The struggle for the music curriculum

If music is to be a part of general education then any consideration of music education’s purposes needs to engage with wider educational debate.  And this will involve considering what conceptions of education we hold alongside our conceptions of music education.

Of course, conceptions of education and music education have never been fixed or agreed upon, rather continually contested. There have always been, as we might say, ‘interested parties’, groups promoting this or that as the desired purposes.

Raymond Williams proposed that the 19thcentury debate about the purpose of education could be best understood in relation to three such groups:

  1. The public educators (who saw education as a natural right).
  2. The industrial trainers (who saw education as a means of economic efficiency).
  3. The old humanists (who saw education as a liberal or humane way but not as vocational training).

Williams maintained that the school curriculum which emerged was a compromise between all three with the industrial trainers holding the upper hand. [1]

Gordon Cox, in his distinguished account of music education in England 1924 -1999, suggests that ‘the struggles between groups representing different conceptions of what musical experiences should be embodied in the curriculum, and to what ends the curriculum in music might be directed’ [2] can be understood with reference to analysis by Kliebard. [3]

In characterizing the groups who have competed in promoting what conception of education should prevail Kliebard proposes that there are:

1. The humanists, the keepers of tradition, tied to the finest developments of the Western canon, and committed to the traditional skills that were associated with it.

We might note the current interest in establishing a knowledge-based/knowledge-rich curriculum.

2. The developmentalists, committed to a curriculum in harmony with children’s real interests.

We might note the ongoing advocacy for a learner-centred curriculum.

3. The social meliorists, who maintain that schools act as major forces for social change and social justice.

We might note claims made by both 1 and 2 above in the cause of social justice.

1. Being the birthright of all and providing all with a particular form of high cultural capital derived from 1 above where social change would take a cultural restorative form, and

2. In liberating children and young people from the structures that prevent equity and the hegemonic power of 1 above.

4. The advocates of social efficiency, who believe that social utility was the supreme criterion against which the value of school subjects was measured.

We might note the 21stcentury skills movement and the linking of music education with the creative industries.

Of course, such typologies are not intended to be exclusive and I have barely used them to analyse the case of music education. Therein lies a task for the reader that I hope will  cause reflection on the purposes we each promote and the kind of curriculum we each desire.

Gordon Cox points out that while all this changes to some extent over time, it is the humanist tradition, (1) above, that has always been pre-eminent. Its relationship to academic status works powerfully in its favour in the case of music. (The new model music curriculum will demonstrate this presumably.)

One response to all this contestation is to seek out the dissolving of the types into one unified conception.

Alas, music education, like education itself remains, and is likely to remain a contested concept.

There are struggles to pursue and compromises to be made across what are for the most part irreducible tensions. [4]

Notes:

[1] Raymond Williams (1961) The Long Revolution. Penguin Books.

[2] Gordon Cox (2002) Living Music in Schools 1923-1999: Studies in the History of Music Education in England. Ash gate. Page 129.

[3] Kliebard, H. M. (1995) The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958. Second Edition. Routledge.

[4] The process of reforming the GCSE (2013-14) examination makes for an exemplary case of such struggle.

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