My View: Hear the music - STEM studies aren't the only path to a better future
Abington Avenue School jazz band students in Newark, New Jersey, learn music through the Jazz House Kids program
January 22nd, 2013
05:00 AM ET

My View: Hear the music - STEM studies aren't the only path to a better future

Courtesy Peter Smagorinsky and BootsyBy 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.)

The science class of the (not too distant) future

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.

Michael Bérubé: What will you do with an English degree? Plenty

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.

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Filed under: Humanities • Music • STEM • Voices
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. empresstrudy

    Yes that's probably true. But that's not really the point either. The odds of fine arts and performing arts being a path to success – ESPECIALLY for CNN's mythical black in American downtrodden urban inner city youth, no matter how much that dance rap battle is totally going to save the youth center this time, are in fact, pretty remote.

    Best to stick with what works or at the least, what works better. Not everyone can do calculus but then again not everyone can dance professionally either.

    January 27, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  2. James

    Music is a hobby.

    January 26, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  3. Techie

    Without music and arts, itunes and iphones have no value. Apple inc made fortune by mixing science and arts.

    January 26, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  4. curtissmith003

    The way I see things...

    Schools in America have artificially segregated subjects into neat, easily scheduled classes. This categorization creates the paradigm that the sum of human knowledge can be broken apart and classifies into separate and equal unrelated components. This is not reality.

    Prior to the 20th century, scientists studied the natural sciences, a holistic view of the observable world. For ease of teaching, the natural sciences were broken down in biology, physics, chemistry, and earth sciences. Today, students concentrate on one of these. However, in order to understand biology, you need to know the chemistry behind cellular processes and in order to understand chemical reactions you need to know physics. We are now stuck with an inane system that does not look at learning from a systems view point.

    The same problem exists with the arts. Einstein states, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” How true! Creativity is the bases for discovery. Arts are as necessary as science. However, in a pragmatic world, we cannot allow students to major in one over the other. Students can neither leave school as a callous scientific automaton nor as a clueless artist. A melding of both is ideal. Personally, I favor an interdisciplinary approach to education, especially at the primary and secondary level.

    The question remains, however, what is the appropriate ratio of knowledge? The world desperately needs skilled workers in specific areas, like STEM. Should a student learn a trade so they can get a job and study music after work? Should tax payers support unemployable fields in the name of a liberal education? These are tough questions. I support the arts, but at the same time do not want to give the false impression to young students that all subjects are of equal value, equitable yes.


    January 25, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • Milton

      Are we really short on STEM-trained people? Post-docs in the sciences were practically invented to serve as a career purgatory for PhDs that couldn't get jobs. Your average tenure-track biology position has about 150 qualified applicants (and 300 if you include the ones that are trying to finish a PhD). This isn't just biology either. I have yet to see an academic job in chemistry, physics, earth sciences, or mathematics have a hard time getting filled. Where do all those PhDs that don't land these jobs go? Post-docs or adjunct work.

      January 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  5. Jonquil

    The biggest mistake critics of arts education seem to routinely make, is to be convinced of the idea that creativity is only defined by lack of structure and freedom. But what kids from chaotic home environments are able to find, in music education, is security and a sense of joy and accomplishment, through discipline and dedication. Even forming an instrument from trash and brainstorming how to play someone else's compositions on it or create your own music, requires a great deal of patience and discipline. With dedication, every player will get better than they were, no matter how naturally talented or untalented they initially appeared to be.

    Watching the marching bands at The Inauguration, it was so inspiring and uplifting to see all these young people, all different, coming from different backgrounds, starting off with different levels of natural talent, to emerge as incredible players and performers. Beating other groups, through the sheer work of their practicing and dedication. At one point, they were only individuals, clumsily learning to play but eventually, they were able to work together and create beautiful music and routines.

    The discipline that it takes to excel at playing an instrument, the ability to consider poetry or literature in an abstract way - how are these skills not valuable for problem solving?

    January 24, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  6. Roman

    Rick Scott is yet another business/law major who believes he understands social and psychological development, basic tenets of education, and, really, anything that isn't his career focus. And hey, maybe he's done a lot of research on the topic, but the intellectuals of society, even ours, have always praised a hybrid form of education - from Washington to Einstein, from the secretive friendship of Twain and Tesla, science and the arts have always worked better together than apart. They develop the entire mind, rather than the narrow foci that STEM supporters advocate.

    Yes, there is a high demand for STEM workers, but there's a good reason for that - not all minds are hardwired to function like that of an engineer. You cannot restructure somebody's brain. Are we not disadvantaging students by cramming a square peg in a round hole?

    The point of the education system was once to prepare the next generation of workers, and still is, but even back when it was preparing agricultural laborers, the schools weren't teaching kids to reap crops. The point of education is, and has always been, to raise a generation of well-rounded, fully functional human beings who can perform decently across a vast spectrum of things, increasing their workplace viability, and maybe training them with a few specializations to guide their ultimate career. You cannot do this by focusing only on the mathematical disciplines, as that only addresses a section of our cognitive abilities. STEM will not create better workers. I don't care how much you work your biceps, you're not going to lift much without strengthening your back, too.

    STEM advocates seem to think the arts are just subjects meant to entertain, which some teachers may teach them as, but that is not what they are meant to be. They are important to our emotional AND cognitive development, development of critical thinking skills, understanding of structure and fluency, and, most importantly, mastery of the most important thing mankind has ever invented: language.

    January 23, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  7. tiedyedeb

    IF we don't include the arts in public schools, they just become one more thing only for the wealthy, because only the wealthy will be able to afford either private schools that do offer arts and other enrichment or because it will be the more well-off families that can afford the music lessons and the instruments.

    The arts are what make us human and we can't divorce our emotional and spiritual health from academic success.

    January 23, 2013 at 6:19 am |
  8. Matthew HIll

    As a Chemical Engineering major, with a minor in music performance, I can honestly say that there needs to be a place for music in all levels of our education system.

    The arts can also work to support and promote science even at an early age by providing use of counting and fractions to dictate rhythms and attention to critical details which are needed in Engineering. While science is important, even engineers feel the need to express themselves creatively sometimes, whether by playing Haydn or Beethoven in an orchestra or singing in a choir. There is a whole range of musical opportunities that enhances a well rounded educational system, even in STEM.

    January 22, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  9. Marilyn J. Hollman

    Art and dance require paying attention to details, to proportion, to the count, to gesture – and for dance, memorization.

    January 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm |