09/27/13 A Response to Mark Oppenheimer’s attack on the value of arts education published in the New Republic
As indicated by his article that admonishes parents who force their children to study music, Mark Oppenheimer reveals that he is mightily ‘dazed and confused’ about the value of music and the arts in education. And the New Republic is guilty of publishing a speciously argued article that recommends that parents no longer need to take responsibility for providing an arts education for their children’s general education.
It is difficult to know how to respond to all of Mr. Oppenheimer assertions in his fractious and presumptuously article titled “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument.”
The presumptions are stunning with regard to questioning the motivations and intelligence of parents who for many reasons believe it is their responsibility to ensure that their children achieve the benefits of a rigorous education in the arts. Despite its short length, Oppenheimer’s article is boundless in its insensitivity to the needs and feelings of our children who come to enjoy facing the serious challenges of arts learning and yet must learn also to survive, from time to time, the urge to quit their music and dance lessons whenever when the process seems too difficult.
I will start with Oppenheimer’s first argument: that is, the astonishing assertion that ballet and musical instrumental training are both “pointless” activities. According to Oppenheimer, learning music and ballet can be characterized as hobbies that are as inane as “eating candy corn”. Apparently Oppenheimer feels that parents who commit themselves to providing an education in the arts for their children — an education that is no more ‘forced’ than when schools or parents insist on required school subjects such as reading and math — should cease and desist from requiring their children to play an instrument or take ballet classes.
Though the pointlessness of arts learning is a central theme of his article, early on we learn that Oppenheimer does support his daughter’s education in ballet and playing the violin despite the inherent uselessness of either. This paradox is explained by his second assertion: that education in the arts can be provided, but only if the child asks for it and continues to enjoy it. Thus Oppenheimer feels he can be responsive to his daughter by paying for his daughter’s arts education because he thinks this ‘pointless endeavor’ is nonetheless temporarily enjoyable. Rebekah reports to him that she loves her teachers, she is making progress, and Oppenheimer concludes that is all a parent needs to know if they are to support a pointless course of study.
But Oppenheimer also insists that those parents who decide to ‘force’ a child to engage in music lessons without assurances from their children that they want to play an instrument, have gotten the “unfounded” or “overblown” idea that serious arts instruction holds benefits for their children that go beyond a child’s immediate experience of having fun in the course of a ‘pointless’ activity. That is, some parents and educators have discovered that many others believe that there is considerable experimental and informal evidence of music’s significant association with children’s cognitive, neurological, and social-emotional development that translates to higher levels of achievement in our schools. Yet, according to Oppenheimer, the unfounded or overblown notion that an arts education is anything more than the fleeting pleasure of engaging in a aimless or nonsensical activity is a misconception.
Oppenheimer is troubled also by the lack of evidence for the need to perform music or dance in our current century. He reminds his readers that “before the twentieth century, there was a good reason for anyone to study music: If you couldn’t make the music yourself, then you would rarely hear it. “ Thus, in this age of total access to musical recordings, Oppenheimer is warning misguided parents that there is no good reason to put in the hours of practice it takes to perform music well because we can enjoy music without having to perform it ourselves. Listening to music is important to millions of people, but learning to make music, or learning to read or analyze or compose music is completely unnecessary: we have access to all the recordings we need to enjoy or understand music.
Furthermore, Oppenheimer assumes that there is no empirical evidence that music or ballet training has any measurable benefit to our children other than the joy of doing a pointless activity reasonably well. To prove this presumption Oppenheimer completely ignores the numerous studies that suggest important attributes of arts learning and their possible association with other kinds of learning, and instead engages his readers in absurd ‘thought experiments’ intended to illustrate his argument. He claims, for example, that no one would be able to distinguish differences in body movement when observing ballet trained versus untrained students going about their normal school day activities. In his imagination, dance has little effect on the way students stand in line, walk with their friends, etc. His opinions notwithstanding, Oppenheimer’s loosely described thought experiment not only does not warrant his conclusions, it shows a complete disregard for the nature of meaningful learning transfer effects that researchers report when, for example, strong associations are discovered between measures of early musical training and phonemic awareness in early language development, or keyboard training and the grasp of spatial reasoning. And, while dance teachers might disagree completely with Oppenheimer’s conclusions, if Oppenheimer’s readers to agree to accept his opinion that there ballet training will have no impact on physical movement of students during school then, by this logic, we would have to embrace also the unlikely notion that musical training presumably would have no influence on their ability of young musicians to discern, analyze, or reflect on music or other sonic environments any differently from untrained students as they are exposed to music during in-school or after-school activities. And because Oppenheimer does not mention anything in his article about students who have been ‘forced’ to learn language arts skills or to engage in the study of literature, we are left to wonder whether or not Oppenheimer would also believe the absurd hypothesis that learning reading, theater, creative writing, or poetry are also pointless activities that will have no impact on the language skills exhibited by children during their school day.
Oppenheimer’s pitifully small range of evidence also draws on his recollections of dinner party conversations with friends. From this level of discourse he concludes that not every middle class adult continues to play the instrument they learned in their youth and musicians who learned to play Bach’s music early in life don’t think much of his music later on. This finding is apparently important to Oppenheimer’s sense of the worthlessness of learning classical music when he states that “the music that these friends listen to as adults—klezmer, Indigo Girls, classic rock—is in each case quite far from what their parents paid for them to study. Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach.”
This conclusion will seem very strange to musicians for two reasons. First, musicians I have talked to haven’t found much evidence of music students not being able to appreciate the value of performing or listening to Bach or other classical composers later in life. Secondly, it appears perfectly normal that music students expand their listening interests to include many kinds of music they haven’t studied on their instrument. However it seems to Oppenheimer that listening to popular music or jazz is evidence of the failure of arts education in classical music. However, music educators would normally expect that, as music students mature, their listening interests routinely expand beyond the boundaries of the music they learned in their music lessons. The fact that music students can enjoy all kinds of music besides the classical music they play, strikes me as a very positive results of a comprehensive education in music. Similarly, I would think English Language Arts teachers would assume that when readers to pursue their interests in literature beyond the boundaries of their experience reading Shakespeare or other authors they study in school, it is a positive outcome of their language arts education.
I am not sure what Oppenheimer means by classically trained musicians not being “fans of Bach” but arts education professionals know that anyone who has struggled to learn to play an instrument well enough to render a Bach Minuet or Invention — or who has studied ballet long enough to experience part of Balanchine’s choreography of the Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, or who has studied literature enough to memorize a scene from a Shakespeare play— is highly likely to have a life-long appreciation of these artists and their works.
We also have to question Oppenheimer’s view of the role of arts education in our society when he elaborates on his idea that it is also pointless to engage more children in the arts learning than will be needed to supply the cultural organization of our society. This overly pragmatic and myopic view of arts education is articulated in the paragraph below:
“Now it is clearly the case that if nobody studied ballet or violin, we would have no professional orchestras or ballet companies. That would be a great loss. But for such art forms to persist, it is only necessary that the most eager and gifted students persist in their studies. I’m all for lots of children trying classical music or dance, but we no more need millions of fourth-year violin students than we need millions of fourth-year origami students. We all love paper cranes, I think, but we aren’t rushing to give our children to the cause.”
The quotation above reveals that Oppenheimer thinks only the gifted few who will contribute directly to our nation’s cultural institutions need apply themselves to the rigors of an arts education. As long as the continuing development of this generation of artists can still serve Mr. Oppenheimer’s and others’ appetite for well-performed classical music or ballet, then he would most likely approve requiring that persistent music instruction be made available to children, but preference should given only to the most ‘gifted’ of students at a young age. As a result of this position, Oppenheimer is clearly not much invested in the notion that a rigorous arts education can serve all students well. And he is probably unaware that most career musicians — those assumed to be gifted or not at an early age — benefitted from parents or teachers who required them to work at their discipline in a way that motivated them to practice deeply the lessons they learned from expert teachers.
The next quotation below reveals Oppenheimer’s snobbish desire to be able to listen to live classical music and his pretense that listening to music is a pointless pleasure that is not enhanced by acquiring the ability to play music at any level of skill. It is as if learning to read and speak well is unnecessary to appreciate the language arts. Once again the author fails to provide any rationale to insist that children experience the opportunity to cultivate a deeper understanding of music by virtue of being able to play challenging music well. Through Suzuki, parents today now know that virtually all children can learn to play classical music (and folk songs, fiddle songs, and string orchestra music) to a significant level of quality, but Mr. Oppenheimer fractiously asserts that learning to play the four chords of a current hit song on the guitar will be “more of an asset” to a child’s education in music than pursuing music that would contribute to a far deeper development of musical literacy skills.
“I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.”
Though we live in a society that justifiably supports freedom of opinion among all parents and arts educators, we have to question the purpose of this article. Why does Oppenheimer make irresponsible and illogical statements about the nature and worth of arts education when he surely must realize that his statements could be used for fodder for those parents who want an excuse not to provide a viable musical education for their children? Why is he choosing to denigrate the accomplishments of all children who participate in violin or ballet programs — and the teachers of these programs who dedicate themselves to every child they face — when he states “there is no special virtue in knowing how to play the violin, unless you have a special gift for the violin.”
Music and ballet don’t just provide benefits to the highest achievers in music. And they do not preclude the value of learning sports or going to good movies or reading books. It’s just that responsible parents and educators now know that children cannot learn to love music, dance, or the language arts without an education that includes learning how to read, perform, and understand what it is they eventually choose to do in life. By equating the serious study of music and dance with origami, watching a movie, auto repair or “endless hours of foosball” Oppenheimer appears completely insensitive to challenges that parents face when faced with the decision to support arts education for their children or not. Hinting that a music education through pop music studies would be altogether preferable to classical training is Oppenheimer’s being flippant at best, or profoundly ignorant of the process by which educators establish the basis for a comprehensive arts education at worst. What young instrumentalist would not benefit from learning to play both a transcription of a Bach and a Beatles composition? What classically trained musician would not benefit from instruction in improvisation based on the substantial works of both classical and popular songwriters? What dancer would be better off not benefit experiencing the choreography of both Balanchine and Alvin Ailey? What children would not benefit from experiencing the music dramas of Mozart and Alan Mencken? It is the domain of an education in the arts that can provide these and many other sources of lasting inspiration for our children’s education over many years of study.
In the last analysis, it seems that young Rebekah is responsible for educating her father on what all adults should come to know as the timeless value of an education in the arts. She is insisting that beginning ballet and the violin studies as a child, two very challenging enterprises, are rewarding to her despite momentary difficulties and disappointments that might cause other children to quit their studies — especially if their parents continually imply that she can quit at any time. And, despite the hard work, it appears that the study of dance and music could simply make her happy. And I would predict that, if she does stick with her arts learning disciplines she is likely to argue later in life that public education should at least provide, if not require, many types of opportunities for all children to practice the arts well and not just those who are presumptively deemed innately gifted. Oppenheimer should have learned by now that learning the violin or ballet is not just an excuse to parade our kids through the fleeting pleasures of pointless arts experiences, but rather a reason to provide all children with the benefits of a life-long love of learning based on a growing appreciation and participation in the arts.
Though Oppenheimer is at present willing to continue providing a serious music and dance education for his daughter for the time being, he makes clear it is contingent on her enjoying every moment of the process, otherwise he is willing to throw away his investment in arts education and gladly watch his favorite movies with her instead. This closing quotation from his article makes this fearsome contingency very clear:
“Rebekah, for her part, will continue with ballet. And violin. Periodically, we ask her if she’d like to quit, and she always says no. That’s good enough for us. If she finds a lifelong pursuit, that’s great. But if one evening, at her usual practice hour, she decides enough is enough, maybe I’ll suggest the guitar. Or maybe I’ll just ask if she wants to sit with me on the couch and watch Dazed and Confused*.”
Because Oppenheimer and many other parents may continue to be ‘dazed and confused’ about the value of a required arts instruction for their children, leading educators and researchers need to make more clear why all parents need to ensure that our son’s and daughter’s do have the right to comprehensive education in the arts in this new millennium.
*According to Wikipedia, Dazed and Confused” is a cult comic movie about high school hazing and all the expected hilarious depictions of fighting, alcohol and marijuana use and is known to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies.
Lawrence Scripp is a life-long musician and music educator, arts education researcher and consultant. He has been the founding co-director of the Conservatory Lab Charter School, Founder of the Center for Music-in-Education, Inc., and most recently the author of “Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music’s Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning” in Arts Education Policy Review May 2013.