18 September 2009

Against "Hire Education"

Despite music's external reputation as a field teeming with hippy liberals, certain bits and pieces of distinctively conservative rhetoric never fail to find their way into the mainstream. For example, it seems that most every proclamation of the death of this or that music is now accompanied a call for music schools to teach business, to make entrepreneurs, schmoozers, and administrators out of each one of their performance students, this in the name of making them more employable orchestral players and/or more astute freelancers. Sounds simple enough, but it raises a question that's bigger than music: what is the role of higher education in our society? To make well-rounded people, or maximally employable people?

There are those who would argue that the sole purpose of education is to lead directly to employment, and that the relative merits of various fields of study are hence directly proportional to the employability of their graduates. Among those who feel this way, it's safe to say that there are not many advocates for teaching music and art, let alone for offering them as areas of specialization. The liberal arts in general are anathema to the employability doctrine, and music and art degrees stand out as particularly egregious cases (I should know, I have one).

While I certainly have been known to accuse musicians of blowing the extrinsic benefits of music education way out of proportion, I will defend to the death the value of a well-rounded education. That means us, too, music majors. The universitories may not teach much business to their students, but their business acumen is constantly on display in how badly they coddle us academically. They let us off the hook for things like foreign languages, science, math...you know, all the things music majors hate, things that might cause us to look at other schools or consider changing majors.

We barely deserve our bachelor's degrees because they are just barely bachelor's degrees, and unfortunately, this often means that we don't have to look too far to find examples of what a lopsided curriculum begets. It's great fodder for dismantling the employability doctrine in higher education, but even so, there are some musicians who would not only leave this doctrine in place, but actively embrace it. Hence, rather than arguing for their field's academic and cultural necessity in the abstract, they merely intend to make it fit the employability doctrine any way they can. For the moment, that seems to entail forcibly making business people out of music majors.

On the surface, there's an obvious contradiction here. I'm arguing for greater breath of curriculum, and adding business classes to music degrees would appear to represent just that. I certainly have my own decidedly liberal hang-ups about business as a field of academic study, but that's my problem. More pertinent to the present discussion is to establish what exactly these music school business classes would entail. It's safe to say that not every music major wants to have to take business classes, and also that many of those who do either can't or won't be able keep up in a "real" business program. So basically, what we're really talking about are more watered down music-major-specific classes with a narrow focus and a lighter credit load, and which by virtue of being tailored so narrowly towards music majors have significantly less currency outside the music world. This represents more of the same coddling we've grown to expect, and the advent of even greater specialization, not less.

It seems to me that music schools increasingly treat their students like children, weighing them down with a laundry list of low-credit nuisance courses, micromanaging their academic lives in the name of the misguided and all too politically malleable concept of "accountability," yet still setting the bar for academic success embarrassingly low. We need less of this, not more, and everywhere in education for that matter, but particularly in music school, where ulterior motives for maintaining high enrollment run rampant. Speaking of which, this most certainly factors into the embrace of the employability paradigm as well; after all, it's a paradigm that many parents (and their money) embrace, too.

Aside from philosophical hang-ups, the specter of teaching business in music school raises some interesting practical problems. How do you make room for it in the curriculum? Add a year? Further cut non-music course requirements? And what about theory versus practice? Keeping the information current from year to year? Based on my undergraduate experience, I'm skeptical about the institutions' ability to navigate every one of those obstacles, but I'm even more dismayed that we are having this discussion in the first place. It seems that musicianship is becoming valued less and less, even among musicians, and that the "school of hard knocks" brow-beating that at one time was the exclusive domain of the occasional disgruntled guest clinician is quickly becoming the publicly stated platform of many music school administrators and a credo for malleable aspiring professionals who don't know any better.

It sometimes seems that we are still in the midst of a post-1960's conservative backlash, even in the field of music, and that this is slowly killing idealism and imposing a dark, cynical pragmatism in its place. Or maybe it's just the economy. Either way, idealism is dangerous in a lot of ways, but it's a necessary component of any musician's development. You can tell a student a million times that they have to be versatile to make a living freelancing, but if they're not interested in anything but one kind of music, this admonishment rings hollow. By the same token, not every music student wants or needs the added burden of business classes, but those who do will likely be better served seeking out the real thing rather than blindly accepting whatever uncomfortable compromises their department ends up putting forth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yeah. love this :))