Text of Dr. Joel Phillips’ Founder’s Day Faculty Address

The following is the faculty address presented by Dr. Joel C. Phillips, professor of Composition and Music Theory at Westminster Choir College, at the Founder’s Day Program on Saturday, November 5, 2011.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The following is the faculty address presented by Dr. Joel C. Phillips, professor of Composition and Music Theory at Westminster Choir College, at the Founder’s Day Program on Saturday, November 5, 2011.

Good morning everyone. To have the opportunity to speak with Rider’s most academically gifted students is a privilege for which I am grateful. I begin by reminding you that your success is built on innumerable acts of kindness and generosity on the part of others. On adjournment from this obligation, please express your deep appreciation to all who have helped you earn this distinction — family, friends, teachers, and peers alike. Moreover, on adjournment from this University, please assume their role in the lives of others. As goes the maxim: Pay it forward.

Now, if you will, permit me to abuse your goodwill for a few minutes. With apologies to John Cage, I have something to say and I am saying it.

It is customary to open a speech with some humorous comment or pithy quote. I will choose the latter. For, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” To wit, Oscar Wilde penned many such quips, none more memorable than that featured in a September issue of The Rider News.

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

Given the fact that I devote my life to teaching, this gave me pause. I rolled it over my tongue once more to see if it would become more palatable. “… nothing that is worth knowing can be taught?” It still tasted bitter. It didn’t seem funny, nor did it ring true. In fact, the more I pondered it, the angrier I became.

I can think of many things I was taught that seem worth knowing. “Don’t touch that — it’s hot!” That’s paid off a couple of times. “Poison snakes have triangular heads and elliptical pupils.” What was that? Triangular heads and elliptical pupils? To be sure, that one kept me out of the emergency room. “Here’s how to complete a Schedule C.” Tedious as it is, without that knowledge I couldn’t run my little business. Learning to drive has come in handy, as has reading, writing, cooking, painting, and just about everything I can think of that ends with “-ing.” I am thankful someone took the time to teach me all of these things.

It turns out that Wilde did not confine this sentiment to that remark only. On another occasion, he spewed, “Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.” How interesting. The people I know who enjoy learning more than anything else became teachers. Their lives are rich beyond measure.

Still another of Wilde’s proclamations was, “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.” Though dissecting a frog — nature’s work of art — won’t improve its health, unraveling a Bach fugue brings great joy, as well as feelings of awe and humility. With each revelation the work seems ever more vital and vibrant, and in my understanding I connect to one of the most brilliant minds of all time. I don’t get it, Oscar.

The more I thought about it, I realized my aggravation with his epigrams stems from the fact that they harmonize with the anti-intellectualism that pervades society. After all, all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. Apparently, additional education serves no purpose. 

Still relevant 50 years since its publication is Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He states:

“(A)nti-intellectual(ism) is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”

More recently, Susan Jacoby sounds a desperate tone in The Age of American Unreason. Adding the term “anti-rationalism” to the conversation and calling ours a “culture of distraction,” Jacoby concludes that the constant stream of media infotainment has crippled our ability to reason and to remember. Deeply concerned for the future of our democracy, she quotes Jefferson, who said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

 

* * *

 

Rider scholars, you and I are the target of the resentment and suspicion in Hofstadter’s definition. Moreover, we live in Jacoby’s anti-rational world — a place that venerates mediocrity and conformity, and values above all the herd instinct. Keep in the pack or be picked off by predators.

Every day our society assails you with reminders, blatant and subtle, that there is safety within the herd. On the edge are the nerds and the geeks, the misfits and the sidekicks, the artists and the poets, the intellectuals and the immigrants, and the people who don’t look like me — the easy prey. You don’t want to stick out. There’s safety in numbers.

 I’m not having any of it, and I hope you won’t, either.

Darling of his day, Wilde earned celebrity with these cowardly, conformist aphorisms. Yet, secure in the core of his Victorian herd, he led a secret life. When the truth of his sexuality was revealed, Wilde was ejected from its midst. Prosecuted, convicted, imprisoned, and humiliated, he died a broken, penniless man.

I think I can place his epigrams in perspective now. In them this contrarian rebels against the irrational beliefs of a society that welcomed him to its center, but when “the love that dare not speak its name” did, it flung him to its fringe where he was consumed by its predators. Drowning in a culture that refused to validate who he was, Wilde dispenses jagged shards that are quintessentially passive-aggressive, cleverly concealing acts of rebellion with his repartée.

In that light I find sincerity, not irony, in two others of his remarks. He said:

“There are moments when one has to choose between living one's own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.”

And:

“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

 I am selfish. I ask you to live as I wish to live. I ask you to live your own life, fully, entirely, and completely. I ask you to embrace your intellect. I ask you to stand apart from the herd, at its edge, and to lift your head high above the crowd, defiant of all risks. I ask you to question the assumptions, to read the articles not just the headlines, to differentiate facts from slogans, to base your judgments on reason not belief, to distinguish authority from drivel. I ask you to find the courage to lead others who lack the gifts of your intelligence and conviction.

I ask you to live the life of the mind.

—Joel Phillips, Rider University Founders Day, November 5, 2011

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Dr. Joel C. Phillips, professor of Composition and Music Theory at Westminster Choir College