The Dangers of Educational and Cultural Populism: Three Vignettes on the Problems of Aesthetic Insensitivity, the Pitfalls of Pandering, and the Virtues of Artistic Integrity

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Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. . . . To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. . . . Not to discriminate . . is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening (Pater 1868, 574).

"Discrimination," every campus sloganeer tells us, is a bad firing, un-American, subversive, and elitist. But the whole point of a university education used to be to teach discrimination, to get students to discriminate between good art and bad, good writing and bad, sound science and bad (Slavitt 1996, 134)

This paper presents an essay on the dangers of the populist tendency to aim education at the lowest common denominator; to teach misplaced egalitarianism in the service of unmerited self-esteem; or to encourage attitudes toward aesthetic appreciation that, by failing to discriminate, grant equal but undeserved artistic stature to all works of art and entertainment. The essay addresses these issues using a style of discourse developed elsewhere and justified at length under the heading Subjective Personal Introspection or SPI (Holbrook 1995a, 1995b). This approach emphasizes a sharing of the author's impressions and self-reflections in a manner that might be characterized as "autoethnography" or as "participant observation in one's own life as a consumer." The central theme in the present application of SPI concerns the interrelated roles of aesthetic consumption and education as illustrated by three vignettes. These vignettes address aesthetic responses pertinent to the author's own experiences as a musician (Father White), the teaching of musical appreciation in a recent film (Mr. Holland), and related phenomena characterizing the work of an artistically eminent singer (Nancy LaMott). In pursuing the application of SPI to these themes, the present essay also illustrates an approach based on the semiological analysis of symbolic consumer behavior, as discussed at length in the recent work on The Semiotics of Consumption by Holbrook and Hirschman (1993; cf. Wattel 1995).

Before beginning, I should perhaps pause briefly to put the approach referred to as Subjective Personal Introspection (SPI) into its historical, conceptual, methodological, and teleological context (see also Hirschman and Holbrook 1992). In general, as advocated and justified by Holbrook (1995a, 1995b), SPI draws on a postpositivistic, interpretivistic, or "postmodern" (in the sense of pluralistic) view of the social sciences (Hirschman and Holbrook 1992; Lutz 1989; Sherry 1991). Specifically, SPI makes use of rhetorical techniques for encouraging intersubjective consensus among the members of a community of scientists or scholars by borrowing from persuasive devices often associated with the humanities, such as story telling, anecdotes, metaphors, and other forms of narrative. The application of these interpretivistic tools was first illustrated in consumer research by what Holbrook (1986, 1987, 1988a, 1988b) later called his "ACR Triology" (Holbrook 1995a, 1995b). As shown in these extended examples, SPI involves engaging in participant observation of one's own life as a consumer. In this sense, it attempts to probe the depths of the human condition as experienced from the author's point of view. Further, its form of expression generally takes the shape of a self-reflective, impressionistic essay rather than, say, a laboratory experiment, an empirical survey, or a systematic ethnography. In other words, SPI emphasizes a humanistic concern for expression rather than a (neo)positivistic focus on hypothesis testing (Hirschman 1985, 1986). Besides the aforementioned "ACR Trilogy," examples of SPI in consumer research have appeared in the work of, among others, Hirschman (1991) and Gould (1991).

Obviously, an approach that departs so far from the conventional rules of ordinary (neo)positivistic investigation has won its fair share of critical comment from the perspectives of both the standard (neo)positivistic philosophy of science (Calder and Tybout 1987) and the conventional view of ethnography (Wallendorf and Brucks 1993). …