What is music education good for?

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Lisa Simpson striving to develop the human capital needed to succeed in the new innovation-sharing new economy jobs of the new tomorrow, which is new

This article on music program cuts in public schools turned up in my Facebook “memories” feed today, along with the following remarks. The broader issue is as current as ever and I still believe what I wrote, so I’m re-posting here in lightly edited form.

In the article, celebrated music teacher Hans Fenger is quoted saying:

Music and art are activities which allow children to think in a more abstract way … a kind of thinking that allows children to be more open to new ideas, to be more retrainable.

Music and art are those subjects that create citizenship in a school, gives kids a sense of belonging, gives kids a sense of working with other kids together, and it gives your school the kind of feeling that you want to be there.

It troubles me that even the most committed advocates of music in our schools feel compelled to make their case by talking about how being in a band makes you more “retrainable”. I don’t believe for one second that the production of especially retrainable labour resources is what motivates anyone who teaches or performs in a school band or choir. I think these people actually feel that music is a worthy activity and a good in itself. The instrumental value of music programs (no pun intended) is real, and it’s important, but setting aside the non-instrumental values at stake concedes far too much.

Certainly the school system is about preparing children for adult working life, adult civic life, and adult social life. But it’s also a place where children live their actual lives, and I think we should want the children in our society to have actually valuable things in their lives, not just things that will eventually turn out to be useful for acquiring unspecified actually valuable things at some point down the road. So, for example, schools should have resources to support healthy social relationships among students, not just because this will make them easier to work with when they get a job with other people, but because healthy social relationships are part of a good life for a child. They should have classes in math, languages, sciences, history, etc. not just because mastery of those subjects opens economic opportunities in the future but because knowledge is a good thing, and growing in knowledge is part of a good life for a child. And they should have classes in music and art not just because these engage the kind of faculties that might one day be used to build a better mousetrap, or work on a team that is building a better mousetrap, or retrain to work on a team that is building a better mousetrap, but because making music and art is part of a good life for a child. Schools are for the good of the people, and children are people. This should be the starting point for an argument in defence of music in our schools, not a footnote to it.

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