Want to know the real reason young people today have little to no interest in classical music, and even less in attending classical music concerts? Here’s a (long) clue taken from an (even longer) essay having nothing whatsoever to do with classical music or the classical music concert.
At the beginning of school last fall, I ran into a student on the University of Virginia Lawn, not far from the famous statue of Homer instructing an admiring pupil. Homer's student is in a toga. Mine was wearing wraparound sunglasses like Bono's, black jeans, and a red T-shirt emblazoned with Chinese characters in white. Over his shoulder he carried his laptop.
[H]is...generation is a singular one, at least in my experience of 30 or so years teaching: Its members have a spectacular hunger for life and more life. They want to study, travel, make friends, make more friends, read everything (superfast), take in all the movies, listen to every hot band, keep up with everyone they've ever known. And there's something else, too, that distinguishes them: They live to multiply possibilities. They're enemies of closure. For as much as they want to do and actually manage to do, they always strive to keep their options open, never to shut possibilities down before they have to.
Say what? I mean, that’s all good, isn’t it?
One day I tried an experiment in a class I was teaching on English and American Romanticism. We had been studying Thoreau and talking about his reflections (sour) on the uses of technology for communication. [...] I asked the group, "How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?" Suppose you were chatting on your cellphone, partially watching a movie in one corner of the computer screen, instant messaging with three people (a modest number), and glancing occasionally at the text for some other course than ours — grazing, maybe, in Samuelson's Economics rather than diving deep into Thoreau's "Economy" — and then, also, tossing the occasional word to your roommate? Well, that would be seven, seven places at once. Some students — with a little high-spirited hyperbole thrown in, no doubt — got into double digits. Of course it wouldn't take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular — not present, not here now. Be everywhere now — that's what the current technology invites, and that's what my students aspire to do.
Ask an American college student what he's doing on Friday night. Ask him at 5:30 Friday afternoon. "I don't know" will likely be the first response. But then will come a list of possibilities to make the average Chinese menu look sullenly costive: the [rock] concert, the play, the movie, the party, the stay-at-home, chilling (or chillaxing), the monitoring of SportsCenter, the reading (fast, fast) of an assignment or two. University students now are virtual Hamlets of the virtual world, pondering possibility, faces pressed up against the sweet-shop window of their all-purpose desiring machines. To ticket or not to ticket, buy or not to, party or no: Or perhaps to simply stay in and to multiply options in numberless numbers, never to be closed down.
And once you do get somewhere, wherever it might be, you'll find that, as Gertrude Stein has it, there's "no there there." At a student party, about a fourth of the people have their cellphones locked to their ears. What are they doing? "They're talking to their friends." About? "About another party they might conceivably go to." And naturally the simulation party is better than the one that they're now at (and not at), though of course there will be people at that party on their cellphones, talking about other simulacrum gatherings, spiraling on into M.C. Escher infinity.
Skate fast over the surfaces of life and cover all the extended space you can, says the new ethos. Perhaps the greatest of all surface skimmers, the poet laureate of the way we live now at college, was William Wordsworth's arch-antagonist, George Gordon, Lord Byron. The poetry of Wordsworth, the explorer of inner space, is deliberate, slow, ponderous, like those old men of the woods he loves to depict, and that I perhaps resemble to my fast-skimming students. The complaint against Wordsworth is that he is tiresome — he has no time for sex or violence, just muted natural beauty and a mystical sublime. Byron — rich, beautiful, glamorous, with startlingly white skin, black hair, and swanlike neck — doesn't celebrate violence. Sex is his game. In Don Juan, the hero skims and skips from one encounter to the next. His desires are mobile: He can play the woman's part as well as the man's. Desire doesn't provoke complex ambivalence in Byron, just the need to move from one beckoning satisfaction to the next.
And there you have it, boys and girls. The bottom-line pathetic answer. An entire younger generation of our best and brightest, each terrified at the mere prospect of having to spend even a single introspective or meditative moment with himself alone.
Sad, ain’t it — and dangerous, too.
The full essay (quite long) from which the above excerpt was extracted can be read here.
(Our thanks to the always indispensable Arts & Letters Daily for the link.)