By Scott Rieker
Choir Director, Emerson Choir
Music: Why bother?! I am in the midst of a cordial, yet passionate, “extended discussion” with one of my choral colleague (we’ll call him J–) about the importance of music to humans in an existential sense. For his part, J– argues for Maslow: Humans have a hierarchy of needs, and the arts are essentially a triviality that one can engage in once the more basic needs are satisfied; that if I visited a refugee camp, the refugees would not appreciate the opportunity to sing as much as they would appreciate the opportunity to eat. I could not disagree more.
Maslow is not wrong. Without food, shelter, air, and the like, a living human won’t be a living human very long. But these basic needs are coincident with those of a living giraffe and a living mosquito. In other words, there is nothing truly “human” about addressing the biological and physiological needs of a person.
The lessons of history, however, teach that the essentially human needs (art, creativity, self-expression) supplant the biological needs at those times of greatest crisis. Speaking of his time in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, composer Viktor Ullmann stated, “Our efforts in regard to Art were commensurate with our will to live.” Composer Herbert Zipper, a prisoner at Dachau, wrote, “I realized in Dachau that the arts in general have the power to keep you not just alive, but to make your life meaningful even under the most dreadful circumstances.”1 When considered in the extremity, music—not food, shelter, etc.—renders a life worth living. It does this by affirming and edifying that which makes us uniquely human, not simply sustaining our mere biological life.
If music is essential to meaningful human existence, it is, therefore, a civil right. In the past, our society both tacitly and explicitly denied the personhood of members of minority groups. Though much progress has been made, a more insidious form of discrimination has crept in. Through a concerted “education” regimen of un-passable standardized tests, labeling of students and schools as failures, intentionally distributing resources inequitably, and more, we may recognize members of a minority community’s personhood, but we now deprive them of their humanity: access to what constitutes their human-ness. Remedial coursework supplanting music courses, pulling children out of arts classes for testing mandates… the list goes on and on, but the result is the same: the steady degradation of the humanity of a generation of our children.
Webster Kitchell, the great Unitarian Universalist philosopher, addressed the importance of building up the humanity of people in poverty and duress. “Consider the ghettos of America…Our society says, ‘Be good and you will be happy.’ That suits the master-slave relationship. But it isn’t true.…Turn it around, and you understand that if people are happy, they will be good. To make [people] happy, you give them some power over their lives.”2 In other words, affirming people’s humanity helps them become more human and better humans.
And you can do something to help! As I mentioned in my January article, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed Congress in December 2015, and it specifically enumerates music as a class necessary for a “well-rounded education.” While it is still not a tested curricular area (like math and reading), it is now enshrined and protected by statute. Every school and every district MUST—by law—provide access to music classes to all of its students. However, it is up to the local officials (state or district level) to define how all of this will look in practice. It is time to educate and advocate. First, we must educate ourselves on the unparalleled importance of ESSA for our children. Then, we must advocate for our children: for their right to access to quality music classes (not just after-school, extra-curricular, or ad hoc programs) taught by certified, qualified music educators; for their right to experience, explore, and enhance their humanity by participating in this most fundamental of human endeavors.
- Consider joining the National Association for Music Education, the chief policy and advocacy organization for music education in the United States. (www.nafme.org) It’s not just for music educators. * Regardless, visit their “Everything ESSA” page at www.nafme.org/take-action/elementary-and-secondary-education-act-esea-updates/ to find out what you can do.
- Talk to your neighbors. Have discussions about music as a fundamental human right, about lack of access to music being a form of discrimination, and about music’s intrinsic worth.
- AVOID consequentialist arguments and justifications: DON’T talk about how music raises test scores, improves collegiality, or any of those things. We don’t support music education in our schools because of some extrinsic outcome. We support it because it is impossibly valuable in itself and needs no external justification. Music Is Important.
- Reach out to your (beleaguered) local music teachers. Let them know that you care, and then coordinate your advocacy.
- Take part in music yourself. Refresh your spirit by making music. Join the choir at Emerson. (I had to throw that in, and you know it.) Find live music and attend a show. Build up your own humanity. Secure your air mask before assisting those around you.
The rules for implementing ESSA will be drawn up in the next few months and will take effect in just over a year. The window to have an impact on policy is, therefore, very small. However, that also means that a concentrated and concerted effort can make an enormous difference. Visit the local hardware store. Purchase your torch and pitchfork. Let’s do this, together.
1 Nick Strimple, Choral Music in the Twentieth Century (Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press, 2002), 40, 43.
2 Webster Kitchell, God’s Dog: Conversations with Coyote (Boston: Skinner House Book, 1991), 96.