Friday, June 27, 2008

Another view of the Rowling Harvard speech

NPR recently ran a story on J. K. Rowling's commencement speech at Harvard. Apparently, some of the graduating seniors were less than enthusiastic about the choice of speakers. Taken at face value, the comments of the graduates may seem like those of callow youth (or the excessive snobbiness of newly-minted Harvard alumni).

"I think we could have done better," shrugged computer science major Kevin Bombino. He says Rowling lacks the gravitas a Harvard commencement speaker should have.

"You know, we're Harvard. We're like the most prominent national institution. And I think we should be entitled to … we should be able to get anyone. And in my opinion, we're settling here. "

I think there's something else going on here, though. I've noticed an increasing preference among my colleagues to read non-fiction rather than fiction. Alex Lindsay, host of "This Week in Media" has said several times that he reads for information, and watches video for entertainment.

While I can't find any specific citations for it, my perception is that fiction is considered inferior, and perhaps irrelevant to today's society. After all -- it's just made up stuff, not concrete information that has practical value.

Look again at the quote above -- and the major of the speaker.
"It's definitely the 'A' list, and I wouldn't ever associate J.K. Rowling with the people on that list," says senior Andy Vaz. "From the moment we walk through the gates of Harvard Yard, they constantly emphasize that we are the leaders of tomorrow. They should have picked a leader to speak at commencement. Not a children's writer. What does that say to the class of 2008? Are we the joke class?"
For Mr. Vaz, et al. that "A" list would include political leaders, captains of industry and perhaps a Nobel prize winner or two (there's some overlap with the first two groups). It's not a unique viewpoint.

It's funny that I should get this story from NPR. Over the past decade, public radio has been abandoning music for increased news/talk programming, catering to the audience's preference for facts over fiction -- or rather the creative. NPR itself has undergone quite a transformation. At one time it produced many quality music and arts programs. Those departments have long been dismantled, the programs canceled or handed off to other companies.

And the focus of NPR news has shifted as well. Arts coverage continues to decrease, while political and business coverage expands. Don't blame NPR -- it's what the audience wants.

So I wonder if the reactions of the Harvard students was just another example how we value (or don't) the creative. It's pretty cavalier to dismiss J. K. Rowling as just "a children's writer." She's sold over 400 million books worldwide and went from poverty to amassing a personal fortune of about 1.1 billion dollars purely on her skill at her profession. If that's not "A" list material, then I don't know who (outside of God) would make the cut.

And the importance of the creative in one's life was at the core of Rowling's address.
And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.
I wonder if Kevin Bombino and Andy Vaz chose to listen.

- Ralph

Day 16 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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