No Mere Frill

Education policymakers have long regarded music programs as dispensable when it comes time to cut budgets. Here's why they're wrong.

The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, strategems and spoils; the motions of his spirit are dull as night, and his affections dark as Erebus; let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. —William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.

The other day on The Jefferson Hour—which is broadcast locally on WHRV-FM (89.5) every Tuesday from 1 to 2 p.m.—cohost Clay Jenkinson noted that Thomas Jefferson saw music as an essential component of education. Indeed, he believed that if someone didn’t know how to play a musical instrument, he or she would never become a complete human being. Jefferson himself is known to have been a fine violinist.

His belief in the importance of music had no doubt been shaped in part by his study of classical literature and philosophy. As author Tim Blanning notes in his wonderful book The Triumph of Music (Belknap Press/Harvard 2008), Aristotle “commended music as a crucial part of a liberal education ...” [Emphasis added]. Blanning goes on to add that Plato saw musical training as a more potent instrument than any other because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul ... ”

Granted, they had strict ideas about the form that musical education should take. Very likely they would have objected to the unsettling dissonances and pulsing rhythms of Beethoven’s late quartets, never mind the music of Thelonious Monk or the Sex Pistols. But that is another matter. The point is, they knew that music was as important as any facet of life—certainly as important as the study of math, science, history or literature.

Alas, a lot of people today seem to regard that as an antiquated notion. They may see music as a good form of entertainment but not as an essential component oflife. This attitude is reflected, in particular, in debates about school funding. Music and art are often the first things to be cut in tough economic times on the premise that they are mere “frills.”

To be fair, many school districts have protected music education to some degree. My own kids—now both in college—were the beneficiaries of Norfolk Public Schools’ wonderful strings program. My daughter learned to play violin, and my son the cello. In the process they learned a lot about music theory, history and aesthetics.

Moreover, back in 2006, the Virginia Department of Education adopted Standards of Learning for music education. They don’t carry the same weight as the SOLs in math and English, but it was an important symbolic step. And the document does a pretty good job of articulating the value of music instruction.

“Knowledge and skills that students acquire through [music] instruction,” the document states, “include the abilities to think critically, solve problems creatively, make informed judgments, work cooperatively within groups, appreciate different cultures, imagine and create.”

But again, there are those who will object to this sort of thing, arguing that it is unnecessarily lofty and lacking in practical application. The objection is based on what has now become a widespread assumption—the notion that the sole purpose of education is preparation for the “workforce” so that America can “compete in the global economy.” Even President Obama has fallen into this trap.

The purpose of education, in my mind, should be discussed in much broader terms. One rarely hears political and civic leaders talk about the importance of cultivating an educated citizenry, for example—or developing curricula that will allow America to “cooperate in a global culture,” rather than “compete in a global economy.”

Let me put it another way. Why not think of the chief end of education as the development of human potential, in all its facets, with the aim of making a society that is more closely aligned with those virtues of truth, beauty and goodness?

With this aim in mind, music education is essential—not only for the purpose of fine-tuning students’ aesthetic sensibilities and critical capacities but for the purpose of helping them learn to cooperate. Indeed, educators and policymakers should read The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin (Dutton).

He begins by asserting that music has been fundamental to human societies for as long as societies have existed. “There is no known culture now or anytime in the past that lacks it,” he writes, “and some of the oldest human-made artifacts found at archaeological sites are musical instruments ... Anyone who wants to understand human nature,” he continues, “has to take a close look at the role that music has held in the lives of humans, at the way that music and people co-evolved.”

And yet, Levitin argues, “Anthropologists, archaeologists and psychologists ... [have devoted] relatively little attention ... to the origins of music.”

Likewise, educational policymakers—even those who are sympathetic to the idea—still regard music education as something of secondary importance.

I firmly believe that it is of primary importance, not only because of the aforementioned benefits to society but because American culture is rapidly sliding into mediocrity. The most elevated forms of music—jazz, classical, literate folk and rap music and non-commercial rock that is both musically and lyrically sophisticated—have been marginalized in favor of mainstream pop that is little more than momentarily satisfying entertainment. Think of it as the artistic equivalent of Twinkies.

The lack of aesthetic standards in mainstream American musical culture has its parallels in the culture at large—in our tolerance for soul-deadening suburban sprawl, for example.

Music education has been a victim of this trend because in the end, this is what music education is about—care of the soul, to borrow a phrase from psychologist Thomas Moore. There can be no higher aim in education—the care of the soul. If we don’t raise the next generation to be whole in that way, we will never be whole or at peace as a society.

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