Bob Dylan and the genius of context
When I woke up this morning, I was delighted to learn Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” For those of us in Minnesota, still mourning the loss of Prince, this was a welcomed surprise that feels healing, both culturally and spiritually.
I’ve been watching the University of Minnesota’s twitter feed closely. Dylan went to the University of Minnesota when his career was forming, and the University always lets us know immediately anytime anybody connected with the institution wins a Nobel Prize. If they had their way, they’d have us believe that the sun would not rise without them!
But not this time. It took them until just before 11am to make the announcement. And, it was distant, if not cautious:
Congratulations to a #MN and @dinkytown legend Bob Dylan! #NobelPrize https://t.co/gNaFtcQus2
— University of MN (@UMNews) October 13, 2016
Why such an innocuous statement this time? Well, history records that Dylan dropped out after just a few semesters; he was successful without the University.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the University of Minnesota – or, the “U” as we affectionately call it. I got my Ph.D. there, and started off my academic career at the Twin Cities campus. But I think there is a crucial lesson to be learned:
Genius is not created by the institution; genius is fostered by the context in which the institution interfaces with the community.
Dylan’s career started not at the University, but across the street in the Dinkytown district of Minneapolis. Dinkytown was eclectic: a zone for free thought, open expression, independent businesses, and a food and bar scene that catered to students, faculty, and staff. The University attracted people in, but it was the music scene of the adjoining neighborhood that helped to propel him and get a start in his career.
After a year at the “U,” he moved to Greenwich Village in New York, and the rest is history.
And the University remains. It’s churned out a few Nobel laureates along the way, but I fear that we will see fewer creatives, like Dylan, emerge. The reason is simple: the context is being destroyed.
The University of Minnesota, like nearly every other institution, has learned that higher education is a big business. This extends not just to research and teaching, but also to the University’s presence in the community. It comes as no surprise that the “U” has been a major player in the redevelopment of Dinkytown. Small, older buildings that once housed its creative scene are being replaced with monotonous, monolithic apartment buildings, chain stores, and generic fast food options. Freewheeling politics, art, and other cultural expressions are being replaced by unimaginative configurations of concrete, steel, and glass.
The context for fostering genius is vanishing. I’m sure many more Nobel laureates connected with our beloved “U” will be announced in the coming years, but there will be no other Bob Dylan emerging from the University without an interface for creativity.