The Coming Ideological Takeover of Music

It has been nearly 30 years since Jesse Jackson led a group of protesters around the Stanford University campus chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has gotta go!”

The target back then was patriarchal Eurocentric content, the books, art, words, and ideas of Dead White Males.  The solution was a more multicultural syllabus, plus more non-white-male professors, the advocates said.  I went on the job market in 1987, the same year, and the word at the time in English was that it was going to be an all-female hiring season.

Once we had a revised syllabus, students would leave college with a wider sense of history and culture, not just Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner, but Cather, Hurston, and Ellison, too.  The High Modernism of Pound and Eliot, Joyce and Proust, would come down from the exclusive pinnacle of literary art and join other styles on a diverse plateau of interesting objects. The multiculturalists never said, “Don’t read James and Stevens.” They just wanted (so they claimed) equal time, and no more, “You MUST read James and Stevens.”  They didn’t even argue much for the excellence of new names added to the syllabus.  Sheer diversification was enough.

And so one Western Civ requirement after another has fallen out of the higher ed curriculum.  One recent episode unfolds in the work of a task force created by the College Music Society a consortium of post-secondary musicians and teachers housed in Missoula, Montana. The project was started in 2013 as a process to review the teaching of music theory and performance in the United States. The first draft of the report is the topic of a thoughtful essay at the Pope Center web site by Andrew Balio, which neatly points out the ideological nature of it.

The subtitle of the report sets the tone: “A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of English Majors.”  You know what’s coming next.  The “creative and expressive dimensions of music have been progressing rapidly over the past several decades,” and academia hasn’t followed suit.  Instead, the “academy has remained isolated, resistant to change, and too frequently regressive rather than progressive in its approach to undergraduate education.”  This resistance is no virtue.  Indeed, the document takes entirely for granted the progressive premise that if the world changes the classroom must keep pace.

The authors add to the charge of hide bounded-ness the worry that enrollments may soon drop as “sophisticated high school students seek music career development outside the often rarefied environments and curricula” of U.S. colleges.

The solution, the authors say, is to change the focus.  Teachers need to shift away from “the prevailing model of training performers in the interpretation of older works.”  An “experience” should take its place: “in a global society, students must experience, through study and direct participation, music of diverse cultures, generations, and social contexts, and that the primary locus for cultivation of a genuine, cross-cultural musical and social awareness is the infusion of diverse influences in the creative artistic voice.”  The documents emphasize especially African-derived music.

All of this is so familiar and routine that it feels like a waste of time even to point out the many tendentious assumptions and biased aims in the statement. Balio quotes one of the most fatuous lines from the text:

A strong argument can also be made that the transformed model of music study advanced by TFUMM will shape a new generation of artists/visionaries who will transmit their broad and transformative wisdom to society and positively impact many of the most pressing issues of our times. Ecological crises, poverty, famine, disease, violence against women, child abuse, ideological and extremist tensions...

As he notes, a “laughably tall order.”  But it probably takes this kind of moral puffery to justify the changes on order.  After all, we read, the organization regards “the culturally narrow horizons of music study as nothing short of a social justice crisis.”  And the emphasis on the “European classical repertory” is more than just an overly narrow education. It is a denial of “genuine global artistic identity,” a hindrance to “responsible citizenship.”   It is “notably out of step with this broader reality.”

Reading these sentences is a dreary process.  There are no surprises along the way, the progressive agenda so scripted and witless that anybody can rehearse it.  Successful academics have learned how to play this game quite well.  Balio provides a good example in the official description of the new head of a state university music school.

An ethnomusicologist, her research interests include African American music, feminist theories, queer studies in music and the social sciences, and race in American popular culture. [She] pursues these interests in…a study that tracks the emergence of black feminist consciousness in women’s music. The latter is a network that emerged from a subculture of lesbian feminism in the early 1970s…. Her] research into the interactions of race, gender and sexuality concerning African American music cultures is complemented by her personal and professional advocacy on behalf of women, people of color, and other underrepresented constituencies in departments and schools of music. 

Note, as Balio does, that there is nothing here about her musical accomplishments.  That’s not what counts.  Instead, we have the race-gender-sexuality dance, along with a testament of her activism.  This is no armchair identity politician–she really means it!  The language is so worn and clichéd (“interactions of race, gender and sexuality,” “constituencies”) that you can’t even satirize it.  One could attach it to hundreds of other professors and administrators with no change, and the effect would be the same.  This is the right person for the job.

Young people just coming up in the academic profession don’t know that this routine went stale more than 25 years ago.  But it’s still the going habit, and (usually) it has to be carried out if hiring and advancement are to happen.  But if they expect this turn to relevance and diversity is going to boos enrollments, they should look at English and see if those very turns have made the discipline more popular and prestigious.

6 thoughts on “The Coming Ideological Takeover of Music”

  1. There’s plenty to agree with here–certainly all the cant you critique is risible–but you might be confused about what an “ethnomusicologist” does. “Musical accomplishments” are not their line.

  2. Terrific piece, Mark. Those who aren’t talented enough to perform well or create music that people actually want to hear (not just because they’ve been mau-maued into listening by diversity zealots) turn these days to blathering away about the lack of “social justice” in the field.

  3. It has been nearly 30 years since the false stories of Jesse Jackson leading a chanting mob at Stanford have repeated despite the fact that Jackson never did that (and the students were calling for replacing the class “Western Culture” with “CIV”). I reported this fact 20 years ago in the Myth of Political Correctness, but the myth lives on.

    As for “an all-female hiring season” in all English departments in 1987, I eagerly await any evidence that this historical fantasy of oppressed men ever happened.

    1. The Stanford Incident did happen. Don’t know what gives you the idea it didn’t. Heck, a writer referenced it in a Dec 2009 Stanford Review article entitled “West Missing from Curriculum”

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