Tunis Symposium on Advocacy in Music Education

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This photograph was taken shortly before the fight broke out at the World Music Forum, held in Tunis recently. And for once I was the peacemaker. Academics are not known for getting fiery, but this was a particularly lively session, kicked off by a provocation by Wayne Bowman challenging the blurring between education advocacy and education philosophy. It sounds a bit esoteric, but I think it’s not. Here’s an extract from the presentation Wayne made – I believe you could substitute almost any ‘subject’ in place of music:

“The advocate generally assumes and argues that things like music and music education are unconditionally good. But philosophical inquiry shows pretty unequivocally that musical engagements are not unconditionally good: they may harm as well as heal, subvert as well as advance the goals of education. Involvement in music does not automatically lead to desirable educational outcomes, and indeed, I would argue that the need for advocacy often arises precisely because of failure to deliver the discernible, functional benefits for which the music education profession exists. It becomes necessary to advocate when people cannot discern the tangible benefits of music making and music study; when they cannot see clearly how education makes students’ current and future lives clearly better; when they do not experience music as a vital cultural force. Both the validity and the persuasiveness of advocacy arguments depend upon particular musical and instructional practices—and ultimately upon the actions of specific individuals working in very diverse situations. I believe, therefore, that advocacy for music education should be undertaken judiciously, and locally, by the people responsible for delivering the goods. Far too often, advocacy claims are remote from what educators are actually attempting to do, “on the ground.” And all too often advocacy claims sound like last gasp efforts to defend instructional practices that have simply failed to keep pace with social and musical change.”

There’s a great deal of advocacy that takes place in arts education in North America – largely because they’re always the first things to go when the curriculum or budgets get squeezed. But rarely do people advocate for changing the education on offer. As Wayne says some pedagogic practices are just not valued by kids – but there’s an inherent conservatism comes over those who are seen as the flagbearers: teachers and parents. This gets writ large when an entire school is threatened with closure. Parents – who detested their own experience at the threatened school – will mobilise en masse to ‘save our school’. Not change it, just save it.

But I’d argue that advocacy that’s about arguing for change can be the most effective of all – that’s what I think we were able to do with Musical Futures. We still defended kid’s rights to access music education, but it had to be a better, and more relevant experience.

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