Monday, May 14, 2012

Scrupulous Avoidance Of The Words "Excellence" And "Achievement"

On Wednesday, Andrew and I flew to Nashville, Tennessee. The purpose of our trip was to attend my sister’s college graduation.

Much to my surprise, there are at least four daily nonstop flights from Minneapolis to Nashville—I would never have guessed, before researching our trip, that there were ANY nonstop flights between the Twin Cities and Nashville; I had expected we would be required to route ourselves through Chicago—and Andrew and I were able to book the most convenient nonstop flight of the day, the late-morning flight. It took us little more than two hours to get to Nashville.

Early Wednesday afternoon, we met up at the Nashville airport with my parents (flying in from Oklahoma City) and my brother (flying in from Dallas)—and we all spent the rest of Wednesday and all day Thursday and Friday with my sister.

The graduation events and ceremonies were not inherently interesting—they never are—but we made it through two-and-a-half days without significant pain.

My sister is happy to leave Vanderbilt, a school she has never liked, and she is happy to leave Nashville, a city she has never liked.

My sister is nowise unhappy or dissatisfied with the last four years. She achieved her objectives—a Baccalaureate from a “name” school, lots of like-minded friends, and grades and test scores high enough to get her into one of the nation’s finest business schools—but now she is ready to move on and never look back, leaving Vanderbilt far behind her.

I know exactly how she feels.

Until Wednesday, I had never been to Nashville, and neither had Andrew. We did not see much of the city—but what we did manage to see was not particularly impressive. My sister, for four years, has referred to Nashville as “Hicksville”, and my sister is probably not far off the mark.

The nation’s elite institutions of higher learning need to reexamine how they conduct graduation festivities. First, the ceremonies are far too long—are two full days of activities genuinely necessary?—and, second, the ceremonies are monotonous and clichéd, designed to celebrate the institutions and the various dogmas they have embraced rather than the graduates themselves.

I would give Vanderbilt a failing grade on its two days of commencement ceremonies. Everything was poorly organized, hours and hours of dead time were built into the schedule, and the events themselves were alarmingly down-market—as my parents noted, repeatedly, with more than a little displeasure. Everything we saw and experienced suggested a university in total disarray, an institution utterly incapable of presenting a basic annual function at some minimum standard.

Most dismaying of all were the various graduation addresses. Whether by students, faculty or invited guests, the speeches were appalling. It was as if the Vanderbilt administration had gone to considerable lengths to engage the biggest morons they could find to speak to the assembled graduates and guests.

The addresses were shameful: uninteresting, unintelligent, unlearned, unreflective, unimaginative, unstylish, revealing not a spark of irony, wit, wisdom or thought. Worst of all, it was positively bizarre—in an educational setting, of all places—to encounter such scrupulous avoidance of the words “excellence” and “achievement”.

The two words, sadly, have been removed from the nation’s lexicon, a face-saving maneuver imposed from necessity once two seedy grifters from Chicago became installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

There was virtually no applause after any of the speeches—my parents, like most parents, sat stone-faced through them all—and we thought we heard mild booing as well as mild hissing after several of the addresses.

There most definitely was booing and hissing to be heard after Tom Brokaw’s speech—one wag shouted out, while Brokaw was speaking, “Who was the ghost writer for your book, Brokaw, you hack?”, which elicited more than a little laughter—and there most definitely was booing and hissing to be heard after the speech of Vanderbilt’s Chancellor. In both cases, the booing and hissing were well-deserved.

If I were on the Board Of Trustees of Vanderbilt University, I would vote immediately to discharge Vanderbilt’s Chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos. Based upon his speech, and based upon our experiences at the institution he leads, Zeppos is little more than a comedy figure, with far more in common with the Marx Brothers than just his last name.

On Saturday morning, graduation events over, we all went our separate ways. In the late morning, my brother flew back to Dallas and my parents flew back to Oklahoma City, with my sister and her things in tow. (This coming Friday, my sister will fly to Minneapolis in order to spend ten days with Andrew and me. She will be our first houseguest in our new house, and Andrew and I are busy trying to figure out how to entertain her for ten days.)

Very early Saturday morning, instead of returning to the Twin Cities, Andrew and I flew to Kansas City.

We had to rise at 3:00 a.m. in order to be at the Nashville airport at 4:30 a.m. for a 5:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta. In Atlanta, we changed aircraft and caught a flight to Kansas City. (There are no nonstop flights between Nashville and Kansas City; the most advantageous routing for us, time-wise and duration-wise, was through out-of-the-way Atlanta.)

Andrew and I had wanted to visit Kansas City in order to explore the Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art. I had visited the Nelson-Atkins before—I had been fourteen years old at the time—but Andrew had never visited the Nelson-Atkins. Both of us wanted to spend some serious time at one of the world’s very greatest art museums.

We spent all day Saturday and all afternoon Sunday at the museum.

We enjoyed the Nelson-Atkins immensely. It is a spectacular museum with a spectacular collection.

The artworks at the Nelson-Atkins are extremely well-presented. In fact, the art presentation at the Nelson-Atkins is among the finest I have seen at any museum in the United States or Western Europe.

The Nelson-Atkins has an unusual history.

The institution came about simply because two large private pools of money had been set aside early in the 20th Century to erect a building and to acquire an art collection at such time as city fathers decided that Kansas City needed an art museum. There were no founding collections; no major donors presented the institution with existing art collections that could be used as a basis for building a large and comprehensive permanent collection.

The museum as an institution was not founded until the very end of the 1920s. Construction of the first building did not begin until 1930. The museum did not open until 1933.

Because of The Stock Market Crash Of 1929 and the ensuing worldwide Depression, the late 1920s and the early 1930s, seemingly, were the worst possible times in which to found a museum, to erect a building, and to acquire an art collection from scratch.

The Nelson-Atkins, however, enjoyed a remarkable stroke of luck. It was founded upon two great fortunes—and both fortunes, fortuitously, had cashed out of the stock market prior to its 1929 collapse and had shifted assets into U.S. Government Bonds, the only financial instruments in the world that rose in value throughout The Great Depression.

The result was that the Nelson-Atkins was flush with cash precisely at the time world art markets collapsed. (In 1929, world art markets crashed immediately after world stock markets crashed).

For the next fifteen years, the Nelson-Atkins went on a buying spree; it was the largest acquirer of art in the world during this period—and at fire-sale prices. Almost every significant Old Master painting offered for sale in the U.S. between 1930 and 1945 was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins; almost every significant Old Master painting offered for sale in Europe between 1930 and 1939 was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins. (The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, was the only other museum in the world actively buying Old Master paintings during this period of economic distress—but the Wadsworth Atheneum lacked the vast financial resources of the Nelson-Atkins.)

The result of the buying frenzy: the Nelson-Atkins—an institution that owned not a single painting (or other work of art) on January 1, 1930—today has the finest collection of European paintings in the nation’s heartland.

Andrew and I viewed the European and American painting collections at the Nelson-Atkins twice, one viewing on Saturday and a second viewing on Sunday. We made it through as much of the rest of the collection as time allowed.

The Nelson-Atkins made our visit to Kansas City worthwhile.

On Saturday night, we attended a performance of Kansas City Ballet at the new Kauffman Center For The Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City.

I had seen Kansas City Ballet on a single previous occasion—I had seen Kansas City Ballet dance “The Nutcracker” when I was eight years old—but Andrew had never seen a performance by Kansas City Ballet. We enjoyed Saturday night’s performance very much; the program was a good one.

Our return to Minneapolis early Sunday evening was a snap. There are numerous daily nonstop flights between Kansas City and Minneapolis, and flight time is only one hour and twenty minutes between the two cities.

Andrew and I were on a plane heading home little more than two hours after the Nelson-Atkins had closed for the day late Sunday afternoon.

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