Music education and relevance to the interests of the kids

‘’It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it. What we teach in school, what subjects we encourage in universities, and the methods of instruction, are all subject to one overarching test: what do the kids get out of it? And this test soon gives way to another, yet more pernicious in its effect, but no less persuasive in the thinking of educationalists: is it relevant? And by relevant is invariably meant ‘relevant to the interests of the kids themselves’.’’ [1]

Thus writes Roger Scruton, philosopher of both conservation and political conservatism. He has written on the aesthetics of music, on beauty, sexual desire, environmentalism and much more. His thought has surely been influential in the making of recent educational policy.

For Scruton culture is the ‘best that has been thought and written’. Culture is a form of knowledge. Culture is civilising. Learning to appreciate the best involves learning the right feeling. [2]

We need not subscribe to Scruton’s clearly argued position on culture, aesthetic value, the significance of the canon etc. to raise questions about the current enthusiasm for music education to be ‘relevant’ to the interests of the kids themselves’.

It seems that what is meant by relevant to the interests of the child in the case of music is relating to the music that chimes with the child, the music that they easily identify with, see themselves in. The music that readily confirms who they are, the group to which they feel they belong, the music they come to school with in their heads, their lived experience

Another perspective on what interests a child is given by Kieran Egan who shows how children’s interests are centred differently at different stages of development. [3]

First comes the mythic stage when children respond best to stories. Then the romantic stage when children are keen to gather facts about distant matters yet which relate to matters close to home. Next the philosophic stage, a time for developing generalisations and principles and finally the ironic stage, a sign of the mature mind, where focus shifts to the exploration of those instances which do not obey the rules.

In this view a child’s musical interests live alongside other interests and ways of understanding. Young children enchanted by music telling the story of the Pied Piper and year 9 drumming, dancing and singing an apartheid song are examples.

For Egan, it is the development of human interest that is important where ‘relevance’ is a matter of connections made and this can be with what is strange, alien, unfamiliar as well as familiar.

Scruton maintains that education is for affirming, sustaining and growing a particular set of cultural values. It is duty bound to maintain a conversation between the past and present and that while teachers love their pupils, they love knowledge more. Education is subject centred not child centred. The example of engaging with what is of human interest above is unlikely to persuade.

However, while we may not agree with Roger Scruton, we ought to be able to articulate something more than ‘it’s for the kids’.

After all music education is hardly ennobled if we think it is only for the benefit of those who receive it.


[1] Scruton, R. (2007) Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Encounter Books: New York. p.28.

[2] Chapter 3 of Culture Counts is titled ‘Knowledge and Feeling’ and deals with the goals of knowledge, types of knowledge, ends and means, knowing what to feel, teaching virtue, conserving practical knowledge and answering the critic.

For a fascinating debate on ‘culture’ see

Scruton’s concept of culture is distinctly at odds with the anthropological concept of culture.

[3] See

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