Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2308:
TWENTY YEARS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, twenty years together. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

January 4th, 2008, when this episode first airs in Houston, is the program's twentieth anniversary. As I mulled that fact, a graduate student mentioned working on the relation between Martin Buber's theology and Internet education. And I saw a huge connection with what we're trying to accomplish on air.

We normally try to deal objectively with our world. Remember Sergeant Friday -- "Just the facts, Ma'am." Buber, known for his book, I and Thou, would've called that an I-it transaction -- not I-Thou. We deal with most of our world as it.

Buber's Thou (or in German, du) was the old familiar form of you. Our superiors were Ye; and our family was Thou. When Buber's I and Thou meet, it's not in some transaction, but in their bare essence. Buber the theologian says that God interacts only as I with Thou. That's why God is addressed in the familiar form Thou. Think of the I-thou connection as it arises in the moment -- between strangers on a train, between you and your cat.

We teachers normally deal in I-it mode -- facts and explainations The notion of an I-Thou interaction in a lecture hall or on the radio strikes us as alien -- even downright cloying.

But last night Daniel Barenboim showed how it could be done. He played Beethoven sonatas before a large audience in a TV special. Afterward, he worked through the same pieces with students. Barenboim was no performer before an audience. He and the music were fully I-Thou. Then the camera panned to the audience, and it was clear nothing stood between them and the music either. They and the music were also I and Thou.

That's how things work when we get beyond the drama of player and audience; for that drama is just irrelevant. Later, in the master class, the same thing happened: Barenboim listened. Then he spoke more often on the piano than he did in words. What was important was how he kept himself out of the conversation. This remained an I-Thou connection between student and music. The music was never the object -- never it. The music was always Thou.

And I realized: Barenboim embodied what we've been trying to achieve in radio. During my long contact with public radio, no one around me has ever made an it of listeners. For two decades I've watched radio people forge their own I-Thou connection, not with the audience but with the words or the music they provide. Then we listeners can make our own connection. It really works.

By diminishing himself last night, Barenboim enlarged and facilitated our bond with Beethoven's music. Well, it took a lot more than twenty years to create Daniel Barenboim. But we'll keep working on his example. The trick is to provide grist, then stay out of the way. When we do, you and I together can shape our own I-Thou links -- to creativity, history, and to new ideas.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


M. Buber, I and Thou. (Hesperides Press, 2006/1923).

For biographical material on Martin Buber, Click Here.

The Barenboim performance is described here.

Microphone


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.