People often criticize schools that focus on sports. Why bother, the argument goes? Being good at football or basketball doesn’t mean much after graduating. Even worse, a sports focus tempts many into wasting time on a fruitless career track. Millions of high schoolers dream of playing for the NFL, but only about fifteen hundred actually do (at any one time). Isn’t that a huge waste of youth, hope, and resources?
Yes, it is. However, few ever compare this mess to the classical music classes most schools also have. Classical music seems to be similar to athletics in many respects:
– It’s nearly impossible to get a job as a top professional in the field. Symphony orchestra job openings aren’t like working for Dow Chemical, or even Google – like the NFL or NBA, there are only a tiny handful. “A lot (of openings) is six or seven.”
– You can’t do it by yourself. A few instruments, like the guitar and piano, can be played individually… but most, like the clarinet, flute, drums, etc. are heard as part of a larger group, just like how most sports need a whole team to be fun.
– Because of that, participation drops dramatically after graduation, as it’s much more difficult to find a group. For almost any high school student, it’s easy to find a concert band or baseball team. But what about when you’re 30? 40? 50?
– Both are fun for many people, but are clearly not optimized for fun, at least in a school setting. If schools optimized for fun, they’d have a lot more video games, at least during downtime like recess and after school.
– Both are similar enough to useful things to provide a paper-thin justification, but not enough to actually be useful. Football is taught with the justification of “physical fitness”, but a lot of what it does is tear up your muscles, resulting in frequent injuries. Music is taught with the justification of “learning about culture”, but schools very rarely teach actual culture. Instead, they teach a senseless bouillabaisse of bits of past cultures that seem prestigious. (More on this in subsequent posts.) How many schools teach kids to play ghetto rap, or build a Burning Man camp, or host a dinner party, to name important bits of three real, modern cultures?
So, why (in educated circles) is one praised, and the other villified? My best guess is that sports are generally associated with lower-class culture (the ghetto, rural backwaters), and classical music is associated with upper-class European culture, making it seem superior.
Classical music is a pretty foolish thing to focus on as a career, but I do want to see it persist in schools, because it’s beautiful. High culture only survives when the affluent make it mandatory for entry into their ranks.
A hundred years ago, every immigrant family bought a piano as soon as they could afford it — it was proof they’d “made it.” Today I see people my own age making lots of money, and they buy nice clothes, fancy restaurants, kitchen equipment…but never a piano. They don’t have to. In today’s culture, you can be upper-class and not have a piano in your home. I consider that a travesty. But the only way I know to fight it is to keep being a one-woman outrage brigade on behalf of Western Civ. “You mean you don’t have a piano?” “You mean you’ve never read Wordsworth?”
You can buy a lot of things with money…why don’t people in my generation ever consider using it to buy high culture?
Because (I think) the feeling that you ought to do something or face social embarrassment never inspired anyone. It caused (back in the day) a lot of people to go through a lot of drudgery to learn Latin, but Latin itself slipped further and further into obscurity.
Double standard: you demand that people produce music, but only consume poetry. Also, you seem to ask people to read the poetry canon once, but make music regularly. A century ago, playing music was the cheapest way to consume the canon.
I’m not saying your standard is wrong, but I think it is misleading to summarize it as “buying high culture.”
In absolute terms of the most enjoyment over time, classical music beats football. Septuagenarians can form a string quartet, but throw together a scrimmage? Too hazardous.
It’s a moot point, though. The instruments are still quite expensive and identifying as “one who plays classical music” is far easier if you’re already demographically likely to do so. Getting together to watch football on TV probably fulfills the most needs for the most people over the widest assortment of ages; more than playing football, playing classical music, and attending classical music concerts/buying CDs combined.
Wouldn’t the inherent enjoyment-per-hour-invested of the activities themselves swamp the 50% or so difference caused by old age?
Watching TV strikes me as very unfulfilling, as judged by the number of smart, well-informed people who vastly prefer other forms of entertainment.
Perhaps. But how many smart, well-informed people are there relative to not-that-smart, rather-poorly-informed people? And does the latter’s lack of discernment actually count as lack of fulfillment?
How many schools teach kids to play ghetto rap, or build a Burning Man camp, or host a dinner party, to name important bits of three real, modern cultures?
In my own experience, these are actually *closer* to what schools actually “teach” than “classical music” is. Consider:
– School bands mainly play music that parent audiences appreciate: Broadway-musical medleys, mid-century popular songs, and “light classical” repertory. There is also a repertory of original band music which I think mostly grows out of the tradition of explicitly pedagogical works, and seems to be mainly played for band competitions; and also a few concessions to the mass culture of the moment (medleys of film music: Star Wars, Jurassic Park, etc).
– “Building a camp” pattern-matches in my mind to all kinds of activities I was forced to do in my youth when I would rather have been at home writing symphonies.
– “Home economics” and “career and life skills” classes are alive and well, as far as I know.
In contrast, “classical music” receives VERY little emphasis, at least in “ordinary” American schools. (I know this, because it was the main thing I was interested in during my time in ordinary American schools, and my life was miserable.) Things are very different in Europe, I hear.
For almost any high school student, it’s easy to find a concert band or baseball team. But what about when you’re 30? 40? 50?
This sucks, and should be fixed.
When Im 80 I probably wont be playing football,basketball,baseball, etc. However music is something I will always have. I think that schools are putting too much emphasis on sports and cutting music,art, etc. Why is sports so much more important?
My immediate family has 4 violinists and 2 pianists (yes, some play both). Learning an instrument enhances memory and mathematical learning, and people continue to apply what they learned in abstract ways. These skills continue into old age, though I don’t think playing football at age 60 is a great idea! Also, because I am in their circle, I know plenty of opportunities for musicians, not always as orchestral participant, but as a teacher ($75 an hour) or a professor. How many teens can earn $300 for a weekend by playing at a venue (wedding, etc)? Can you do that with sports? Oh, and we do participate in sports activities as well (tennis team, ultimate frisbee and swimming).