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Extrinsic Motivation

One of my Theory of Knowledge students is a highly talented musician, and, as I found out, highly opinionated! Earlier this week I mentioned to him having found some CD “transcriptions” of old 78 and magnetic records of chamber music by Mozart. From his initial facial reaction you’d have thought I’d confessed to a secret vice, but he quickly composed himself and answered that Mozart was too tame and that he preferred Bartok and Shostakovich. Not content to leave things at that, I pressed on, wondering whether there might be room in chamber music for all three.

Here I must digress to say that my high school’s musical ensembles are unusually good—and unusually successful in musical competitions. It helps to explain my student’s next remarks, which I paraphrase: Bartok and Shostakovich let an ensemble show what it can do. If an orchestra chooses a Mozart piece for a competition, it has already lost. My own non-competitive opinion would be that it has already won, but never mind me. Artur Schnabel said that children learn Mozart because of the small quantity of his notes, but grown-ups avoid him because of the great quality of his notes. My student, midway between childhood and adulthood, might be at a stage of avoiding Mozart without yet having learned the quality of his notes.

It is likely that as a competitive young person he values the extrinsic reward that competition brings to music, and appreciates composers who help “give him an edge.” In his discussion of emulation[1], William James says, “[T]o veto and taboo all possible rivalry of one youth with another, because such rivalry may degenerate into greedy and selfish excess, does seem to savor somewhat of sentimentality, or even of fanaticism. The feeling of rivalry lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it. There is a noble and generous kind of rivalry, as well as a spiteful and greedy kind; and the noble and generous form is particularly common in childhood. All games owe the zest which they bring with them to the fact that they are rooted in the emulous passion, yet they are the chief means of training in fairness and magnanimity. Can the teacher afford to throw such an ally away? Ought we seriously to hope that marks, distinctions, prizes, and other goals of effort, based on the pursuit of recognized superiority, should be forever banished from our schools? As a psychologist, obliged to notice the deep and pervasive character of the emulous passion, I have my doubts.”

Something tells me that what my student learns through the “emulous passion” will ripen in time, and that he may even come back to Mozart for the quality of his notes. In the meantime, I see no harm in encouraging that passion.

Postscript on the Doctors

Usage at first mention in English letters and history recognizes two doctors: Dr. Johnson and Dr. Arnold. I wonder if it isn’t time to add a third: Dr. King. The thought came to me as we observed the 50th anniversary of “I Have a Dream.” If the report is correct that Dr. King extemporized most of the speech in response to a plea by Mahalia Jackson, it is an all-the-more-remarkable addition to his life’s other accomplishments. Do we really need to introduce what we say about him by referring to him as “The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior”? One time I referred in class to “King’s Birthday,” and in a gentle reproach one student asked, “Which King?” My answer, “Not King Mswati,” was flip, but I saw the point, though not the need for the mile-long moniker.



[1] Talks to Teachers. Dover, 2001, p. 27, but you can also find it here.

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