Who Speaks for Music in Higher Education?

As we face difficult times in higher education, times that require prioritizing resources by our institutions, as well as by the faculty and administrators of our music units, all of us are concerned as to whether the university administration, as represented nationally by the American Council on Education, fully understands the music program. Do they understand that it is often not one field of study but many with different emphasis and missions?

Those of us in the profession take it for granted that the study of music comprises an interdependent series of disciplines and specialties that closely support one another, perhaps more than in many other fields. We are involved with the professional training of performers and creators, scholars and teachers, in addition to providing service courses for the general university student, which we consider to be an integral part of general education so fundamental to a true college "education." In order to provide this instruction, music requires many specialists to provide the hands-on experience we deem necessary for a personal interaction with our art.

Today it doesn't seem to be as in vogue to quote Susanne Langer as it was a few decades ago, but I believe it is still important to recall her summation of music's place in the curriculum in Philosophy in a New Key, in which she wrote, "The discursive symbols do not encompass the full range of human expression." This has always been a guiding principle for The College Music Society and its predecessors, coming as it did from the union of The College Music Association and The Society for Music in the Liberal Arts College. Both provided us with a heritage of advocacy for music as an integral part of the education of the general college student, for teacher training, or for outreach and community educational experiences. Thus, CMS truly has its roots in the liberal arts tradition as a basis for the professional training of musicians.

Since music has a long tradition of being part of the general curriculum in American colleges and universities, today's administrators in higher education should have had experiences in their own college education that developed an appreciation of music. Sadly, however, we often find these administrators, board of trustees members, and colleagues from other disciplines have gained little respect for or interest in the arts as part of a complete collegiate education. It was this that motivated Jack Morrison in the early 1970s in a study entitled "The Rise of the Arts on the American Campus" to call upon the American Council on Education to appoint a commission to look into the reordering of college priorities for the teaching of the arts on the American campus.

During this same period in the 1970s there was considerable concern about increasing the role of the arts to being an integral part of the national agenda in higher education. The College Music Society, along with its sister associations in music, and then later with those in all of the arts, played an important role in an effort to bring these issues to the attention of the federal leadership, so that the arts might be included in their agenda for more comprehensive curricula in higher education.

CMS has maintained this commitment through its institutes, which have provided national leadership for music in general education by strengthening the membership's commitment and ability to making music an integral and relevant subject in higher education.

But now we face even more severe challenges. Higher education has slipped considerably in national, state, and individual priorities. At the same time, we seem to have taken on a more "trade school" approach to teaching skills for jobs that strengthen the economy, with little concern for those who conserve and provide our cultural heritage. All aspects of higher education are now being evaluated against priorities that deal with their relevance to the economy, entitlements programs, health issues, environment, etc. We in the arts are not seen as answers to these concerns.

This is not a new situation. It has been a part of the history of the arts in higher education and particularly a concern of The College Music Society since its founding. Its first president, Wallace Woodworth of Harvard, wrote in the New York Times on 18 January 1959, at the formation of CMS, the following: "It is hoped that The College Music Society will not be a seminar for the reading of research papers, but will address itself to some of the challenging problems in the field." Throughout the years, the leaders of CMS have sought to do just that, but never has it been more critical than today.

Over ten years later, Donald McCorkle, a visionary leader of the Society and at that time editor of College Music Symposium, devoted his editorial in volume 10 to just these concerns. It has become a prophetic beacon for many of CMS's leaders since that time, and it is appropriate to quote a small section of that editorial by Professor McCorkle:

Can music survive in such an age of rhetoric and relevance? Probably, because music has always survived even though it has waxed and waned by adaptation. In certain times it has paralleled the predominant tenor of the times, while at others it has turned away and ignored the inartistic expression of the street. Which of these directions it will take in the next decade cannot be known, but we may be sure that faith in the continuing traditions has been generally shattered by the revolutionary changes in music...one suspects that music in higher education will continue, if the colleges and universities survive, but to do so we will be compelled to take stock of its reasons for existence in relation to the exhilarating demands of the other components of culture and non-culture.

It seems that the challenge to us that the constituents of the American Council on Education, our academic leaders in higher education, would have us address are primarily these:

  1. Can we as a profession articulate our relevance to what an education today truly should contain?
  2. Can we exert leadership in the academic arenas in which national and local priorities are set?
  3. Can we be self-critical and self-regulatory? Can we review, reform, and regulate ourselves before others do it for us?
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Last modified on Friday, 10/05/2013

Robert J. Werner

Robert J. Werner is Dean Emeritus of the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, having served as Dean of the institution from 1985 to 2000.  He served as Director of the School of Music of the University of Arizona 1973-1985, Director of the Contemporary Music Project from 1968 to 1973, and as Associate Professor of Music at SUNY-Binghamton from 1966 to 1969.  He has served as President of the International Society for Music Education (1984-1986), the National Association of Schools of Music (1989-1991), and The College Music Society (1977-1978).  He is author of numerous textbooks, scholarly publications, and articles; has served as a conductor, clinician, and speaker at numerous state, national, and international conferences; and has served as a consultant and accreditation reviewer for over 100 institutions in the United States and internationally.

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