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This NY Times Columnist Should Probably Not Be Teaching John Cage to Columbia Students

John McWhorter can't be serious. He just can't be.

John Cage in Harvard’s Anechoic Chamber (Public Domain)

John Cage's "4'33" may not be the most significant modernist composition, but it's certainly the most famous: four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. Columbia University's "Masterpieces of Western Music" feels like an absurdly ambitious scope for a single semester course, and its description, "analysis and discussion of representative works from the Middle Ages to the present," sounds pretty vague, but it makes sense that "4'33" would be taught in the course. 

It makes less sense that it would be taught by John McWhorter, who, aside from being one of the New York Times's most consistently annoying opinion section writers (and that's with stiff competition), is a linguist by training. But what's absolutely flabbergasting is how McWhorter wrote, in a muddled op-ed for the Times this week, that he refused to teach "4'33" to his Columbia class in the wake of the campus protests:

"I had to tell the students we could not listen to that piece that afternoon because the surrounding noise would have been not birds or people walking by in the hallway but infuriated chanting from protesters outside the building," McWhorter wrote. "Lately that noise has been almost continuous during the day and into the evening, including lusty chanting of 'From the river to the sea.'" 

That might really be among the stupidest things anyone's ever supposedly said. It's a failure to teach the students the literal core of the text, the part that makes it "an American masterpiece"—not because it reliably delivers the sounds of "birds or people walking by in the hallway," (if it were, Cage simply would have written that into the score) but because it tunes you into your environment. 

McWhorter justified his choice by saying, "Two students in my class are Israeli; three others, to my knowledge, are American Jews. I couldn’t see making them sit and listen to this as if it were background music." I mean, talk about the "coddling of the American mind." These kids can't even handle being made to pay attention to the sounds of protest that they are going to hear on campus anyway? They can't handle that central notion of the piece? How fragile does McWhorter think his students are?

Secondly, "background music" is not what "4'33" is. It's a call to attention, a piece that binds its audiences together under a blanket of silence, and makes them look at themselves, and each other. Cage himself said, in an interview with writer Richard Kostelanetz, of the 1952 audience's reception to the piece's debut in Woodstock, NY, "They missed the point. There's no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn't know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds." If McWhorter thinks that's too much, he might be better off teaching another American masterpiece:

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