Music At School – A Necessity?

In 1988 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) issued its own report on the state of arts education in the nation, the first such study mandated by the Congress in more than a century: Toward Civilization: A Report of Arts Education. it focuses the attention of the American people, the education community, and those who love the arts on the nation’s cultural welfare. It does not paint a pretty picture.

“In general,” the report concludes, arts education in America is characterized by imbalance, inconsistency, and inaccessibility …. There is inconsistency in the arts education various students receive in various parts of the country, in different school districts within states, in different schools within systems, and even in classrooms within schools. Because of the pressures of a school day, a comprehensive and sequential arts education is inaccessible except to a very few, and often only to those with a talent or a special interest.”

The implicit question of Toward Civilization is: How basic are the arts music -among them-to education? Are they a frill, or a “fourth R’,” along with reading, writing, and arithmetic? By definition, “basic” means fundamental and essential. What many seem to have lost sight of in the stampede to tie our education system to narrower national goals of international competitiveness is something it took us centuries to learn – knowledge of beauty is as essential to what it means to be a human being as the knowledge of the world and how to use its resources.

The arts are utterly basic, says the NEA, because they are the clearest windows on our civilization, because they are the essential nutrients of all human creativity, because they are primary teachers of communication skills, and because they equip young people and adults to exercise critical judgment about what they see and hear. Far from being icing on the curricular cake,” the arts are as much meat and potatoes in a young person’s schooling as the basic skills of literacy and numeracy.

But if the arts are to do these basic jobs, young people must be exposed to them continually and from an early age. As Dr. Frank Wilson, writing for the American Music Conference, has pointed out, developmental specialists now know that the earlier a child begins with music, the more benefit music brings to the child. Music reinforces many educational tasks in very powerful ways: memory, concentration, coding and decoding, and symbol recognition among them, as well as the esteem-building that comes with the achievements of music making.

Unfortunately, the message about the basic contribution arts and music education can make, and their essential role, remains muted. Getting that message across is, in no small measure, the job of the music industry. Not merely because it is in our narrow, economic self-interest to do so, but because it is, in the very deepest sense, basic to the national interest and to the future of our children. We can no more afford a new generation of cultural illiterates than we can afford illiterates of any kind.

We already know that total reform of the education system is called for, and the nation is proceeding with that agenda, however haltingly. The tide seems to be turning. The nation’s governors have already met with President Bush to set the stage for national education goals, echoing the sentiments of men like David Kerns, CEO of Xerox, who writes in his best-seller Winning the Brain Race: “The task before us is restructuring our entire public education system. I don’t mean tinkering. I don’t mean piecemeal changes, or even well intentioned reforms.”

We in the music community have a responsibility to this process as well. We can not let the nation forget that the arts are basic tools for producing a world-class work force; but more than that, they will help our children become the kind of men and women whose inner lives are connected to their jobs and to their futures.

The NEA report reminds us: “The most powerful force in education is the individual school, along with its principal, its teachers, and the parents who support it. The school district, with its power to shape policy and make budget allocations, is second…federal or national entities, such as the U.S. Department of Education and national education membership organizations, have less influence … Those outside the education sector need to mesh their efforts with state and locally mandated school programs.”

But the NEA’s most telling observation for the music products industry lies in its call to the individual citizen: “The arts will become part of the school curriculum only when concerned citizens work to make it happen. They are the parents and voters who elect the officials and legislators who set the educational goals and establish education budgets.”

Thus, we in the music industry who -are also concerned citizens, parents and voters – have a definite role to play. If we are not happy with the music program – or lack of one – in the local schools, we are the ones who can and should do something about it. Unfortunately, when the news arrives on our doorsteps that yet another district or school has dropped its music program, too many in the music industry retreat into passivity. What the state of music education in our schools is telling us, however, is that the time for retreat has passed.

What is also interesting and of note is that music has become far more digital, which means that a student can easily carry his music in a Macbook or on an external hard drive. Keeping that data safe, and hard drive failures to a minimum is a goal of many in the data recovery industry, pioneered by this website.

As individuals and as an industry, we have to intensify our involvement, to become a force for music in our schools. The only way to make a difference for educational responsibility and for music is to assert ourselves. That will mean, of course, getting involved, becoming familiar with school programs and the budgets that support them. It will mean getting the word out and rallying support. It will mean working to establish priorities where there are none, and realigning them where they ignore or short-change music education.

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