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Oppenheimer Provokes Dialogue about the Value of Arts Education

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Sep 30, 2013

Mark Oppenheimer's provocative New Republic column, “Stop Forcing Your Kids to Learn a Musical Instrument (9/16/13)” set-off a fire storm of opposition from the arts community. In the column, Oppenheimer calls ballet and violin instruction “pointless,” going on to say:

Lessons are fine, and I think it’s especially important that all public schools offer music and other arts in their curricula—both for their educational value, and so arts instruction does not become the province only of Americans who can afford to pay for after-school classes. But Americans’ emphasis on certain kinds of lessons—like ballet and classical instruments—are just accidents of history, entirely contingent. And if we look closely at why we encourage our children to study music and dance, and what the real benefits are, we will see that our children are taking the wrong lessons, and for the wrong reasons.

Oppenheimer looks back at the history of community arts education as it emerged in the late nineteenth century as arts programs provided by urban settlement houses and neighborhood centers.  He argues that, at the time, people studied music for social advancement— “it was an accessible, middle-class status symbol”—and because “you had to make your own music if you wanted to hear it” before technological advances like the radio and phonograph. Guild members Henry Street Settlement (New York, NY), Third Street Music School Settlement (New York, NY), Community Music Center of Boston, Neighborhood Music School (New Haven, CT), and Cleveland Music School Settlement are cited as some of the first community schools of the arts.

But in Oppenheimer’s opinion, classes in ballet and classical music are no longer relevant to young people. “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),” he writes, “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.” He proposes instead that arts education providers focus on teaching popular music, citing the example of School of Rock, “a chain with dozens of franchised schools and camps geared specifically to aspiring kiddie-rockers. “

The Response
The column provoked many passionate and fervent responses from the arts community which you can read here at the end of the columnCenter for Music-in-Education Founder Lawrence Scripp calls Oppenheimer's column an "attack on the value of arts education" in his recent post in The MIE NewsBlog here. Even New Republic Editor Paul Berman wrote a critical response to the column (read Paul Berman’s counterpoint). Oppenheimer defended himself and offered apologies in return (read Oppenheimer’s defense).

Neighborhood Music School Director of Programs Noah Bloom, who was cited in the column, shared this response in a letter to his faculty (which he has adapted here):

Mark Oppenheimer’s most recent article has gone viral on the internet, elicited hundreds of responses, gotten a rather critical response from his editor, and received passionate critiques from many of you. And this is why I would like to thank him. He has inspired a dialogue within our halls and within our culture that is often missing and of paramount importance. In my year here as Director of Programs at NMS, I have had hundreds of hours of conversations with faculty, parents and board members, but too often these discussions are centered on payroll-insurance-registration software-budgets and other institutional logistics. Of course those details need to be worked out in order for us to function, but I thoroughly believe if we don’t talk more about music, art making and the experience of learning, we aren’t doing the best we can for our students and the community.

Things are undeniably changing all around us. There are 10% as many pianos being sold as there were in 1910; there are fewer orchestras and fewer jazz clubs; there are gigs that pay not a dollar more than they did in the fifties; there is distance learning and free lessons on YouTube. Not to mention you can sell a million records with a bad voice and a cute belly button. None of that means that what we do every day isn’t as valid as ever before. It just means that we have to fight to make it understood and valued. Only through conversations like this will we be prepared to provide the most valuable lessons for kids growing up in a different world.

[…] I believe many of the topics raised (or missed) in Mr. Oppenheimer’s article have given us the seeds for many conversations to be had:

  • What were the values placed on study music 100 years ago? What are they now?
  • What is the importance of classical music in our culture? How has that changed? Do these changes affect our teaching?
  • Are violin, piano and ballet more valid starting points than bass and guitar?
  • How has technology affected the music industry? How does it shape our teaching?
  • Are we teaching to create life-long musicians or music lovers? To inspire discipline or a sense of humanity?
  • Are there less professional music opportunities than there used to be? How does that effect what we do?
  • How do young students get exposed to music these days? Are they still hearing the piano played in the living room? Do they go to concerts? Are they playing in school band programs? What if they just watch MTV and carry around an iPod?
  • How should parents handle getting their kids to practice? What are the goals? What if students don’t practice, will you still teach them?

    Mr. Oppenheimer wants the best for his daughter and we owe it to her – and to all our students – to be able to explain how we can make the arts powerfully relevant to a new generation of students and parents.

Join the Conversation
While Noah’s questions above center on music instruction and its relevance today, they are applicable to any artistic discipline. Help us continue this important discussion by sharing your thoughts and ideas on the Guild’s Member Forum.

This resource brought to you by the National Guild for Community Arts Education.