Last week we went to the symphony. Andre Watts, my favorite pianist was playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He played Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16". I first heard Andre Watts when my mother and I were in Chicago in 1981 for the interview portion of the Truman Scholarship competition. Not a classical music fan at the time, I was totally mesmirized by this man at the piano. Since then, every opportunity I have I go to hear him. I wasn't disappointed. The Grieg is familiar and yet he played it with amazing emotion and precision. I almost always respond to his playing by wanting to rise out of my seat (if only I could actually escape gravity). There are very few times when my mind is as focused as it is when I am in the audience listening to him perform.
The rest of last night's program was totally unknown to me. I had never heard anything by Dimitri Shostakovich. This symphony was so unlike the Grieg, so unlike anything I have experienced (I do not claim to be any other than an amateur and peripetetic appreciator of classical music). How do you as a composer decide you need nine French Horns or 7 percussionists (two tympaniests). How many orchestral works feature themes played by solo bass clarinet. The lead bassonist (one of three) got a special round of applause at the end. One of the flutist looked as though he was going to leap from his chair during his carrying of the main theme. Closing my eyes I listened as the music bounced from one section to the next. Looking down from our seats we could see the scores of the violins, the harps and the piccolos. The complexity of each individual muscian's score spoke to the intensive creativity at work within Shostakovich's mind.
The historian in me was fascinated to read the program notes concerning Symphony #4. Apparently, he wrote an opera called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stalin attended a performance of this opera in 1936 and did not like it. The piece was criticized in Pravda, Shostakovich fell out of favor and the Fourth Symphony, due to be performed later in the year was pulled from production. The Fourth was premiered some 25 years after it was written.
I am trained as a historian. My mind tends to run towards cause and effect, towards understanding historical context, towards weighing evidence and forumlating a thesis based on that evidence. Howard Gardner in his book Five Minds for the Future describes the disciplined mind as one of the necessary attributes we need to give our students. While I am not presuming to put myself in the same category as Shostakovich or Andre Watts, we do all share a common grounding in our respective disciplines. Watts can play the way that he does because of his hours of practice, his study of the composers and his years of work as a young man with the best teachers and mentors available to him. His work is energized by taking on new pieces to master and now teaching his own students. Shostakovich studied music almost exclusively, entering the Petrograd Conservatory at age 13. (Wikipedia). Both men pursued what we might call passion based learning. Not for them the moving from subject to subject in secondary school, though no doubt they did learn the math, reading and writing they would need as successful adults. There may well be what we as whole child educators would consider significant gaps in their education. Extensive study in molecular biology or mechanical physics, probably not. Shostokovich may well have read all those great and long Russian novels but I suspect he did not spend six years learning to write the analytical essay.
Most of us were not child progidies with early demonstrable talents in music or sculpture or mathmatics. Most of us were children with interests and passions. So, at what age does the exposure to all disciplines give way to immersion within one? Or put it another way, when do we give children time to immerse themselves so completely within a field that they might discover their vocation? (I mean vocation in the Calvinist sense of a calling). Just at that moment when a student is having a breakthrough with a science experiment and experiencing the wonder that comes with asking a question and through trial and error having it answered, the bell rings, its time to clean up and move on to the next class, the moment passes and a future Marie Curie is lost. When do we give students the time to so fully engage with an interest that after a period of time, they realize this is an interesting topic but not a life's calling? This is an equally important lesson.
Each child is different but I would suggest that every child sometime (or times) from 7th-12th grades has an inkling of where she wants to focus her energies or unconsciously demonstrates to aware adults her affinity for something. The structures of our schools frustrate rather than nurture her exploration and immersion. Some of our students will leave our independent schools for specialized public academies or preprofessional schools. Others will opt for homeschooling, taking advantage of all the online resources for the basics of a secondary education while organizing their days and weeks to emphasize the area of interest.
I would argue that developing the disciplined mind calls for us to re-examine the generalist priorities we give to our schools and the generalist, undisciplined students we tend to graduate. The disciplined mind is not equally versed in all the disciplines. The disciplined mind may be only barely conversant in other areas. And yet, this doesn't mean we have failed as educators. Our students will still be engaged citizens if we lift up the other minds Gardner identifies, the synthesizing mind, the creative mind, the respectful mind, the ethical mind.