“When will we ever learn?”: the arts and shared knowledge

“The establishment has always been concerned about music,” folk singer Pete Seeger said about his peace and protest songs.  “I’ve quoted Plato for years, who wrote, ‘It’s very important that the wrong kind of music not be allowed in the Republic.’ And I’ve also heard there’s an old Arab proverb, ‘When the king puts the poet on his payroll, he cuts off the tongue of the poet.’ I think they’re both right.”

Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94, knew something important about the arts as an area of knowledge. As we treat the arts in TOK, we are dealing with far more than the question, “How do we know what is beautiful?”  We are dealing not just with beauty but also with meaning and communication – the very essence of shared knowledge.  We are dealing with ways of knowing that show us the world as it is, and with imagination that suggests to us that another world is possible.

Pete Seeger used his music to protest what he saw as wrong in his American society – opposing the Vietnam War, for instance, and supporting the civil rights movement. Despite being blacklisted in the McCarthy era, when even suspicion of communist leanings was treated as a crime, Seeger persisted in using song to make political comment. Reviving and reworking folk songs, and writing his own, he was an influential force in American music, inspiring many other musicians and ultimately reaching a large audience.

In TOK he provides a fine example of creating art from a perspective (personal, cultural, political) with a purpose, and of the effect of the arts to bring groups of people together in shared response and expression.  Many of his songs, from his anti-war song “Where have all the flowers gone?” (“When will we ever learn?”) to his version of the gospel song “We shall overcome” that became the icon song of the American civil rights movement, also exemplify how music, literature, painting or the other arts, even when rooted in specific times and places, can often resonate both emotionally and thematically in a way that could be argued to be universal.

Playing one of Pete Seeger’s songs in TOK class could open a good discussion on the kind of knowledge shared in the arts.

References

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick.  Chapter 15, The Arts.  Theory of Knowledge IB Course Companion.  Oxford University Press, 2013. https://global.oup.com/education/product/9780199129737?region=international

Megan Gibson, “Songs of Peace and Protest: Six Essential Cuts from Pete Seeger”, Time, January 28. 2014. http://entertainment.time.com/2014/01/28/pete-seeger-best-songs/

Above, Joan Baez sings “We Shall Overcome” in 2009 in Prague, with President Vaclav Havel, himself formerly a writer and dissident. Another context, another layer of meaning.

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