Friday, June 13, 2008

So popular it can't be good

J. K. Rowling gave the commencement speech at Harvard University. What is your first reaction to that news?

Some of the graduates feel they've settled. Instead of Noble Prize winners or world leaders, they got a children's writer. In the words of one graduate, "You know, we're Harvard. We're like the most prominent national institution. And I think we should be entitled to … "

"Most prominent", "entitled", "like". Don't you just love it?

Another graduate asks, "Are we the joke class?"

On what assumptions do these graduates base their opinions? That something loved by the masses cannot possibly be good? That true excellence can only be appreciated by the select few?

Maybe it takes highly trained musicians to understand the intricacies of harmonic progressions, voicing, rhythmic interplay that Mozart or Bach use in their compositions. But it doesn't take a highly trained musician to be transported by the music, to recognize something exceptional in it.

Also, if we buy those assumptions, then we have to conclude that everything popular is sub-par and all that is excellent is hidden. Spielberg, Coppola: bad movie makers. Who is good? Don't know; their films are too obscure.

I am not arguing that everything popular is of high quality. I am arguing that human beings, no matter the educational level or taste, do possess abilities to recognize greatness. Am I saying Harry Potter is great? That's not the point. The point is that popularity can sometimes be the result of excellence.

Read Rowling's speech. See if you detect humility, grace, wisdom in her words. I do.

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