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Who's Making Us Do This?

Full disclosure: It's been more than three and a half decades since I graduated college. Not much of a rah-rah alumna, I have never attended a Homecoming game or reunion. Earlier this month, however, I returned to ye olde campus to play in a musical "reading ensemble"--in other words, a pick-up band without sufficient time to meticulously rehearse. Eighty-odd former university music students spent an entire Saturday cruising through literature for an hour-long performance on Sunday-- Wagner, Shostakovich, Gershwin, light classic orchestral transcriptions, some circus marches, the score to West Side Story--a great program.

If spending a whole day practicing music with a bunch of people you haven't seen in 40 Dietz.php.gifyears doesn't sound like fun to you, you obviously never performed in an excellent high school or collegiate band, orchestra or choir. The gathering was organized to honor the late Norman Dietz, who was Director of Bands at Central Michigan University for more than thirty years--but quickly began to feel like an informal seminar on the necessity and current direction of the arts in public education.

The modal occupation of most participants was "teacher"--although there were doctors, CEOs, lawyers and professors in multiple disciplines, and lots of people who leveraged their starter career in a music classroom into school leadership. I spoke with one band-director-turned-principal who said that he had no real clear sense of how media and federal policy were re-shaping education until he moved to the front office. "At least I now know who's making us do this, who's taking away our great programs," he said.

The people at this event represented the lucky generation--post-war kids whose parents wanted everything for their neighborhood schools: spanking new buildings, rich and diverse offerings, a curriculum to train scientists who could send America to the moon. Opportunity. It didn't matter if your parents were working-class stiffs or took advantage of the GI bill and now lived in fancy new subdivisions carved out of farmland--they wanted their public schools to be great.

Our college educations took place against the backdrop of violence, assassination and sweeping national protest against a misguided war in southeast Asia. Political chaos and fretting over whether Johnny could read better than Ivan didn't tarnish the bedrock idea that a free, high-quality public education was a kind of American birthright. Every child deserved to take advantage of every educational opportunity--including pursuing music for the entire K-16 sequence.

The musicians who came together represented well over 1000 years of music teaching alone. Doing the math, millions of student musicians were influenced by these teachers over a half-century, part of a common pursuit of artistic excellence on the public's dime. The numbers were impressive to consider, and a little back-patting in order. But mostly, what we talked about was this: Who will be willing to go into teaching, these days?

Daniel Pink tells us motivation is comprised of three aspects-- purpose, mastery and autonomy. Back in the day, my band buddies arrived at CMU with a clear purpose--to use our talents for good and to share our passion for music. We honed our personal masteries, including artistic expression and discipline. And we went out into the world with agency, planning to be illustrious educators.

Virtually all of us succeeded. Often, our educational role models, like Norman Dietz, had similar humble beginnings but used music as a vehicle to achieve distinction. If what we experienced was the "status quo" in arts education for a generation, it was a pretty good deal--beneficial for a wide cross-section of students, and a wise use of public resources.

What is there to motivate would-be teachers in 2011?

Autonomy has been stripped from the profession, in favor of pre-set goals, carrots and sticks. Mastery is centered on limited competencies: Can you get kids to reach these "measurable" benchmarks? And the purpose of public education is no longer about finding joy and meaning in learning. It's basic job training--and for the smaller number of lucky students in this generation, obtaining the right credentials.

School music programs--where they still exist-- have morphed: competitive, focused on entertainment, supported by fund-raising and often exclusive. We consume music these days; it's no longer a common human experience. Studying it for pleasure or to understand culture is devalued: How can you make money as a music major?

It's a terrible loss. Brought to you by the lopsided economy, and power-grabbing policy-makers who think that the dream of a fully educated populace is a waste of resources.

I'm guessing that you'd never get eighty former Accounting majors together to celebrate the timeless and moving elegance of their work together as college students, however. I'm sure our performance sounded fine to the audience of spouses and community members--but everyone on stage was keenly feeling the loss of stamina, technique and musical radar that top-notch performing groups develop. We used to be contenders! Still, it was deeply rewarding to play good music together, again--to celebrate our success and our roots.

It's that access to excellence and that understanding--being part of superb communal performance--that we're losing in public education.

Where did that go--and why? Who's behind the shifting priorities in education?

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