Tuesday, 31 October 2006

22: The Danger of Music Education Advocacy (by Bennett Reimer)

Bennett Reimer

Emeritus Professor, School of Music, Northwestern University, Chicago

To advocate is “to plead in favor of; support or urge by use of argument.” Given the widespread enjoyment, even fulfillment, music provides to people all over the world and has provided throughout history, it would seem that there would be little if any need for advocacy for it, especially now when it is so easily available to all who choose to be engaged with it in whatever ways they prefer. Yet those whose profession it is to teach music in schools have always had to plead in favor of it, to offer whatever arguments they could imagine to gain support for their endeavors. Why would something so widely regarded as a valuable component of human life, particularly among youngsters of school age, need such intense, ongoing efforts to plead its cause as being a worthy school subject?

One answer to that question is that music is often regarded to be essentially different from those subjects requiring the development of the intellect—of intelligence. The “core” or “basic” or “serious” subjects, like mathematics, sciences, languages, history, and social studies, require ongoing, focused tuition. Music, on the other hand, in this view, is a matter of talent rather than intellect, of expression rather than intelligence. And everyone can enjoy it just by “doing what comes naturally,” without the same need for systematic study the basic subjects require. So why would people want to use up precious school time for music unless strong advocacy arguments for it were offered? We may call this answer to the question of why we need advocacy the “intellect versus talent” answer.

Another answer to the why-the-need-for-advocacy question, related to the first, is that very few students have the talent to do something with music that requires serious, long-term study, such as make a living from performing. Talent for performing likely falls on a normal curve. Those few with a high level of talent cannot expect schools to provide for such a very special need, except, perhaps, as an elective after the core subjects have been attended to. And even that is very expensive to provide, in teacher salaries, special equipment and facilities, and student time away from the basics. Let those who want and deserve such service find it outside the schools, from the many available and eager musicians/teachers in the community. Strong advocacy, music educators argue, is necessary to counteract this issue of “why in the schools?”

Still another reason often given for the need to plead the cause of music in the schools is that the deeper values of music, including but going beyond easily obtained entertainment, are poorly understood by many. Philosophers and others in history and in the present have clarified that music is so basic to the human condition, so foundational for a life well lived, so humanizing in its powers to deepen and widen what all people can experience, as to be not only worthy of inclusion as a basic school subject but essential if all people, including youngsters, are to realize the potentials their humanity affords. Not to make music study available to all in the schools, as seriously provided as every other important subject, is to abrogate a fundamental responsibility of education—to enable lives to be as full as they can possibly be. This argument about the deep values of music is difficult to elucidate, especially to lay people. Professional expertise is needed in order to convince people that music is as important to support as everything now considered basic in education, perhaps even more important in that it balances attention to intellectual pursuits by attention to the inner life. The need for such arguments to be made may be identified as “getting to the depths.”

Each of these arguments (and others) for the need to advocate for school music is valid, I believe. I have no quarrel with the music education profession doing all it can to offer reasons that might persuade those not already devoted to music education to come around and offer their much desired support.

But lurking beneath each of these needs for advocacy, and all the other arguments that have been and continue to be made in answer to the questions about why music should be taught in schools, is a danger seldom if ever identified as connected to—perhaps even to some extent the result of—all the many, intense, even frantic efforts we in music education make in support of our cause. The danger stems from the prevalent belief among music educators, seldom if ever doubted, that what we actually offer in the schools 1. does in fact develop musical intelligences, 2. does in fact serve the needs of the great majority of students who do not have or do not choose to cultivate musical performance talent, and 3. does in fact help students gain the deepest satisfactions music can offer. We do not examine our unswerving belief that our actual music programs are in all these respects entirely adequate if not exemplary, and that doing what we do is entirely sufficient to obtain the benefits we so vociferously and often eloquently advertise. That is, we advocate for what we do when the question begging to be asked is whether what we do is validly and optimally connected to what we claim.

The dangerous side of this situation is the tendency to blame our plight, of insecurity, lack of full respect, misunderstandings of our value, the ever-present threat of being dropped, on forces outside rather than inside our professional actions. Advocacy efforts have a way of replacing self-examination. We spend a great deal of time and effort thinking up ways to persuade people to accept our status quo, based on our very special values and traditions, rather than on how we can more realistically and effectively serve the musical needs of our culture as being our guiding aim. We tend to protect and defend and proselytize when we more fruitfully need to critically examine who we are and what we offer. We need to look inward rather than outward for the causes of our uncertain status in education.

This is not to argue that we do not offer a great deal of value to our cultures. Of course we do. But the gap between what we do and what our cultures want and need from us is often perilously wide. We need to examine everything we teach, both in general music education settings and electives, as to whether it is a viable way to be involved with music outside the schools and when schooling ends, or whether it exists only as “school music,” separate and distinct from the realities of our musical cultures. Some of our present teachings are likely to be valid, while many are likely to be irrelevant, thereby making us irrelevant. To put it directly, there is a positive relation between the efforts we have to expend on advocacy and the level of irrelevancy of what we offer.

Parents, students, non-music professionals in education, our wider communities, all have the right and responsibility to ask hard questions about whether and how we fulfill the often grandiose arguments we offer as advocacy. We have the obligation to bring our programs fully in line with our cultures' desires from us, using our expertise in music and in education to satisfy those desires while also enlarging and deepening them. We need to do less persuading by claiming all sorts of wonders for music learning when we still don't offer—don't know how to offer—their magnificent beneficences. We need to look clearly at who we are and who we need to become, at what we've done and what we haven't yet done. The better we do this the less need there will be for advocacy, for needing to persuade people to buy what we are selling rather than to make what we are selling so valuable and pertinent to their musical lives that they are delighted to get as much of it as they can. The degree of our success in fulfilling our communities' musical needs will, to that degree, relieve us, and them, of the necessity to advocate. We will have gotten closer to the maturity, in our principles and programs, that music, students in schools, and each culture in which we exist, should reasonably expect from us. And that we should expect from ourselves.

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