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A classic deception

Mark Reilly on what's behind the new emphasis on the 'Western cultural tradition' in music education

A new round in the education debate began in January with reports from two working parties on the teaching of art and music in schools. Both recommended a continuation of the existing practice, that no one culture should dominate the curriculum. The working party on music, which included experts like Sir John Manduell, principal of the Royal Northern College of Music, and the man who wrote the Wombles' song, recommended that children continue to study rock, reggae and other ethnic music and even football songs. The even-handed working party also threw in a piece by Mozart.

The National Curriculum Council (NCC), under its new chairman, BP executive David Pascall, threw out the proposals and suggested instead a return to what is known as the 'Western cultural tradition'. Pascall put forward the rather ambitious proposal that five-year olds should be able to distinguish between different composers, and that 11-year olds should be able to discuss the intricacies of a Bach fugue. Education secretary Kenneth Clarke backed Pascall's views.

Ulterior motives

The NCC's ideas sound laudable at first. It would be a fine thing if more people were familiar with classical music, could recite poetry at will and give a good account of themselves in an appreciation of fine art. However the sheer impracticality of the whole scheme suggests that matters other than educational prompted such a sharp attack on the working parties. The debate about the restoration of the classical tradition is more about a restoration of traditional values than any concern for artistic excellence.

Even in purely educational terms the NCC's proposals make little sense. Both Clarke and Pascall know that the average comprehensive school cannot provide the resources to teach such subjects with any level of sophistication. The great merit for the authorities of the 'progressive' approach is that children know the rock, reggae and football songs already, so it is taxing on neither child nor teacher. It is also cheap. One steel band can provide for a whole school if rostered efficiently. To teach classical music properly in every school would require a huge number of qualified staff - at a time when government spending restraints have already left schools short of teachers. And if any practical instruction was involved, it would soon blow the budget of the best-run comprehensive. Violins aren't ten-a-penny.The NCC must also be aware that force-feeding children classical music, especially on the cheap, will turn them off it. Most children, and many adults, regard the classics as music for toffs. Unless you are brought up in a wealthy home, classical refinement seems too much at odds with your experience of everydaylife. The natural tendency is to rebel against it and treat it with derision. I remember my own experience of teachers taking sudden proselytising fits trying to temper our savagery, and inflicting the 1812 Overture on us (shows how much they knew). We thought Slade were the men for the job. Both sides lost.

So why suggest something so impractical? My suspicions are aroused by the terms used, especially the idea of promoting the 'Western cultural tradition'.

Mythical tradition

In musical terms, Western culture seems a mystifying notion. For example, the National Curriculum Council includes people like Scott Joplin, Fats Waller and even Lennon and McCartney in the category. What do Fats Waller and Palestrina have in common other than that both wrote music? And doesn't much of so-called ethnic art and music, with its attempt to define an exclusive culture-spirit, have an intellectual affinity with the work, say, of Wagner, one of the central figures of the Western tradition? The link is at least as noteworthy as any formal closeness Wagner might have with Mozart's rational order.

The renewed emphasis on the 'Western cultural tradition' clearly has little or nothing to do with the practicalities of teaching music. It looks rather more like a part of the conservative crusade to create a British and wider Western identity which glorifies a mythical tradition and looks to the past, at a time when the future seems increasingly uncertain.

Fragmenting societies

Lesley Garner, writing in the Daily Telegraph, fears for the future of the classics. 'The music of Mozart, like the words of Shakespeare, is one of the threads that still tie our culture together.' Garner need not fear for Mozart and Shakespeare. They are the highest achievements of human endeavour in their respective fields and are not about to be upstaged by reggae and football songs. For Garner, however, Mozart and Shakespeare are merely 'threads' of a culture that she hopes can tie together the fragmenting societies of the West - particularly Britain.

Garner justifies teaching the European tradition to children of non-European background as a way of selling traditional Western values: 'If we deny that chance to be part of an extraordinary artistic tradition to the other ethnic groups of our society we are effectively excluding them from the best of what we, as a culture, have to offer.' By (falsely) associating contemporary British society with the universal traditions of the European enlightenment, Garner no doubt hopes that some of its radiance will reflect. The purpose of promoting Western culture in this way is to make Western society look noble and right and everybody else, especially the third world, mean and self-obsessed.

Tory impasse

It says a lot for the vacuity of Tory politics that the government should try to make something out of such an issue. With no positive policies to offer for today, the Tories are reduced to portraying themselves as the party of classical tradition, of Mozart and Gainsborough. It seems unlikely to stir the masses.

The debate on Western culture has nothing to do with the education of schoolchildren. In practice, things will probably carry on much as before, as Kenneth Clarke effectively conceded when he backtracked somewhat on the original proposals for teaching classical music. The boys in Eton and Harrow will continue to study their musical scores, as befits those whose destiny it is to be makers of policy. For the rest it is likely to be the same old steel bands or nothing at all.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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