By Peter Smagorinsky, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Peter Smagorinsky is a Distinguished Research Professor of English Education in the University of Georgia College of Education’s Department of Language and Literacy Education.
(CNN) - “Do you want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”
– Florida Gov. Rick Scott , October 2011
Scott, in this statement, articulates a belief held by many: that education is an entirely pragmatic experience. If a course of study does not produce a useful trade or skill, then it is of little value. What, after all, has anthropology ever done to improve the human condition, except to help us understand our past, perhaps so that we won’t repeat its errors?
Here’s an error you can dig into (if you’re an anthropologist, or perhaps a structural engineer): Dating back to at least the ancient era, when I was a schoolboy in Alexandria, Virginia, people have believed that school-based arts and music programs are frivolous extras that should be the first items on the financial chopping block when budgets are tight. Who actually becomes an artist or musician? Why support a curriculum that doesn’t directly lead to employment?
In Florida, this idea is now realized in a plan to charge engineering majors less for their tuition than English majors, because the technological revolution requires graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, not people who can read poems and write papers about them. I have not yet seen what the Florida plan provides for music majors, but I suspect that soon they’ll be paying a lot more for their courses than even those effete English majors. (Full disclosure: I was an English major at Kenyon College and got a master’s and doctorate in English education at the University of Chicago.)
Education in Rick Scott’s sense is entirely utilitarian. The arts has traditionally been defended on aesthetic grounds because of their contribution to truth, beauty, goodness, and the human spirit, as people like Howard Gardner of Harvard University have long asserted. The aesthetic argument has rarely successfully challenged the pragmatic argument because the premises follow from such different assumptions, and because utilitarian premises are impervious to appeals to beauty. If you don’t believe me, go to Moscow and gaze upon the Soviet-era architecture, which is all business and no pleasure. And it’s plug-ugly.
I contend, though, that music’s inclusion in the curriculum can be defended entirely on utilitarian grounds. Music has often provided the social updraft that gives young people a worthwhile activity through which they can find a way to succeed in mainstream life. School music programs in this sense are cost-effective and of great long-term value to society, rather than serving as a wasteful distraction to the real business of education, which is to produce today’s workforce. Or so Gov. Scott would have us believe.
Here’s a story, however, in which profoundly impoverished kids in Paraguay fashion musical instruments out of the city’s garbage to provide themselves with a source of expression, motivation, camaraderie, hope, and a sense that their futures can become something more than what their circumstances would project for them. Similarly the documentary film “War/Dance” shows how Ugandan youth traumatized by war and terror are able to work through their experiences and construct new trajectories for their lives through the medium of music. Now that’s some powerfully pragmatic stuff.
Scott might scoff at these examples of poor kids abroad, and note that they achieve these new social futures without costing the taxpayers a dime. If kids in refugee camps can develop means for addressing trauma and shifting directions, all at no cost, that proves that Americans don’t need to invest in them. Just send them off to the garbage dump and let them make their own instruments and play away. What we need are more people who can add and subtract. Perhaps some of these STEM students can eventually correct the many budget errors our politicians keep making on our behalf, especially when they dream up accountability plans and impose them on schools without providing a plan for financing them responsibly.
So, let’s assume that what happens overseas is irrelevant to the pursuit of the American Dream, and move stateside. Maceo Parker used music to lift his life from the housing projects of the segregated city of Kinston, North Carolina, to become a world-renowned artist, as documented in the film, "My First Name is Maceo."
This story of music serving as the means for social mobility is not restricted to supremely talented individual artists of Parker’s caliber, however. My brother, Fred - a STEM major in college, now a business executive and a lifelong musician, as well - serves as chairman of the board of Jazz House Kids, an organization founded near Newark, New Jersey, in order to provide youth with precisely the sort of updraft that music has historically allowed for disenfranchised people. The foundation is the brainchild of singer Melissa Walker and her husband, bassist Christian McBride, who believe in the power of musical ensembles as conduits of hope, networking, enjoyment, fulfillment and a positive life trajectory, whether it leads to a career in music or not.
I’ve been up to the Newark area a few times to hear their workshops and programs, and these kids are fantastic. Some will become professional musicians. Most, probably, will become something else. But I think that through Jazz House Kids, they will become something, and somebody, rather than the latest kid shot on a street corner or left to forage through the garbage, more likely for food than the makings of a musical instrument.
They will get somewhere in life because their participation in music ensembles involves structure and discipline. Being in a band promotes work habits of showing up on time, being prepared and ready to focus, and listening so that they can contribute to the success of a team. These dispositions also contribute to their broader success in school.
Although Jazz House Kids is not a school-sponsored organization, it has school affiliations where music programs are under-funded and students are under-served. The heroic efforts of Walker and McBride and their dedicated staffs provide young people with a direction, and what my brother calls “good clean fun” in which to invest themselves after school.
But such programs are the exceptions. Most communities are more likely to send their kids to the garbage dump to excavate musical trash than they are to have world-class musicians and captains of industry willing to give of themselves to afford kids a better life, or to vote to raise their own taxes to provide their community’s youth with a strong music program.
Perhaps citizens could recognize what music can do for young people, and not just those whose way to Julliard is well-paved from birth. School music programs can give kids a reason to persist in school and develop feelings of affiliation with the institution that might not otherwise be available. There’s quite a payoff in constructing that avenue of positive activity; and even if it doesn’t contribute to the STEM demand, it gives us many reasons to count on a better future.
The opinions expressed are solely those of Peter Smagorinsky.