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The Awokening of Music Education

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The Awokening of Music Education

One of my commentators turned up an article on music education with the title Can Music Theory Education Overcome its Whiteness Problem? I don't think it is worthwhile examining the whole of this long article, but I found the assumptions contained in the subhead to be revealing of some fundamental problems, so let's have a look at them. Here is the claim:
White European classical music dominates music education in the U.S. at all levels. Achieving racial justice in the field means diversifying personnel, curricula, and repertoires. Only then will students be able to enjoy and create the rich array of music created by the world’s people.

Three sentences with three different problems. Before I tackle them I want to make a couple of procedural points. One of the most valuable classes I had as an undergraduate was Philosophy 100. I have mentioned this before, as it made a real impression. The professor was a new hire with all the fresh enthusiastic competence that promises. And best of all, the class only contained a few over twenty students. I was lucky with other philosophy classes as well. In the early 70s I was enrolled in second and third year philosophy classes with just a handful of students. Nowadays to get this kind of attention you would need to be in a graduate seminar. Just for your information, the other classes were Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Mind. The basic attitude and skills I took away from these classes were very influential in my understanding of how to argue a case.

To this day I remember the body language of my Philosophy 100 professor who would assign us troubling texts by philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Berkeley and then, as we tried to tear down the absurd things they were saying, he would pace back and forth in front of the class until we ran down. Casting a glance our way he would ask, "may I rephrase?" Then he would edit our intemperate remarks into a concise and coherent statement and adroitly counter all of our points. As soon as he said "may I rephrase?" we knew we were lost! Relatedly, my Philosophy of History professor once counseled me to never argue with a Jesuit because they are so well-educated in debate that you will likely lose.

What I took away from all this was not the Sophist view that through tricky rhetoric you can win any debate, but rather a few basic principles:

  • the basic elements of logic and common sense do not change with every intellectual fashion
  • it doesn't matter who is right and who is wrong so much as where the most truth is
  • what does matter is the means by which you arrive at the truth
Keeping this in mind, let's look at those three sentences. The first one is what we would call an empirical claim. The content of most music education comes from the traditions of Western European classical music. The implication is that this is racist because it is white and because it dominates music education. Even though this is obviously true to some extent the content of the claim needs examination. There are empirical facts that must be taken into account. For example, music notation defined as the use of a five-line staff with clefs, key signatures and time signatures was developed by various composers and theorists over centuries in Western Europe. More specifically it was developed by Italian and French composers, theorists and scholars all of whom also happened to be Christians of the Catholic faith. This system of notation is used across the whole globe at this point. Should we condemn it or stop using it because it is not only white, but Christian? The same points could be made about the other key elements of music education such as harmony and counterpoint.

Now for the second sentence. The problem with this is that justice is not a question of statistics though there are certainly trends in modern legal systems that tend to suggest that it is. I will just offer a couple of counter examples. While there has been a great deal of talk about making sure that women and racial minorities are given a proportionate share of good jobs in music like orchestral conductors, there seems to be no effort to eliminate disparities in, for example, orchestral harp positions which are nearly all held by women. More widely, no-one ever seems to mention that the proportion of dangerous jobs in fields such as mining and forestry is hugely biased towards men. Not to mention casualties in war. Justice is not a statistic because mathematics and morality operate under different principles.

The last sentence I already commented on in the Friday Miscellanea thread, I just want to add that it is an astonishing claim to think that music students will only begin to appreciate non-white and non-European music after they are told to by their progressive music professor.

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