“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.” Jimi Hendrix
But what is music? That might sound like a ridiculous question, but I wonder how our history might have been different if Standards Based Music Education had been the focus of schools in the 1940s or ‘50s.
I can only imagine what “standards” would have been imposed on little James Marshall Hendrix. Who would have been selected to write the standards? Certainly not the musicians that led the way in jazz, blues or bluegrass—Duke Ellington, McKinley Morganfield and Bill Monroe need not apply. The more likely candidate — Will Earhart, a music educator who you’ve probably never heard of. Earhart was convinced that the “beauty” of music should be appreciated by all students. Appreciate beauty? Great idea, isn’t it? But how would it be measured or described? Earhart’s standard for beauty clearly excluded the amplified instruments used in rock and roll or the loose approach to rhythm that characterizes blues music. Jimi would have failed according to such standards—his playing was frequently ahead of or behind the beat, his amplifier distorted, with feedback shrieking. Some music educators today might still side with Earhart.
Standards tend to be written by academics, and the standards they produce are essentially conservative—they preserve the status quo rather than encourage learners to challenge accepted practice or extend the boundaries of a discipline. A standards-oriented musical academic of that era might have told Jimi, “You’re right, music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, it better happen outside of music. And what you’re doing isn’t music.”
History has spoken on that subject. Jimi changed the face of popular music, and had to do so entirely outside of the academic scene. How many other “Jimis” have been made to feel inadequate, unwanted, or inept at school because their interpretation of content, concepts or skills lay beyond an accepted academic norm?
If you’re a parent of a student, consider the impact that a standards-based education may have on your child’s ability or desire to “think outside the box.” The more we reduce knowledge or skills to a list of arbitrary standards, the more likely that we pre-empt constructive and creative change because we lie to students—we lead them to believe they have “mastered” a subject if they can check off the various boxes on whatever list we proffer.
Does music lie? No. Neither does mathematics, history, or any other field of human endeavor. The truth is that no field of knowledge will ever be complete, nor can a list of “standards” encompass any of the disciplines. When we reduce knowledge to a set of “standards,” we not only encourage students to view education as a finite experience, but also encourage teachers to eliminate anything that didn’t make the cut. Education then ceases to be that open-ended journey that both students and teachers might contribute to.
Don’t lie to students. They deserve to explore the truths we have discovered thus far, and to add their discoveries to the ever-flowing river of learning.
© David Sudmeier, 2014