The Forum | Western Civilization

American Culture and Ideas Initiative Promotes High Culture at University of Arizona

November 6, 2019 by Erik Gross

Daniel Asia is the Founder of the American Culture and Ideas Initiative (ACII) and Professor of Music at the Fred Fox School of Music at University of Arizona. The ACII is one of ACTA's Oases of Excellence, a network of academic programs that share a commitment to liberal education and free expression. Professor Asia sat down with ACTA's Erik Gross to discuss the ACII’s mission and programming, as well as practical advice for running an academic center. 

Can you tell me about the American Culture and Ideas Initiative, and what your philosophy is?

Twenty-five years ago, when I was composer in-residence with the Phoenix Symphony, people would ask me, “So, how do I listen to this new music that you and others write?” I’d say, “Well, do you like Beethoven, and Bernstein, and Stravinsky?” They’d say, “Sure.” And I’d say, “Just listen to it like that.” And then five or 10 years ago when somebody asked me the same question and I gave them a similar answer, they said, “Well, who’s Beethoven and who’s Bernstein and who’s Stravinsky?” The cultural superficiality at this point is so extreme that for high culture to survive, for anything that I and my contemporaries do to be of interest to anybody else, we need to address the problem of widespread ignorance. This, of course, is also true on most campuses. Nobody knows anything anymore about high culture. And this is true of faculty as well as students. It seemed to me that there were two ways to start dealing with this. One way was presenting a new music festival called Music +, which puts contemporary music into a wider humanistic context. And one does that by having a symposium and/or a conference and getting people into the lives and milieu of composers. They see that this is not so distant from their experience. It started with that.

And then I realized, given the current academic environment, which doesn’t allow for people to take numerous arts courses in their general education requirements, we need to have a course that would somehow cover this. We started a course about seven or eight years ago called Human Achievement and Innovation in the Arts. It teaches the very best of the entire history of visual art, music and dance, and also includes the philosophy of beauty. Why? Because a student would come up to me and say, “Look, I like lady Gaga, and you like Beethoven. What’s the problem?” My reply to that is, “Not all artistic objects are the same or have the same value or have the same depth.” One has to make an argument now in our current environment for why one should listen to Beethoven, or at least get to understand him, or why one, perhaps, should read Shakespeare rather than just Glamour magazine. They’re both things we read, so why aren’t those the same? The same logic is now applied to music: “It’s something I hear. Isn’t this all the same?” That is what began the 10 or 11 year history of the American Culture and Ideas Initiative. 

“The cultural superficiality at this point is so extreme that for high culture to survive, we need to address the problem of widespread ignorance.”

Why do you feel the fine arts are an important part of a well-rounded liberal education?

From time immemorial, whether it was the quadrivium or the trivium, music in particular has been understood to be at the very center of who we are as human beings. The artistic experience, again, back thousands and thousands of years, has always been understood to be a way of man’s self-understanding and of our place in the universe. It is simply basic to who we are. Music and the visual arts have always been something that we have done to help our relationship to and understanding of the divine or transcendence. And on top of it all, it gives us tremendous pleasure. Human beings seek and love pleasure. That’s why the fine arts should be at the center of anybody’s education.

“Human beings seek and love pleasure. That’s why the fine arts should be at the center of anybody’s education.” 

How do you feel a study of the arts helps students draw together their other disciplines?

First I’ll say that the artistic experience in and of itself should be something that everyone learns how to understand and appreciate because it will give their life a richer and deeper meaning. As human beings, we seek meaning in our lives. Having said that, to answer your question, artists are the original creators. They’re also the original entrepreneurs. For anybody who is working in any area, the arts give them access to and an understanding of how one actually thinks in a creative way. This whole notion that you can teach people to think creatively, I think is a lot of baloney, quite frankly, but if you’re going to learn it, you should learn it from those who do it on a full-time basis. And those are artists.

Do you feel like contemporary academia is devaluing that sort of creativity?

Contemporary academia talks a good line about creativity and has absolutely no understanding.

Is that your whole answer?

That’s my whole answer.

I think I know where you stand on that one. What challenges does a program like yours run into?

The practical challenges are that we’re somewhat of an outlier in as much as everyone now in academia conceives of culture as being primarily popular culture. The flattening of the cultural realm has already occurred, and therefore, my goal—as Terry Teachout has said—is just to make sure that high culture, as we might want to talk about it, describe it, or define it, doesn’t get completely and utterly excluded from the academic and cultural realm. Which is, I think, on the horizon. At some point, somebody is going to say, “Why do you need to have an orchestra?” And then, “Why do you need to have an orchestra in academia?” Then, “Why do you need to have those professors who teach people how to play those instruments?” It goes along with the idea or the notion, “Why does one really need to study history anymore?” All we’re really interested in is current exploration. If we don’t need history, why do we need to have any cultural icons or any relationship to the culture of the past? Why don’t we just remain completely and utterly self-absorbed in our own understanding of what culture is in the present?

“Contemporary academia talks a good line about creativity and has absolutely no understanding.”

If someone said that to you, what would be your response?

One of the reasons that we called our class Human Achievement and Innovation in the Arts is because, in fact, we as human beings can agree on what some of the most gorgeous, beautiful things are that have ever been created by mankind. To not witness those, to not confront those in the same way that you would want to confront some of the greatest literature and philosophy—whether it’s Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible—don’t you want to know what humans have thought about over the thousands of years? And unless you assume that they are not really related to us, and that they had nothing of importance to say, wouldn’t you want to study that and understand that? I think you would. I think you would want to partake of some of the greatest things that human beings have ever done. That’s all. It’s a very simple notion.


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