OPINION | Music in the schools

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It’s not easy being a public school music teacher these days. You’re lucky to have a job at all, luckier still if you don’t have to shuttle between schools. You probably have to make do with minimal, outdated materials, and you might have to teach in one of those outbuildings that are euphemistically called temporary classrooms.


Among fellow musicians you may be stigmatized by the “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” mentality. Among fellow teachers you may be considered second-class because you’re relegated to an “enrichment” subject, while they labor in the 3-Rs trenches.


Just about the only drum anyone in public education marches to these days is labeled Testing. Minnesota’s K-12 standards address the arts, with both knowledge and performance components. But there is no music section on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, which cover math, reading and science. And it’s the MCAs by which schools are judged as making “adequate yearly progress” according to dictates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.


It’s ironic that music instructors must fight to get a hearing when all around us, what we hear is music. Nearly any public place you wander into has a soundtrack: stores, malls, waiting rooms, restaurants, stadiums, arenas. And music isn’t just in the background; it’s at the forefront of our consciousness. As many people probably know who will be playing at halftime during the Super Bowl as which two teams will be competing.


We’re awash in music, yet some of us don’t consider music education a high priority. Parents with means can ensure that their children receive music instruction. If you can afford to buy an instrument and pay for private lessons, and if you’re willing to haul your kids to and from the teacher’s house, you can rest assured that they’ve been given a chance to develop their musical talent and appreciation. But if you lack the means for those things, you’re on the other side of a musical divide, where your children are less likely to become active, informed consumers and creators of music.


One explanation for the secondary (or tertiary) status of music education might be linguistic. We say that one learns to “play” an instrument. Play is important, some would affirm, but when push comes to shove, school is for preparing future workers. Our economy needs full employment, not full artistic appreciation, goes this line of thought. Music, and the arts in general, are destined to play second (or third) fiddle when the one calling the tune is deaf to anything but the bottom line.


If a defense of arts instruction is mounted by educators, it’s likely to appeal to non-arts outcomes. For example, one could argue that learning to “read” a painting involves some of the same skills as reading a text. That’s a plausible claim, one with some research support. But it subordinates the arts to what are implicitly assumed to be weightier activities.


What about the idea that the arts have intrinsic value? What about the place of things and activities that are worthwhile for their own sake? What about the fact that human history is replete with examples of artistic expression? And what about committing ourselves to providing an education in the arts for all students?


An instrumentalist, the dictionary says, is (a) a person who performs on a musical instrument, or (b) a person who believes in instrumentalism. And instrumentalism is the notion that ideas and thoughts are instruments of action and that their usefulness determines their truth.


Is performing on a musical instrument, or listening to someone else do so, useful? What contribution does it make to the Gross National Product?


Measuring the utility of something often involves economic questions. So for the arts, one might ask: How many people are gainfully employed as musicians or artists, and how much do they pay in taxes? How many sculptures or paintings or camel’s hair brushes or concert tickets or musical instruments are sold each year?


But one could ask a different set of questions: Do we live by bread alone? Is there more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy? Is there wisdom in inutility? Is there a music of the spheres? And can you play along?