A band director in Texas wrote to me with a complaint that was evidently a part of his daily life: “Too many administrators and school boards will ONLY hear arguments for music education that come back to ‘It improves test scores in Subjects X and Y.’ When we constantly frame a discipline exclusively in terms of what it provides to OTHER disciplines, we ignore its intrinsic value.”
Interesting point. It got me thinking. Below is my letter back to him. This discussion, with thousands of variations, is probably occurring all over the country. We are trying to answer the question, why study music? By the same token, why study ANYTHING? I’ll bet there are people in our Education Establishment who will be pushing that very agenda in the near future. So we have to be able to answer these questions. My answer:
“...I’m all in favor of kids doing lots of different things. End of story. I would like them to play as many sports as possible, I would like them to take shop and learn how to fix an engine, I would like them to study computers, I would like them to study all the academic subjects. I would try to create, even among ordinary kids, Renaissance Minds to whatever degree it’s possible. So they should know music.
"Additionally, I would like children to have as many different ways to be successful as possible. So we have chess clubs and drama classes and anything else you can do. The world is multicultural, multi-disciplinarian, not to mention politically correct. There may be kids good at music and little else. So we need music.
"There is an entirely separate thing, which might be called discipline/technique/practice/precision. My sense is that public schools are often in the position of attacking character, in the old-fashioned sense. Kids can be lazy, they can be late, they can be half-ass about everything. But you can’t be half-ass when you’re playing music. You keep the beat and play the tune or you don’t. In this same vein, kids should learn cursive, draftsmanship, and realistic art. I was just talking to someone 3 days ago about how all children should have to draw an apple with a #2 pencil, totally realistic. That’s quite comparable to playing some simple song well on the piano. Precision. Everything they do in the public schools seems to be in pursuit of imprecision.
"Also, in my ideal school, music would be complementary to history, science, psychology, religion, et al. In other words, music teaches many other things. People should know who Beethoven is. They should know what a symphony is. It’s much better to learn about Beethoven in a music class where the music can be played in a natural way. For my money this is not the same as art appreciation, although I’m all in favor of that. There is just a lot of general knowledge that kids should know; and any way the school can be clever about teaching that knowledge is a good thing.
"So as I look over this, I see I’m making an argument, at every junction in a child’s life, for learning SOMETHING rather than nothing. Ever since the time of John Dewey, the elite educators have at every junction made a case for NOTHING rather than something. That is why I have such contempt for them.
"... I have a fairly bleak sense of what is happening to education. So if academic content, knowledge, facts, and skills can be taught, in any way possible, to even the smallest degree, that’s something to celebrate.”