Is education disappearing from Music education?

Why minimalism? Why this way of making music and not that? This was the concern of last week’s blog.

These kinds of questions I argued should be at the front of our minds as we do what we do in the name of educating children and young people musically. These kinds of questions are imminent, burning through our desires to make good and what we think is worthwhile. Answers to such questions frequently lie unarticulated.

In last week’s blog I wrote of a teacher being excited about her upcoming venture into minimalism. But in thinking about our excitements, passions and convictions about what we do, I would suggest that we have a responsibility to face a more objective reality where we leave behind passions, desires and the imminence of the day-to-day, stand back and attempt to clarify what a reasonable justification for a music education might consist of.

In the book Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and The Arts in Education chapter 2 is titled What if? Arts education beyond expression and creativity [1] and written by the philosopher of education, Gert Biesta.

Biesta states a two-sided problem for the arts (in our case, music).

  1. The potential disappearance of the arts from art education
  2. The potential disappearance of education from art education.

Biesta proposes that there exist two particularly noxious factors standing in the way of establishing the arts in education.

The first addresses the persistent use of instrumental justifications for the arts.

‘Such justifications usually take the form of a statement in which it is claimed  that engagement with the arts is useful because of its potential significance for or proven impact on ‘something else’ … In education there is a wide range of options for this ‘something else’. This includes the suggestion that engagement with the arts will drive up testable performance in specific curricular domains (most often those that appear to have a high status, such as language, mathematics and science), and the claim that engagement with the arts will promote the development of a range of apparently desirable qualities and skills, such as empathy, morality, creativity, critical thinking, resilience, and so on.’ [2]

Then there is music and the brain. Let’s not go there.

By instrumentalising the arts, arts education is placed low in any hierarchy of subjects – ‘where, after all’, Biesta writes, ‘is the research that shows that doing mathematics will make you a better musician …?’ [3]

Biesta’s point, of course, is not new and indeed well-worn and can mistakenly lead to stating that the arts, if not useful, are useless. [4] But this would be a category mistake by making the assumption that education is merely a process aimed at the production of things. ‘Yet the educated person is not a thing or a product, but a human being with an altered outlook. … Rather than asking what education produces, we should be asking what education means.’

‘What does education make possible?’ [5]

This is a challenging question viewed in the context of education systems leaning towards a focus on measurable learning outcomes in curriculum subjects that ‘count’, reducing children to test scores and objects to be managed in relationship to performance measures. [6]

And here Biesta’s second point emerges, the second noxious factor diminishing a place for the arts in education. The arts are promoted as an opportunity for children and young people ‘to express their own voice, to give their own meaning, to discover their own talents, to enact their own creativity, and express their own unique identity …’ [7]

This point will need its own blog next week.

All this is important because it addresses the question of ‘who is the musically educated person?


[1] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge.

[2] Ibid, page 12.

[3] Op cit

[4] Ibid, page 13.

[5] For a perspective on the claim that music is useless or, put another way, has intrinsic value, see

[6] This easily resonates with the place accorded to music outside the Ebacc qualification in England.

[7] Biesta, G. (2017) What if? Art education beyond expression and creativity. In (eds) Christopher Naughton, Gert Biesta and David R. Cole. Art, Artists and Pedagogy: Philosophy and the Arts in Education.  London: Routledge.

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