Diocletian and His Cabbages

Last night I attended a concert given by a youth orchestra in London at the Barbican, and caught up with the conductor for a cup of tea just before (well, he is my brother). He founded the orchestra ten years ago, initially from students at two schools where he teaches music in South-West London; he then opened the orchestra to other local schools. They put on concerts three or four times a year, and tour for a week or two in the summer (last year they went to the Czech Republic; they have also toured in Spain, Italy, Poland, Croatia and elsewhere).

A5 flyer v4

Now, on their tenth anniversary, they were able to call back alumni of the orchestra, some of them by now professional players, and put on a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, a behemoth of the repertoire with full chorus, two soloists (soprano and contralto), off-stage bands, twenty horns, and so on. And very fine it was too.

My brother told me in passing that he has been reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wherein he read a story of the Emperor Diocletian who, having abdicated the throne and taken up farming, was invited back during a period of particular difficulty. He refused, saying ‘if you could see my cabbages, you wouldn’t even ask the question’.

My brother was making the point that the rewards of life are not always what they seem. The children and young adults who play in his orchestra do not benefit because they are learning ‘teamwork’ or responsibility or whatever; they benefit purely and simply because it is an extraordinary thing to play in an orchestra, at the Barbican, in a symphony by Mahler. An unrepeatable experience, for most.

Sad then, to read of the erosion of the ethos of the liberal education as a good in itself (see here or here). My brother and I are of a generation that was able to attend university with no regard for the economic benefit to the country or the financial benefit to ourselves (as it happens, there was none). We were able to do this because it was free. That is no longer the case, and not only do students now get an education in the same way they might get a mortgage on a house, the universities are also expected to find most of their funding in the private sector, which will not unnaturally expect a return on its investment. In consequence, no one wants to study, or, worse, provide courses or do research in ‘unfashionable’ subjects. The market place will eliminate unsuccessful ‘subjects’ in a survival of the fittest. This is what efficiency means.

I see no evidence in society that we are better for this change in emphasis. We might even be a little worse. And while there will always be Diocletians turning their backs on the Empire to grow cabbages, it is sobering to remember that Diocletian abdicated on the eve of what Gibbon called ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’.


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