Monday, August 29, 2005

Grandmaster Flash and Public Education

Hip-Hop Week on Fresh Air? Waste of time?

On today's Fresh Air on NPR, they played three previous interviews with DJ Kool Herc, Mellie Mel, and Grandmaster Flash. It's apparently "hip-hop week" on Fresh Air this week.

I only caught a small part at the end of Mellie Mel's interview, and I caught a larger section of Grandmaster Flash's interview. I was a little surprised by what I heard. I've never really given a whole lot of credit to hip-hop DJ's. I also never really understood why DJ's would show up to play during live songs... After all, couldn't they just record their scratches the first time they did them and just play the recording? Was it really right to equate a few turn tables to musical instruments?

Apparently Turn Tables are Instruments

But I think I was being too harsh. There's a lot that goes into it. And it's impressive that they can reproduce everything they do so well during each performance. On top of all of that, I didn't realize how much discipline went into it. Grandmaster Flash has a pretty strong understanding of electronics, for example, and is able to open up stereo equipment, analyze the different architectures used by the designers, and make modifications in order to allow for SPECIFIC sounds to be added to what the equipment can produce. These guys actually sit around behind an oscilloscope doing dynamic signal analysis of working electronics.

And what's really impressive is that they start out as a couple of young kids rhyming on street corners. As they get better and better at what they do, they put those rhymes to music. Then they realize the music playback itself can become a percussive instrument. They learn about rhythm. They learn technique. There's technique to putting together their words just as there is technique to playing back the music. Then, as they desire to do more with the equipment, they go to a trade school and learn about AC and DC electricity. They learn about transistors and vacuum tubes. They learn about push-pull amplifiers and linear and nonlinear filters. They do quite a lot. And then they contribute new methods and technologies that they can export to other new DJ's. There's a lot going on!

So I'm pretty impressed.

Girlfriends, Gymnastics, and Calculus du Soleil

My girlfriend and I went to Cirque du Soleil this weekend. After seeing them balance, twist, twirl, and defy death frequently, she got this desire to teach young gymnasts mathematics because it would give them a greater insight into why what they do works... You see, she has a very different view of education than I do. It's her view that young children need to be taught more math and science sooner -- increase awareness across the board. It's my view that students should not be required to learn things that don't directly apply to their interests and it's dangerous to force them to learn something that they're not ready to learn yet. She pushes breadth. I push depth. I think that with enough depth, eventually the students will seek their own breadth... And I think this is a great example of it.

No one was forcing Grandmaster Flash to learn about electronics. No one was even encouraging it. Grandmaster Flash wasn't some geeky technologist. Grandmaster Flash wasn't interested in math and science. He was just interested in using rhyme and rhythm to express messages and make music that other people like to hear. By living in an environment that allowed him to obsess about this one task, he had to learn enough calculus and physics to understand how capacitors and resistors can shape dynamic electrical signals. He had to learn more electronics than would be covered in the scope of a local electronics club filled with amateur tech geeks. And after all of this, he isn't pushing young kids to learn about math and physics. He's still just interested in making a good sound.

Depth not Breadth -- Crazy Hippie Idea?

And so I think that's pretty neat. I think that there are lots of kids out there that would be able to reach similar heights in their own interests if they weren't emcumbered by the breadth of public education. (I'm timid to use "breadth." Public schooling teaches that chemistry only exists in the laboratory. Public schooling has no clue where astronomy fits in. Modern public schooling (NCLB) doesn't offer outlets for arts and creativity... but the goal is breadth, not depth) It's true that in some cases you'll get the kid really interested in gymnastics that simply was not dealt the physical cards in his or her favor; however, I think most kids who are THAT interested in gymnastics will probably also be the ones with bodies for it. I also think that each kid probably is interested in a wide variety of different things. They need freedom to investigate each one of those rather than limiting them to only a small part of each and every one.

This is probably why crazy ideas like the Sudbury Valley Schools are so appealing to me... But maybe I'm a bit of a hippie here. I always did well in school, but I think I could have had a much better time and ended up a lot smarter and a lot happier if I would have gone to one of these alternative schools.

1 comment:

~ange said...

I was reading this study as background for an article on early childhood education. They focused on the adult outcome of strong education in disadvantaged children enrolled in the study from infancy to age 5. These are children who would not have been taught by their parents during this time without the study. It involves all subjects of cognitive development, but it sheds light on what can go wrong without early training in how to learn. You guys might find it interesting.