Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Karl Haas, the Anti-Elitist

Karl Haas died last Sunday. Haas was a pianist and conductor, but he was best known for his program "Adventures in Good Music", broadcast on many Public Radio stations. I heard the program only sporadically, but always enjoyed it. Haas usually had some pedagogic theme, analyzing or explaning some facet of classical music.

The New York Times obituary notes that
One listener wrote Haas in the 1960's to say that it was a "longhair program with a crew cut," a description he was happy to repeat.
He had a following among truckers and farmers.

The Times also says
Some longhairs looked down their noses a bit at Mr. Haas, but that didn't matter to thousands of regular listeners.
I knew a few of those longhairs, graduate students in music school, who seemed to think that Haas's approach was kind of infra dig.

Popularizers in science often suffer the same fate. Some scientists looked down on Stephen Jay Gould because of his columns in Natural History magazine. This disdain attached also to Carl Sagan, with his television series Cosmos.

There's a whiff of elitism here, the idea that you learn a subject by hard study, and any attempt to explain it in less-than-rigorous terms demeans the subject, watering it down. It is possible to write about a complex subject in terms that are understandable to non-specialists, but it's hard. You have to have a very good feeling for the concepts, for the vocabulary, and for your audience.

There's an old saying, "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly". That is to say, if you enjoy something, like golf, you don't have to master the fine points to get some pleasure from it. In the same way, I suggest, you don't have to know the fine points of music theory to appreciate music. The late Tibor Kozma, head conductor at the Indiana University School of Music while I was an undergrad in the physics department, was fond of saying "Unfor-r-r-tunately, mussic is an acoustical phenomenon!" (You have to imagine a slight Hungarian accent here.) This is not to say that an inaccurate presentation of a subject like classical music, or evolution, is acceptable, just that it doesn't have to be comprehensive in order for you to get something interesting out of it.

Of course you can go farther, and actually join the elite yourself. Still, it's rare to find a person who has elite knowledge of more than a few subjects. There's just too much to know. An expert is someone who learns more and more about less and less, and winds up knowing everything about nothing. But still it's possible to learn a little about a lot of things, and to be better for it. That's what Karl Haas had in mind, and why a lot of us blog.


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