My twenty-first year teaching low brass at the university level is beginning in a challenging and fractious moment for our society in general and for higher education in particular. After the COVID-19 event appeared to be petering out over the summer and our university and others started to prepare for normal operations, the Delta variant and ensuing “fourth wave” came around to remind everyone that the virus is still here, and sparked entirely new discussions of how to best mitigate its impact. Happily, the presence and availability of vaccines and better therapeutics has shifted the focus of most such discussions from the idea of avoidance (lockdowns, virtual teaching/learning) to mitigation (vaccination, ventilation, cleaning, treatment). The merits of or questions surrounding the vaccines are far outside of my expertise and understanding, and I will decline to present an opinion regarding them in this space. For the purposes of this article, I am simply thankful that we are operating thus far in a paradigm that is much closer to normal than that of one year ago, even as the question of how and whether we should be operating in person at the present time remains contentious in some quarters.
The coronavirus is certainly not the only area of controversy and challenge surrounding higher education. Perhaps the most unifying issue of this kind is the question of cost, with the price of a university education having far outpaced inflation for practically my entire lifetime. Whether one hails (as I do) from the political and religious Right, or (as do most of my colleagues) from the Left, there is agreement—even among faculty members—that high costs and mounting student debt constitute a huge problem. Of course, that agreement evaporates when solutions to this problem are discussed. On the Right, the prevailing discussions are of eliminating administrative positions and expensive student life programs (some on the Left would agree here), as well as academic programs and majors they would describe as politically charged. On the Left, preferred solutions include increased state appropriations and student debt forgiveness. My views here are more informed than those regarding vaccination, but are still beyond my topic for today. Suffice it to say for now that the combination of the pandemic, the politically charged atmosphere both within and beyond the academy, and mounting costs and student borrowing have made this a challenging time to work in higher education. Add to that my own political and religious conservatism, which I discussed in some detail in an interview earlier this year, and one might wonder why I choose to continue working in this profession.
I suppose an easy response to that question would be a rhetorical question of my own: “What else would I do?” A terminal degree in trombone performance doesn’t really qualify one to do much else. I suppose I could retrain into some other profession, but I don’t really want to do so. I enjoy playing and teaching music and consider it a great blessing to be able to make my living in this way. While I find that most of my colleagues disagree with my views on many things, disagreement is not the same thing as intolerance. It is possible not only to work with those with other points of view but to genuinely enjoy doing so, and I like to think that we all extend this courtesy to each other.
More importantly, and at the risk of sounding a little weird, I truly believe that am where I am and doing what I am doing because this is where God would have me. How do I know that? Mainly, because I am here doing this. Much worry has been indulged in by people wondering “what is God’s will for my life?” and much ink has been spilled by those writing often dubious “how-to” guides for such worriers. However, if God really “[declares] the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) and “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3), then absent some obvious sin in one’s current situation or clear indication that a change of employment or situation is wise, one can be reasonably confident that he would not be where he currently is were it not God’s will that he be so. Add to that the scarcity of available positions relative to the number of qualified applicants for jobs like mine and the statistical unlikelihood that any of us would land such a position, and I have every reason to be confident that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
On a more mundane and day-to-day level, the various controversies of the day simply do not factor to any significant degree into the teaching, learning, and music making that occur in Music Building Room 127, where I enjoy the great privilege of working one-on-one with young people to help them to recognize, appreciate, and create beauty, and then in turn go out and teach others to do the same. Why do I do this? Because creating beauty is inherently good, both glorifying God and edifying people—even those who do not share my religious motivations can still get behind the humanistic part. We make music because it’s pretty, and that is a good thing.
I first heard the following anecdote either as a sermon illustration or in a theology lecture, but a cursory internet search demonstrates that it originated as a short story called “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley (1907-1977). Many highly condensed retellings of the story can be found via a brief Google search. One reads as follows:
A boy stands on the beach, where hundreds of starfish have been swept up by the waves and stranded there to die. He’s throwing the starfish back in the water, one by one, so they can survive.
A grownup watches him for a minute from up on the boardwalk, and then yells down, “You can’t possibly throw all those starfish back in the water. You could stand there all night throwing starfish—it won’t matter.”
The boy looks around, throws another starfish into the water, and says, “It matters to this one.”
I doubt I’ll ever be able to have some great large-scale impact on society, academia, or the church sitting in my office teaching one student after the other to create beautiful sounds by vibrating their lips at the ends of metal tubes. But maybe I can teach one student at a time what it means to love beautiful things, to bring just a little bit of beauty, order, truth, and life into a world too often marred by ugliness, chaos, dishonesty, and death. Maybe I can show just one student at a time a little bit about how the good, the true, and the beautiful reflect the nature of a Creator who made all things for our good and his glory. My impact may be limited, but to the student in my office at any given moment, maybe it matters.
It matters to this one, and so I continue, with thankfulness and resolve.