Fact and Value in Contemporary Music Scholarship

Phillip Rhodes

It is virtually impossible for one individual to accurately represent the many attitudes and opinions scattered throughout a discipline. That problem is enormously amplified when one tries to speak for an interdisciplinary organization with such diverse interests as The College Music Society. As it should be with any interdisciplinary organization in any field, the needs and opinions of all components of the field have to be considered, and beyond that, considered in the context of the needs and problems of the profession as a whole.

One of the things that binds CMS together is the fact that the vast majority of its members are college and university teachers. Moreover, the primary purpose of the Society is to serve and support the teaching component of our work as professional musicians. It is from this perspective, therefore, that I would address the subject of "Fact and Value in Contemporary Musical Scholarship. " The concern of CMS must rightfully be the relationship of our scholastic training and professional pursuits to our roles and responsibilities as teacbers.

Three recent reports provide an emerging picture about which many educators seem to agree: that something has to be done about the quality and effectiveness of teaching throughout higher education and in particular, at the undergraduate level. The three reports to which I refer are: 1) Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education, a report of the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education; 2) To Reclaim a Legacy, a report by William J. Bennett based on the findings of a Study Group from the National Endowment for the Humanities; and 3) Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community, from the Association of American Colleges.

Each report identifies the same basic set of problems: 1) that our esteem for broad learning is on the wane; 2) that over-specialization has had a detrimental effect on the quality of teaching; 3) that our Ph.D. programs do little or nothing to prepare graduates for a life of teaching; 4) that our current system of academic recognition, promotion and tenure does not reward good teaching; 5) that we have misplaced our priorities to favor graduate education and to correct the situation, we must re-allocate our best faculty resources to focus on teaching undergraduates; 6) that we have, overall, abdicated our responsibility for the integrity of the undergraduate curriculum.

I assume that you are familiar with these reports and the ensuing impact they have had on the debate that is raging today in just about every forum in higher education. To ignore these issues and the debate at hand is an action taken at great risk both to one's individual stature and to the fate of the community in which we work. For, if we assume the posture of the proverbial ostrich with its head stuck in the sand, somebody is going to seize upon that opportunity to kick us in the rear end—perhaps repeatedly.

As critical as these reports may be, it is my sense that the virtues and contributions of scholarship "per se" are not under attack. Indeed, the academy could not exist or function without them. What is under attack is the concomitant tendency of highly specialized scholarship—in all fields—to disavow any responsibility for teaching the uninitiated layman.

Surely one of the goals and greatest values of scholarship must be the role it plays in developing an intelligent and critical populace, but that is rarely how it is conceived or used. It is ironic, therefore, that we fail—not only miserably, but unwittingly—to educate the very people who could become our audience, read our books, and, indeed, support the whole breadth of our profession. Our prevailing attitude, whether it be irresponsible or simply "out of touch," has wreaked havoc up and down the entire spectrum of the nation's educational system.

Nowhere in the elementary and secondary schools of the United States can a sequential curriculum be found that would enable students to become articulate in the "languages" of music, art, dance or theater upon graduation from the 12th grade. Yet, in spite of this sorry state of affairs, most of us sit idly by, still clinging to the notion that—because we are "specialists" at a higher level—we can safely ignore the consequences of this greater problem even though the many forms of its progeny finally come to rest on our very own doorstep. If we persist in this ostrich-folly, we shall continue to have every reason indeed to be dismayed about the future of both the context of our work and the potential receptiveness to it.

Training, Scholarship, and the Academic Game

For the music community in higher education, the greatest deception we have foisted off on ourselves and others is the myth of the doctorate in general and the Ph.D. in particular. The problem lies not with the degree itself, but in what we take it to signify.

Let's try to define what the doctorate is not: 1) it is not a certification of talent; 2) it is not a guarantee that one can teach; and, moving on to shades of grey; 3) it may or may not be a certification of intellectual prowess. On the plus side, the doctorate is—and I think we could all agree—a certification of persistence; it is also a genuine certification of the ability to focus more and more of one's attention on less and less material. It would be foolish to deny the obvious benefits of such study, but the fact that we have convinced ourselves that the doctorate in itself certifies possession of all the required and desired gifts is a serious mistake and one that will take an enormous amount of courage to begin to correct.

To underscore this point, let's talk for a moment about talent, pure and simple. Many of us try to play golf, but we do not possess the talents of a Nicklaus. Many of us call ourselves composers, but we do not possess the gifts of a Stravinsky. Likewise, many of us insist on writing books, whether or not we possess the insights of a Rosen. Craft can be practiced and honed, but the enlivening agent of talent cannot be earned by persistence and perseverance. The prerequisite of talent applies to all categories of our endeavors—not only to composition and performance, but to research and scholarship as well. It is the way of the world that few of us possess the real, profound talent—or if you like, "the right stuff"—to become the celebrated concert artist, the immortal composer, or the great scholar.

As a colleague pointed out, one of our most troublesome problems lies in the perception of what we think we should be doing in relation to our training. Having attained the doctorate, we thereafter and too often perceive ourselves only as researchers, or performers, or composers. To compound the problem, if we were not first in fine when talent was parceled out, then we run the risk of becoming not only discouraged, but disillusioned about our life's work. In looking through a professional microscope at what we are not, we often fail to see what we might be. It is simply not in our mind-set to look for and nurture a talent for teaching.

Consider with me, if you will, a situation in which we have all found ourselves. Each of us brought a set of psychological expectations to our first employment (assuming, of course, that we were lucky enough to find employment). The time has now come when our perceptions about ourselves crash head-on into the realities of the situation and that, my friends, is when the "Dies Irae hits the fan." The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us—perhaps even all of us—were hired to teach, and, ironically, it doesn't matter whether we can teach or not. We were not hired principally to compose, perform or pursue research, but the "Catch-22" is that if we don't do those things in a public or published forum, then we can look forward to being fired.

As perverse as it may seem, excellence in teaching is not generally perceived as being the way to advance in the teaching profession itself. We all know that we have to do some teaching, but most of us don't know how; sometimes we don't even know what. We have, after all, spent the last six years learning more and more about less and less: whether that be composing in styles that are generally lamented by our critics as esoteric and "academic," or performing more and more specialized repertories, or pursuing research in increasingly narrower fields of inquiry. When the "Dies Irae" is upon us, we have little choice but to impart to our poor students only that knowledge which our speciality has prescribed. It matters little that that information may not be what our students need to know about the art of music.

"Specialist" or "Generalist"

If we are going to teach, then why not prepare to do it right? Instead of spending years learning more and more about less and less—the value of which may be of debatable significance—would we have been better off to pursue a broader or more moderate course? Paul Henry Lang, writing in a recent AMS Newsletter (February, 1985) put it this way: " . . . the general tendency that characterizes all fields at the sunset of the 20th Century is specialization ... We could not practice our trade without specialists; but if all of us become specialists, what will happen to the human condition?"

If our students came to us in our capacity as advisors and said that they wanted to pursue careers as "generalists," what would our response be? Would we have to warn them that such a course is the sure path to professional oblivion? Or would we simply respond with a pained expression of condescension that sums up our own esoteric and overly refined view of our discipline? For, at the sunset of the 20th Century, it can hardly be disputed that specialization has become our main point of reference. This has, of course, produced some valuable and significant work in all fields of music. It has also unleashed an enormous flood of mediocre and often pointless work which not only represents the order of the day but, worse yet, has become an end in itself because the academic system which dispenses largesse continues to determine the rules of the professional game.

We are at the moment, however, presented with a "window of opportunity," if I may borrow a term widely used in economics, and that window is represented by the current reappraisal of the quality and effectiveness of college teaching. It is time to act before the window closes and the cycle moves on.

In spite of the fact that we, the music profession, constitute a major part of the broad matrix of America's cultural life, we are still sadly ignorant of its components, their interrelatedness, and the overall complexities of the "big picture." As separate and narrowly focused disciplines, we tend to lapse into myopia. Moreover, the government and advocacy sectors—who have in their possession most of the money, power and noisemakers—are as myopic as we are in terms of understanding the entire complex of our cultural life. This is, however, no excuse for us. It is we who should be the most knowledgeable, the most aware, and the most articulate of any of the sectors. We should be the first to point the way to the future of our nation's cultural life as we look toward the twenty-first century. In trying to consider the question of "Fact and Value in Contemporary Musical Scholarship" in the largest possible context of the nation's cultural and intellectual life, it seems clear that the profession of college music teaching urgently needs to attend to several matters.

Some Proposals for Your Consideration

1. We must do something about preparing our students to be effective teachers, not only of pre-professional musicians, but of the general student as well. Those among us who are qualified and gifted—especially in the area of general studies—must be identified, nurtured, and professionally rewarded.

It has been common practice for too long that we throw our graduate students—unprepared and generally unsupervised—into the gap of undergraduate classes which we regard as unimportant. This time-honored exploitation of graduate students is designed to relieve senior faculty of the onerous task of teaching undergraduates and lower division courses. Thus we reinforce by example that teaching—especially this kind of teaching—is not a laudable goal, but only a diversion from our real activities as professionals. our students—who, like us, will most likely live by teaching—must be told, shown and nurtured by master teachers if they are going to succeed in engaging the minds and energies of their future students.

It could be effectively argued that our current system of doctoral training does indeed produce scholars who are qualified generalists, but once in the field, they are seldom allowed to function as such. Perhaps the real fault lies not in our training, but in the professional reward system that governs our activities in the academic world. Rewards, as we all know, accrue to those engaged in public scholarship (which in this definition, I am taking to include composition and performance). Is it not time—and I direct this question to the academy in general and to the National Association of Schools of Music in particular—is it not time that we reviewed our priorities and considered a system which recognized and evaluated excellence in teaching as an equal partner to excellence in scholarship? If the reward system recognized the value of the generalist, then we could move toward solving Lang's dilemma.

2. We must likewise reconsider and reorder (for our own survival if nothing else) our priorities in terms of what we teach, to whom, and for what reasons. As the situation now stands, classes in "music appreciation"—by whatever name—are by and large poorly taught to huge numbers of general students in order to balance, both in numbers and funds, our dearly beloved private lessons and graduate seminars. Even aside from the assertion that the generafist-master-teacher could effectively reach and teach such students, the question still remains: do we really have our priorities straight? Where should we concentrate our best teaching efforts? And, taking a long view of the future of the profession, who are the most important people we teach?

I submit to you that the answers to those questions have changed drastically over the years, and we don't seem to realize it. Turning out more than enough professionals like ourselves is not the answer; that part of our mission will, indeed, take care of itself. For now and the future, the critical questions we need to consider are not who will play, but who will listen; not who will write, but who will read.

3. I would urge for your consideration that we need to sit down and discuss among ourselves the idea of a comprehensive research agenda for music in higher education that shares some common goals. We all would concede that as long as there are degrees to be had, journals in which to publish, and academic advancement to be considered, that research, scholarship and analogous professional pursuits win continue to occupy a major portion of our energies. I suggest to you that we should, therefore, be very much concerned with the present value system which informs contemporary music scholarship, It needs a thorough examination and, if not a complete overhaul, at least a major tune-up.

That is to say that by and large, we still exhibit a strong tendency to speak only to ourselves for the sake of informing only ourselves. Sometimes we use a language so highly specialized that one discipline can hardly talk to another, much less to a layman. By and large we still prefer to focus our enormous research capabilities on the explication of "molehills." For some of us, that is fine; but who among us is prepared to address the relationship of molehills to mountains? Joseph Kerman says it best when he characterizes the nature of our research as tending always to spiral inward rather than outward (Contemplating Music, page 227). We need to ask if the profession and education would be better served if we sought instead to expand our vision of what subjects, topics, materials, and questions are appropriate to research.

The long-term benefits of a comprehensive research agenda—one which was continually developed and evaluated by theorists, ethnomusicologists, composers, musicologists and performers alike—should be, I hope, self-evident. In the context of the whole cultural matrix, it should be the purpose of such an agenda to identify and consider the real needs of our musical world—and that world includes both western and eastern, northern and southern, and, for that matter, elementary and secondary. We urgently need to lay our hands and minds on an agenda that would exhibit a sense of direction and purpose and one which would, perhaps above all, represent the manifestation of a vision for the kind of informed populace that we should be trying to develop as we approach the end of the 20th Century.

Some worthy items are already on the table. In attempting to sum up what I just said, I should like to paraphrase a section from NASM's call for the consideration of "A Research Agenda for Music in Higher Education, " a topic considered at the Association's 1984 meeting. To wit: in seeking to avoid a terminal case of myopia, we must begin to view ourselves as being in the culture-formation business rather than in the piano-playing business, or the sophomore-theory business, or the motets-of-Domenico Jacobazzi business. We must also begin to understand how the profession of college music teaching—and by extension, the training of musicians and laymen—fits into the field of education in its broadest sense, and how education relates to the overall cultural matrix as circumscribed by the components of education, presentation, creation, and support.

The College Music Society supports and endorses these current efforts to re-examine our priorities in terms of the value of current scholarship and teaching in the field of music, I should like to reiterate that CMS, since we do embrace and support all the disciplines, stands ready and willing to serve as a forum for the interdisciplinary consideration of these critical issues.

The community of professional musicians is often characterized by elitism, contentiousness, and enormous insecurity. It seems to me that a major part of the reason is because we suspect that what we are doing is not considered valuable or even worthwhile by any but ourselves. I urge all of us here today—individuals and societies alike—not to let the opportunity for meaningful reform in higher education pass us by. There is too much at stake.