On Music Education as a Political Enterprise

Throughout history, two contrasting views of the nature of music education have prevailed. One proclaims that music lies at the center of the general educational curriculum because it is a key to the development of the moral and civilized person. The other acknowledges that the position of music vis-a-vis the rest of general education is problematic because its contribution is difficult to ascertain. These views follow in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, respectively. While both Plato and Aristotle dealt with the arts in the context of their respective treatises on the political economy, their treatments are somewhat different.

In his Republic (especially Bks. 3, 6, and 7), Plato argued that the arts constitute the foundation for moral education and cognitive development. Taking a bed as an example, he made the point that the artist's painting of ??die bed is the most immediate, and a necessary, means by which the individual eventually comes to understand the ideal form of the bed (see Republic, Bk. 10, 595a-602b; compare Bk. 6, 509d-51le and Bk. 7, 514a-521b). He also declared that the arts, particularly their formal, rhythmic, and tonal qualities, impact physiologically and psychologically on people, thereby predisposing them to think and act in certain ways. Even though the physical mechanism whereby this takes place is not clear, the idea has had wide currency (see Joscelyn Godwin, Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: The Spiritual Dimensions of Music, [Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 19871).

Aristotle, by contrast, suggested (notably in his Politics, Bk. 8) that it is not easy to determine the nature of the arts or why the citizens of the state should know about and participate in them. He granted that the arts' social and entertainment functions are well understood, but, he asked, do they have moral and spiritual value, as Plato had posited? Aristotle answered in the affirmative, but his response was more guarded and equivocal than Plato's. His approach to the distinctions between subjects studied for their own sake (the arts) and those studied for their instrumental value (reading and writing), and their respective usefulness in leisure and work, suggest that educators should be guided by principles of balance, practicality, and dynamic process (Bk. 8, 1342b) in determining the place of the arts in general education.

Was Plato or Aristotle right in his assumptions about the role of music in general education? Weighing in on Aristotle's side in this debate, as I prefer to do, is not to detract from Plato's contribution. Music may symbolize the good. It may enhance our understanding of ourselves, our world, and God, in whatever ways we conceive the sense of awe, wonder, and mystery in the face of the unexplained, transcendent, and supernatural. It may also symbolize evil. It may demean and dehumanize us, and silence our individual voices. Plato was right to observe that music for study by the young must be carefully chosen with reference to moral, political, and spiritual considerations. Recognizing that music does not always tend toward the good but that it can do so makes music instruction an extremely important political act. The question "What music shall we teach?" depends on our answer to the larger question "What type of individual do we wish to produce?"

Nevertheless, to recognize that music constitutes a key to general education does not necessitate saying that it constitutes the key. Plato's cognitive theory (see especially Republic, Bk. 6) leaves him open to regarding the arts as the key to moral development; consequently, arts education may be relied upon too heavily to produce the sorts of citizens the state desires. Schiller was caught in this dilemma when he suggested, following Plato and Kant, that arts education constitutes a necessary step in the development of the moral person (see his On the Aesthetic Education of Man In a Series of Letters, trans., Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967], Ltr. 9).

Aristotle, however, recognized the importance of the arts in moral development but allowed the validity of scientific as well as philosophical ways of knowing, and he opened the door to the notion of a plethora of cm kinds of understanding, including the arts, each with its own validity and constraints. Thus, while the arts may point to goodness, beauty, and truth, they do not constitute the necessary or only ways these things are sought.

Aristotle's insight opens the view of education as having to do with a compendium or collection of valued subjects for study, each of which is known variously. How is one to decide what should be included in the general curriculum? Aristotle saw better than Plato did the problematic nature of this question. Shall we value subjects on the basis of whether they are intrinsically worthy or extrinsically useful? If we need a combination of both, how shall we cast the balance? How shall we compare music to such subjects as science, mathematics, reading, and writing? Where ought the weight to be? The implicit question raised by Aristotle's argument is not whether music belongs in the general curriculum but rather how important a subject it ought to be in relation to these others. In this sense, particularly, Aristotle's response to the role of the arts in the general curriculum is broader than Plato's view.

As music educators, we seem to have been more preoccupied with the matter of establishing music's place in the curriculum than with the equally problematic issue of determining its relative place. Aristotle's principles of balance, practicality, and dynamic pro cess can guide our decision-making in this regard. The curriculum ought to reflect balance between considerations of intrinsic and instrumental worth; educational decisions ought to take into account practical exigencies; and education is a dynamic process, in which issues must be constantly rethought

If we are to ensure that music study remains a vital part of general education in our schools and universities, we shall not only have to articulate its intrinsic worth and persuade educational policy-makers that it belongs in the general curriculum, but clarify its appropriate place in relation to other claims on the curriculum, be they artistic, religious, scientific, physical, psychological, social, vocational, or whatever. We must actively participate in an inherently political process. If music is to remain relevant to today's society, we may either have to rethink our musical curricula in response to current political realities or change those political realities themselves.

And if Aristotle was right, and I think he was, each generation is challenged anew with this task. The dynamic nature of the educational enterprise reminds us that yesterday's ideas may help us, but they cannot solve our present situation. We need a vision of musical education that resonates with the dreams and aspirations of people today.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

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