that your students would have at Bard at that age can come back and haunt you 40 years later.
Leon: My mother, who lived with us for 16 years and died at the age of 98, was a physician, and a very wise and smart woman.
When Clinton got into trouble in the White House for a relationship with an intern, she said she would only trust someone as a politician who had skeletons in her or his closet because they understood that they were imperfect, and that humility is a quality for leadership.
Denver: She was a wise woman.
In addition to everything else you’re doing, you were recently named as the first Chancellor of the Open Society University Network. Now, this was created by George Soros, made a lot of news recently. He’s made a billion-dollar commitment. Tell us about it and the impact that you hope it’s going to have.
Leon: The decision by the Open Society Foundation and Mr. Soros to do this is a result of many years of work. It doesn’t come out of the blue. Bard has a very extensive network of dual degrees and shared platforms for students and faculty. So we have it with the American University in Central Asia, Fulbright University in Vietnam, Al-Quds University on the West Bank. We have a partnership with the University of St. Petersburg in Russia.
And so, a platform where students have mobility; they’re joint classes there; some faculty can travel; and there is, if you will, a common market of degrees and credits. And this offers higher education of a certain quality to areas and people that normally would be banned or do not have access.
We are working with a group in Burma, in Myanmar, to create a liberal arts university there where access to higher education of a high quality would be both local and international. So, it’s not a franchise.
Denver: Yes. You’re not opening a branch of the university, an American branch. It’s a completely different paradigm.
Leon: We’re not opening a branch. Not at all. We’re collaborative.
I think Mr. Soros came to the belief that education is the best investment, and the improvement of education, especially in places where there is a need. We have pioneered together with the Central European University, which he founded, so these two institutions will work together to create a kind of international and expanding platform of access to high-quality higher education. That’s basically the idea.
Denver: Let me ask you a question about this. Mr. Soros has a very clear political point of view, so I think many people will say, “Hey, is this going to be a vehicle for promoting that point of view, that set of beliefs? Or is it really intended to be a platform, one where all ideas will be equally welcomed?”
Leon: I think the latter. Mr. Soros is actually not as predictable in his political views as the presses make out. Remember, he was instrumental in the fall of Communism. So, now, to associate him with the left is bizarre because he was one of the innovative Titans of Wall Street and a defender of private property and profit. He belongs in the same category as Warren Buffet. It’s simply a simplification. Yes, he opposed George Bush, and yes, he opposes Trump, but he’s not a Democratic donor. He’s skeptical. He’s a very skeptical man.
Second is that he put his money into a foundation. This is a man, and no single individual has been as philanthropic as he has all over the world. There are hospitals, fellowships. The leader of Hungary, who is a violent opponent of Mr. Soros, went to Oxford on a Soros Fellowship.
Denver: I didn’t know that.
Leon: The idea that he’s simply giving money for one point of view – no. He’s funded many of his own opponents, and few people can say that. So he is not dissimilar to the Open Society founders, and I’d say not dissimilar from the Ford Foundation and from the Gates Foundation. It’s just a big philanthropic enterprise—
Leon: —and thank God they’re investing in education.
Now, does he believe in democracy? Yes. Does he believe in freedom? Yes. Does he believe in the liberty of the individual? In his speech that he announced this, he talked about the importance of personal accountability, of people taking charge of their own beliefs and standing up for them, about personal autonomy and not being simply controlled either by government or by a company, a major global company. He is talking about values that the right, libertarians can agree with.
And so, it is simply not the case that he has any kind of political agenda. He’s also not of an age that he can think except in terms of a legacy. When you reach your—
Denver: He’s 89, I think.
Leon: —he’s 89, he’s going to be 90 – you’re thinking about your legacy over many generations. He has been arguably the most generous private individual of modern history, and unprecedented in that regard. And he’s right to view the legacy as most promising in education.
We don’t think of John Harvard as creating a political institution, but he did. Harvard was designed to propagate a certain attitude to Christianity. So was Yale. So was Columbia. And it is simply implausible when we look at the great contribution of the Christian-based institutions in the United States… including Notre Dame and Georgetown, where the propagation of the faith – a particular kind of faith, not maybe your neighbor’s faith – was part of the mission. Are there values implicit in the creation of any institution of higher education? The answer is yes. And these values are ones about critical thought, freedom, rational debate, evidence, and a free society.
Denver: And civility, which would be nice.
Leon: Absolutely. So, can you call that political? Yes, in a way. But I would call that recognizing the inherent connection between education and democracy.
Denver: You know, as I mentioned in the open, Leon, you are the Musical Director…. Principal Conductor at the American Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Laureate at the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, so let me ask you this: Why do people write and play music? And why do people like me listen to music?
Leon: I never intended to be an educator. I always intended to be a musician, which I have been lucky to continue doing. There are people who believe, and I suspect they may be right, that before language, the human species had music, that music preceded language. That’s why in the Bible, the person who brings the 10 Commandments to the people of Israel is a stammerer, can’t speak – Moses has a speech defect – in order to give the signal that language is not the only conveyor of the Divine, that the divine in our life has a mode of expression and communication from individual to individual, and in one’s own inner dialogue, that is not necessarily linguistic. And that method of communication is the system of sounds that various cultures have developed as music.
Music is the essential core of what makes every individual human. And therefore, we like it. We dance to it. We sing it. We use it to express love. We use it to express faith. We attach to it meaning because it is built to absorb the attachment of meaning. It is both intimate and public. It is the ultimate expression of humanity.
Every time I am involved in a performance – I just did a series of concerts, of Beethoven concerts because of the Beethoven anniversary year – in the rehearsals and in the concerts, it’s the moment I feel most that I am defending what is valuable about being human. It’s a reminder of the divine spark in us and something that every individual shares. I think we like it because it’s a very affirmative reflection of who we are.
Denver: In some ways, it doesn’t have any utility, too, which is…
Leon: I like it because it has no utility. You see in The Magic Flute of Mozart, the magic flute does tame wild animals. Although there is music for the military; their marches and music have been used to encourage troops in old battle scenarios. Music has a more of an effect of consoling, calming, although it has been used for revolutionary political purposes as well. But I think that it doesn’t have any utility except in the building of community.
Denver: Yes, the fabric.
Leon: Yes, a sense of belonging, and that’s why it has assumed such a large place in certain religions.
Denver: You wrote a book, and I guess it was about 15 years ago, The History of Listening, and you basically said that because of the massive changes in technology over the last century or so, they’ve really affected the way we listened to music and what we derive from it. Speak about those changes.
Leon: I think that the technology has, on the one hand, opened up enormous access, but it has also privatized listening. There was a time where people thought if you listened in your living room with high fidelity equipment, that was better than going to a public concert, and that the reproduction of humanly-made sound seemed to take priority. So it’s as if we said, “Well, we don’t have to go to a museum. We could just buy a book with all the paintings in that museum reproduced. Why do we have to go to the museum?” We’ll just look at—”
Denver: That’s what everybody thought actually was going to happen. It’s online. I got it on my computer screen.
Leon: Yes. Privacy on our own home computers. I got it on my computer screen. Right. Why do I have to go see Michelangelo’s David? I’ll just get it on my computer screen.
So there have been changes in habits of listening as a result of technology, and there has been some erosion of active amateurism. People used to have to play the piano to have sound in their own home. They used to drop a needle, and now, they put a CD in the slot, and now, they just turn on their computer or their iPhone or their smartphone.
But it seems to me that what we’re experiencing now is a revival of the public human aspect, the ritual aspect of music. People want to go to a concert. They want to hear people sing. They want to see the people in real time and in real space.
Denver: That’s actually become the business model now.
Leon: I think, yes. And so, recording used to be a moneymaker; it isn’t any more and certainly, in classical music. I’m greatly encouraged by the revival of performance and the number of talented musicians around the world who look forward to the idea that part of their life will be spent doing this as part of their life – making music.
Denver: Well, a lot of those talented musicians or a good number of them, are at Bard. So just give us a word or two about arts at Bard because it is so pervasive.
Leon: Bard has a long tradition in literature and the arts. We have now a conservatory that Tan Dun is the dean of. We have a young professional orchestra called The Orchestra Now, which has been fantastic and successful, and does concerts in New York, and up there, and travels. We have a fantastic conservatory. We’re actually doing a concert production of Salome this semester.
And then we have a fantastic visual arts program. We have a SummerScape, which is a theater and dance program in the summer and during the year where we do innovative new work. The most famous of which is a new production of Oklahoma that won a Tony, that went to Broadway ultimately, and a setting with Brice Marden and Pam Tanowitz, the setting of the Four Quartets of T.S. Eliot, a Prize-winning dance production. So, we produce important work in the summer festival.
We have a fantastic graduate and undergraduate art making program and MFA. We have the leading place for the study of how to be a curator in the Center for Curatorial Studies, and also in the Decorative Arts in New York.
We have a very lively visual and theatrical and Live Arts Bard, which is a theatrical program, dance and music, including this US-China Music Institute, which teaches Chinese music to Westerners, and we do performances of traditional Chinese music.
Denver: Fantastic. You know speaking of the arts and you being a musical conductor, do you think our political leaders could ever learn anything from the art of being a musical conductor?
Leon: It’s funny you should say that. There are many, not many, but some conductors who have tried to market their skills to corporations as a model for leadership. I’ve never quite understood how that works, but I tip my hat to them.
It’s interesting. There are many analogies between conducting and politics. So, it used to be a position of tyranny, of absolute power, the Toscanini generation, where the person on the podium was a tyrant.
Denver: Some of them brought revolvers, didn’t they?
Leon: Rodzinski came to a famous rehearsal and put a revolver on the podium.
Denver: Okay. I’ll do what he says.
Leon: Exactly right. And that has passed. There are a couple left, but it’s not… So now, the conductor is a persuader, so you have to persuade your colleagues to go along, and you have to convince them to follow you.
Denver: Inspire them.
Leon: Yes, inspire them. It’s still not a good political analogy because politics is made by debate and often by compromise, and maybe performance is not by committee any more than making an artwork is by committee. The Mona Lisa or any great painting wasn’t done by a committee. And so that’s where the analogy begins to fall away. The comparison doesn’t work.
Denver: But although I would say great organizations are not done by committee either. They listen to everybody, but there usually has to be one vision and one person who makes the decision, or otherwise, you’re pretty close to chaos.
Leon: In the modern orchestral world, the time to listen to everybody isn’t there. So, I think we, to some extent, circumvent a little bit of that.
Denver: Let me close with this, Leon. In your opinion, what makes for a great teacher?
Leon: Two things that work together. One is to inspire in a young person a belief in the value and the importance of what’s being taught. So the love of the subject, the love of the question, the love of the chase, the love of the issue, the love of the material, where the personality of the teacher bleeds into a love of the subject matter. That’s number one. And with that, a sense of respect on the part of the pupil for the person who’s conveying that subject matter or introducing that subject matter – that’s one part – combined with the teacher’s willingness to transmit to the student the belief in the student’s own capacities.
The most important thing about a teacher… teaching is that this is a non-parental, non-family member, who communicates to a young person… about to come of age as an adult… belief in that person by that person’s self. In other words, where it is not, “I’m your parent. That’s why,” or some other reason not familial, but to inspire self-confidence and courage in the young person.
I wouldn’t be anything, if I’m anything at all, were it not for my teachers who conveyed to me, by paying attention to me, by being empathetic to me, by believing in me when there was no reason to.
Denver: Even before you’d done anything.
Leon: That’s right. And to that leap of faith, combined with the love of subject that it gave me the courage to take a risk in life and to try to do something.
So, a great teacher is a person who deepens a pupil’s belief in their possibility in life, and does so because the pupil, in turn, respects the teacher. So, it’s not simply that the teacher’s a nice person, but the teacher has chosen somehow to pay attention to me –the pupil – and share with me the love of this common enterprise, be it science, be it the arts.
Denver: Absolutely. Well, Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Now, if there was one book or article, video, or piece of music that you would recommend to listeners, believing that most would really get something from it, what would that be?
Leon: My instinct would be to commend to the listener to sit down with a long book, in a time of short attention span, to learn the love of living with an imagination that runs over a considerable period of time. So I would recommend Middlemarch by George Eliot, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. And to immerse oneself in the imaginary world, sit down and read The Human Comedy by Balzac in all its various pieces. Contemplation, repose in our times is hard to come by, so I would recommend the joy of reading.
Denver: Great advice. Well, thanks, Leon. It was a pleasure to have you on the show, and thanks for such an interesting conversation.
Leon: My pleasure.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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