Equity and Cultural Access in Arts Education

I became Chairman of NARAS in 1985, and its first full-time President in 1987. We are a 35-year-old organization that represents over 9,000 members. These people are songwriters, musicians, producers, engineers, and many other creative and technical members of the recording community. They are rappers, metalheads, classical and jazz performers, gospel and Latin artists, and others who qualify for membership in 27 fields of music, containing 80 categories, by having released 6 or more records commercially. They agree on absolutely nothing, except for their love of music. The goals of the organization that represents all these people center around the need to improve conditions for music and the arts in this country. The programmatical nature of this task takes us from education to archiving, human services, helping assist in consciousness-raising of legislators, and working to protect the free, creative environment for the arts.

Today I'd like to speak to you about an issue in which the Recording Academy has been very heavily involved in recent years: the question of equity and access through education, and the role that music and the arts can play indeed, must play if we are to call a halt to our nation's educational and cultural decline.

Lately, the professional and media discourse surrounding our education system has reinforced the idea of two competing ideological viewpoints. These two camps are most typically represented as:

(1) The Back-to-Basics Conservatives, who fervently pray to the gods of Math, Science, and Euro-centricity to deliver us from the Evil Ideas of their nemeses.

(2) Those Free-Thinking Radicals, who are hell-bent on trashing all our canons and rule books in order to make room for Multiculturalism and Self-Expression.

Obviously, this debate will continue to generate lengthy tracts and bloody battles for years to come. I would like to suggest that this either/or approach is really a false dichotomy, the result of an outmoded worldview in which everything is reduced to either black or white. What's needed, I believe, is to replace this black-and-white mentality with an inclusive educational agenda that engages both sides of the brain, that sacrifices neither discipline nor individual expression. We must codify new canons that play to the strengths of our heterogeneous society, and we must redeploy our nation's resources in a way that ensures our cultural survival.

The fact is, there's nothing wrong with our educational system that a little bit of money, a reasonable degree of intelligence, and a whole lot of energy won't solve. A little later, we will talk about how the Recording Academy's educational initiatives -- which include the Coalition for Music Education, Grammy In The Schools, the Grammy All-American High School Jazz Band, and our grants and scholarships -- have engaged the music industry and given a very public profile to an often unheralded subject.

For too many of the kids going to school today -- whether they're in South Central Los Angeles or Ames, Iowa -- the opportunity to learn about America's rich musical heritage and to participate through school music programs has been cut off, casualties in a war of narrow mind-sets and misappropriated resources. The fact that funding for music education is at an all-time low, with children having almost no exposure to the arts, is something that didn't happen in a couple of years. It's not George Bush's fault, really not even Reagan's fault. It has a great deal to do with the slow erosion of American values - not family values, but cultural values. It has to do with trying to catch up with other people throughout the world, at the expense of the very qualities that have helped set our country truly apart from all others in terms of artistic innovation.

In recent years, there's been a growing concern about preserving our country's oral history. The Recording Academy has been very active in preserving musical artifacts and recordings not just the recordings that have contemporary market value; equally important are the recordings of historical significance that will never be mined from the label vaults and reissued as packaged sets. It is this hidden history, this connective tissue, that really explains how our music got where it is today. To me, that mission is directly connected with one of the Academy's other main activities, which is working and advocating on behalf of music education in this country. One of the most important ways we're going to enthuse children about playing music (not necessarily being in the music business) or enthuse them about becoming a fertile audience (not just a good audience for rock and roll or rap but for all other music forms) is to help them access and reconnect, intellectually and emotionally, with this nation's and their own cultural roots.

I believe that, far too often, too many of us forget the reason America has produced this century's most innovative and important arts and entertainment works that are admired and emulated worldwide. That's because America is the place where cultures and genres truly converge. When music historians chart the history of blues, jazz, soul, rock, or rap, we find this amazing melting pot of diverse lifestyles and artistic styles all taking part in this ongoing dialogue. This, it seems to me, is a distinctly American phenomenon, one that continually renews the vitality of our art forms.

It is our division that makes us most vulnerable to the attacks of political opportunists. It is our isolation that allows the arts to be dismissed as a wasteful indulgence. It is the breaking down of communication that allows the arts to be characterized as the playground of the cultural elite.

The strength and vitality of our artistic traditions are fortified, not compromised, by an equal commitment to artistic and cultural diversity. This is not the time to raise the drawbridge and shut down the lines of cultural communication. So, I would stress to all of you today the importance of communication of reaching out to others in a language they can understand; the importance of diversity of interacting with people who have other cultural backgrounds; and the importance of balance of keeping in touch with the arts as well as sciences, culture as well as commerce. A lot of our problems as a society stem from the lack of that balance, from our unwillingness to make arts and education cultural priori ties.

One glance at our government's arts spending reveals just how quickly America has been moving toward becoming a cultural wasteland. A recent study of government spending, by the World Rank Research Team, laid bare our "commitment" to the arts, and it comes as no surprise that, once again, we rank far behind the rest of the world. The Japanese government's spending on the arts works out to $4.80 per person. Germany spends half that amount $2.40 per capita followed by Austria and Sweden at $2.00 each, Canada at $1.40, and the U.K. at $1.20. And where is the United States? What are the arts worth to us? Fifteen cents. One nickel and one dime. You can't buy a stick of gum for fifteen cents, but God forbid that we should waste that much money preserving and advancing our culture. Out in California, Governor Pete Wilson has plans for the complete privatization (which some might read as a euphemism for elimination) of the California Arts Council. While artists and arts institutions are scrambling after spare change, politicians and right-wing pressure groups hold us responsible for everything form suicide and teen pregnancy to drug abuse and an overall decline in morals and family values. Government funding for the arts is being cut in state after state, and the National Endowment for the Arts threatens to become, in Stephen Sondheim's words, "a victim of its own and others' political infighting . . . a symbol of censorship and repression rather than encouragement and support."

Music, media, and literature have always been the most accurate mouthpiece for a society. It shouts what the political power structure, the status quo, would crush to silence. The musical anthems for the civil rights struggle and our country's exploits into Southeast Asia are examples, and I suggest that they would have been slickered out of existence if the politicians of the '50s and '60s had been as quick to exploit the vulnerabilities of our Bill of Rights as the state and federal legislators of today's era. The riots in the wake of the initial Rodney King verdict underscored the fact that, today, rap musicians are telling a truth that rarely finds its way into mainstream media or the rhetoric of our politicians. I heard better recommendations for programmatic change coming from schoolchildren last summer during the L.A. Youth Summit the Recording Academy helped sponsor in South Central than I've heard coming out of Washington. If the government is asleep at the wheel when it comes to helping preserve and advance our cultural legacy, then surely educators must be counted on to help fill in the gap. The sad fact is that decades of reticence by music educators (and, more recently, fear for their jobs) has rendered them rather impotent ambassadors on behalf of the arts.

Consider the fact that only a quarter of the 420 elementary schools in Los Angeles offer instrumental music instruction. Only 4% four percent of the student population is involved in music. There is only 1 music teacher per 1500 students. In the past 8 years, we have seen a 50% decline in high-school students who participate in orchestras, bands, and ensembles.

Cutting arts programs out of the curriculum only serves toremove the humanity from a child's education experience. Yet, that's what's happening all around the country. It's been estimated that, nationwide, more than 300,000 kids will drop out this year. Every day, over 175,000 kids pack guns in their lunch boxes. We are facing a profound crisis in our schools, and the idea that we can just turn back the clock and return to some idealized Eisenhower existence is naive and dangerous.

Researchers have shown statistically significant relationships between music instruction and positive performance in everything from spelling and reading comprehension to mathematics, motor skills, and learning ability. In fact, students who take music courses score an average of 20-40 points higher on both verbal and math portions of the SATs than students who don't take arts courses according to "Data on Music Education: A national Review of Statistics" compiled by the Music Educators National Conference in 1990. The American Medical Association also gives us a rather remarkable statistic: Of all students applying for medical school, on average, do you know which student major was accepted above all others, including math, science, and biochemistry? Music.

By imagining music and the arts as totally isolated from, or superfluous to, the traditional core courses, we deny our children the very tools that will make learning accessible and relevant. So, we still find ourselves having to make the case that music and the other arts are indispensable if the term "educated" is to mean anything. Indeed, I think the very idea that you can educate young people in a balanced and meaningful way and treat music as "optional" is simply absurd. A member of our Commission on Music Education, Dr. Ernest Boyer, of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of teaching, put it well. He wrote in his seminal study, "High School":

"Now, more than ever, all people need to see clearly, hear acutely, and feel sensitively through the arts. These skills are no longer just desirable. They are essential if we are to survive together with civility and joy."

" . . . if we are to survive together with civility and joy." I put it to you today that Ernest Boyer's "if" is not simply a fine rhetorical finish. That "if" also raises for me its opposite "if not" - a vision as frightening as it is near at hand.

Let's suppose that the so-called conventional "wisdom" prevails, and that (1) we refuse to recognize that music is utterly basic to what it means to be an educated human being; and (2) we keep music and the other arts as the pet sacrificial lamb of the education budget. Let's further suppose that fewer and fewer children get an education in music. They don't learn how to listen to it...or understand it...or read it...or create it...or even enjoy it. Let's suppose, finally, that the vice-like pressure on the education dollar continues its squeeze. What, then, of "civility and joy"?

Only the school districts with the biggest tax bases, or only the ones where there is already a well-established constituency for school music or, more likely, both will be able to keep their programs. Only the school boards and superintendents and principals who already care will see to it that "civility and joy" are passed on to our children. Suppose all that happens. What, then, becomes of music and the love of it in the young? I'll tell you. Music and the love of it will no longer be a cultural treasure but, more and more, a privilege, tied to personal, family, and class economics.

  • Not a universal entitlement, but one of the markers future sociologists and historians will point to as the beginning of a cultural caste system in this country.
  • Not a unifying source, but a barrier reinforcing divisions between groups. Not a source of self-discovery, but a source of alienation.
  • Not the sweetest heritage of human-kind, but an elitist legacy for the enrichment of a few.

Today, we are witnessing music and art education being made available to the privileged school children who can afford private instruction or who live in a school district that can afford to keep the arts in the curriculum. The privileged the rich have never made the anthems that stirred our souls or made our spirits soar. Jazz, gospel, country, rock, R&B, rap, etc. these are not idioms that sprang from Beverly Hills, Westchester, or Marin counties they sprang from the beautiful tapestry of human experience, which knows no economic, class, or racial boundaries.

In our inner cities, tax bases and massive cutbacks have left many of our educational institutions in shambles. How can we expect to instill any sense of pride or hope in today's youth if they are dprived of the keys to their own cultural heritage? Music education programs must not only be increased, they must be broadened so that they connect with the rich traditions of indigenous American music.

A recent Harris poll revealed that 9 of every 10 people believe the arts are an important part of a child's education; 97% feel that learning about the arts makes children more creative and imaginative; 90% feel exposure to the arts in school makes them become tolerant of other cultures; and nearly 70% feel the arts are as important as learning to read and write well! So, why are we embarking on a systematic course of gutting arts education in this country? According to a recent New York Times article, the latest Harris poll says Americans want decisive change; 69% are willing to pay an additional $5.00 in taxes to support the arts; 75% oppose government restrictions on content; and 91% favor vigorous arts education in the schools. It is absolutely essential that the new administration stays in sync with the views of these Americans and welcomes, rather than fears, cultural risk and innovation.

Just after the Grammys this year, our National Coalition for Music Education sponsored a "National Celebration of American School Music" to focus attention on the importance of creating such standards for school music and arts programs. During the course of the event, we had a chance to sit down with Richard Riley, the new Secretary of Education, to discuss the Clinton administration's willingness to face this challenge. We were encouraged, not only by what he said to us that day, but by what he said publicly shortly afterward. On March 17, Riley issued a statement that, I believe, represents an amazing shift in how the arts are being prioritized on a national level. In a speech before the American Council for the Arts, he pledged that President Clinton would make competency in the arts an integral part of a new education reform package. "We have plenty of information," Riley concluded, "but sometimes not much wisdom. We need the arts as a path to understanding."

Now is the time to focus our efforts to see that these new goals become law. Meanwhile, there are 16,000 school districts out there that need to be brought together around this agenda, which makes the Coalition's efforts on a state-by-state level more important than ever. Who else will expose people to the marvelous diversified tapestry of music? Certainly not commercial radio, whose shock jocks and hackneyed formats herd listeners through turnstiles of mediocrity. Taken as a whole, radio has emerged as an abscess on our musical culture that preoccupies itself with classic rock and mindless drive time banter.

Its pathetic scramble for the hottest format, regardless of cost, will ensure its position as our society's preeminent retro-thinking lowest common denominator. When you consider the fact that America is the world's richest country in terms of our musical talent, our musical history, and our musical diversity, it's really amazing what a small percentage of that musical legacy ever finds its way onto the airwaves. Yet this lowest common denominator has a profound impact on our future. Radio stations, along with music television, ARE our nation's music educators, the sole source of musical knowledge for a whole generation of children who have never been exposed to basic music education. For these children, this is their access. To them, music began with MC Hammer and ends with Alice in Chains. 

Needless to say, the record industry needs to get its own priorities straight. The fact is that, intrinsically, a record, a CD, a cassette, isn't worth a nickel. The only thing that drives the consumer to the cash register is the music and art they contain. So why is it that the artists remain the most underrepresented and vulnerable part of this 10-billion-dollar industry?

To remain the preeminent cultivators of talent and recorded music, we must see to it that music people are charting the creative corporate course. Most certainly, they can be owned by bean counters, but it's a mistake to allow such owners to dictate the business plan. The music industry has different dynamics and investment criteria than a haberdashery or traditional manufacturing company, and for that I give thanks daily!

Successful leadership in today's globally integrated marketplace means rethinking our old assumptions about the dividing line between the public and private sectors, between commerce and culture. The short-term profiteering escapades of the '80s have taught us that quality of business, quality of goods and services, and quality of life all go hand in hand. As citizens, parents, business leaders, and arts advocates, we need to make the case for the arts in our boardrooms, in the offices of our elected officials, and in every school district across this country. I think it's also essential that we remain open both as organizations and individuals to other cultures and art forms. In the face of economic difficulty, I've seen some within our music community begin to circle the wagons, blaming multiculturalism or world music or hip-hop for undermining the values of western musical traditions.

This is no time to be insular, banding with those who are most like us and excluding those who are not. The division between high and low art is arbitrary at best and dangerous at worst. We need to reach beyond categorizations and pull together to promote our common interest. The strength and vitality of our artistic traditions are fortified, not compromised, by an equal commitment to artistic and cultural diversity.

As the Recording Academy's President and a musician myself, it's been my mission to see to it that the Recording Academy is at the forefront of a whole range of issues that define our cultural environment. Whether it's celebrating the diversity of music through an ever-growing number of Grammy Awards, or taking a proactive stance on issues of music education, archiving and preservation, human services, censorship, or intellectual property protection just to name a few these activities grow out of our organization's calling to represent the aims and ideals of the creative and technical people in our recording community.

As artists, musicians, parents, and citizens, we must make our voices heard in order to see to it that music and the arts are restored to their proper place within our society. "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable," warned Martin Luther King. "This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous positive action."

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

Michael Greene was the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

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