The Significance of Music Education? Bennett Reimer’s New Book Examines the Profession’s Past, Future

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and Rowman & Littlefield Education have co-published Seeking the Significance of Music Education: Essays and Reflections, a new book by noted music education scholar Bennett Reimer.

Reimer was the John W. Beattie Professor of Music Education Emeritus at Northwestern University, where he was Chair of the Music Education Department and founder and director of the Center for the Study of Education and the Musical Experience. He has written and edited more than two dozen books and more than 150 articles on a variety of topics in music education and arts education. He has lectured and presented keynote addresses around the world.

For the book, Reimer selected 24 of his previously published journal articles that explore significant issues in the past, present, and future of music education. For each essay he offers reflections on issues in music education, the positions he took on them at that time, and their relevance to present thinking and events.

As a 26-year old doctoral student in 1958, Reimer wrote: “The literature on music education has traditionally included a generous amount of self-justification. This is understandable in a field which constantly feels the hot breath of public opinion on its back.”

In his current-day reflection preceding the opening essay in the book, Reimer notes, “How little some things change. Our growing philosophical and professional sophistication allows us to articulate ever more deeply reasoned rationales [for music education], yet the same marginal values remain dominant. I will in time significantly moderate the stance taken here, but I will persist in pursuing the goal of expressing the significance of music education as authentically as the art of music deserves.”

The book is organized into three parts:

  • Part 1: Our Values as a School Subject,
  • Part 2: Achieving Our Values,
  • Part 3: Preserving and Enhancing Our Viability.

Essays include

  • “What Music Cannot Do”
  • “Should There be a Universal Philosophy of Music Education?”
  • “Roots of Inequity and Injustice: The Challenges for Music Education”
  • “New Brain Research on Emotion and Feeling: Dramatic Implications for Music Education”
  • “Is Musical Performance Worth Saving?”

In an interview, Reimer, who describes himself as “a Brooklyn kid from the street corner,” discussed his book and his developing views of music education and its place in society.

Q: From the beginning of your career, it appears you were drawn to writing. From where did that emphasis come?

Becoming a writer stems from being a reader. From early childhood I was enthralled with reading. When I was 12 years old I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (my 4-year-older brother had just finished it and I was determined to not let him get ahead of me). Its language, and the language of other books like it, had powerful effects on me and my own use of language. Words filled my mind and life, and have continued to do so.

As a junior I was appointed editor of my college newspaper. I wrote editorials on a variety of pressing issues of education and studentship. When each issue of the paper was published, I haunted the lounges, observing faculty and students picking it up and turning to my editorial. I was fascinated to see them engrossed in what I had written, sharing my thoughts by taking them in to their own. This sense of communion with others was deeply meaningful to me. It filled a need I have pursued ever since.

Q: You speak of being a writer, a music educator, and a performer. Of which are you most proud? How did those various aspects of your career shape your thoughts on music education?

Well, that’s kind of like asking which of my three children (I have two) is most important to me. I began my musical life as a performer, on clarinet, saxophone, and later oboe. While my performance career was cut short by a lung problem, I remain, inside and no doubt forever, a performer. It influences my continuing interactions with music in all sorts of ways. It remains a basis of who I am.

As for writing and music education, for me the two go hand in hand. Writing and teaching are different ways of presenting learning. Each one is very precious to me, teaching with its directly personal satisfactions, writing with its opportunity to share ideas with a larger community.

Q: What gave you the idea to collect these various essays for a book?

A few years ago a student asked me about an essay I had written so long ago that I had completely forgotten it. In checking it out I began to re-read all my others. While many seemed to me dated, I was struck with how many of them seemed still relevant to the present condition of music education and also were convincingly argued, despite not exactly the way I would now argue their premises.

When [MENC ]asked me to consider doing a book for the newly established relationship with Rowman & Littlefield, I remembered my impression of my publications and began to look at them with the eye of compiling them into a meaningful order. I also felt that, if it was to be published, I wanted to add a personal reflection about each essay, in first person, present tense, to make the essay as directly relevant to the present as I felt it deserved to be in order to have maximum impact.

The problem was, I had written so much that when I made the first selection, and did the calculation of how many book pages it would require, it came to about 860. Yikes! I could only shake my head in dismay. There was no way anyone would publish (or purchase) a book that big. So I had to go back and begin the necessary work of winnowing it out.


Q: Was it hard to choose, and can you speak a bit to the selection process you used?

Hard? It was agonizing! Each of my many mind-children was precious to me, and a lot of them would have to be relegated to extinction. But that was the reality. So I had to develop a set of criteria to guide my choices.

To start with, I decided that none of the essays could be edited, except for printing errors, a standardized format for them, and other strictly mechanical matters. I had to live with whatever weaknesses existed in them.

Then, each had to be, nevertheless, valid enough to not embarrass me. (Try reading things you wrote years ago and not, at least sometimes, be embarrassed!) Also, each essay had to deal with an issue still important in the present life of music education. And the subject matter had to be dealt with clearly enough and usefully enough to deserve resurrection.

Even though the process was tortuous and the book went through countless drafts, ultimately I was pleased with how it all came together in both its content and its organization. Personally, reading my stuff again took me back in time and made clearer to me my growth and development as a scholar and activist. It was a joy for me, but also humbling, to have this opportunity to retrace my intellectual life. It allowed me to know myself better, warts and all.

Q: Did you change any of your previously held views of music education? If so, what were they?

Yes. For one, the cultural aspect of music, how we understand music and express ourselves in it as being largely culturally determined, has evolved in my thinking over time. For much of my career the impact of culture on music was considered by writers in the field to be so obvious, so much a given, that little attention had to be paid to it. It was a matter of “everyone knows that, so why bother to discuss it?”

It became evident, over time, that cultural implications were so powerful and determining of music that they did, indeed, need specific attention. I, too, became more aware of their powers and began to emphasize them more strongly, and that makes me feel more complete as a thinker.

But I am also aware that culture, while a primary determinant of what music can be (and therefore a primary aspect of authentic music education practices) is not sufficient to explain all the foundations of musical understanding and creating. I have for some time stressed that there are three such foundations, both for human life in general and for music. Every human being is, in important respects, like all other human beings; like some other human beings; and like no other human beings. That is, we possess, at one and the same time, a universal aspect, a cultural aspect, and an individual aspect. Same, exactly, for music. That has helped me understand that we must expand our view of what music education is and what it must aim to accomplish in the education of our students.

Q: In 1958 you wrote: “The literature on music education has traditionally included a generous amount of self-justification.” Do you think the field still “feels the hot breath of public opinion on its back?” And if so, why?

Yes I do. Music education is a necessary part of education, but throughout our history we have been relevant to a very small percentage of students in schools. So our support by the public, while a mile wide (everyone “loves music”), it is also, when push comes to shove, an inch deep. This has always kept us in a very vulnerable position, never part of the “basics” so always in danger of being marginalized or even eliminated. What we have traditionally done we have done really well, and we deserve to be proud of that and to continue to achieve that excellence.

But we need to reach more of the kids we aren’t reaching. We still have a deep problem with relevance in our society. We simply must expand our vision to include all the ways people in our culture (and universally and individually) engage themselves with music, the ways identified, for one example, in the National Standards for Music Education. Until we serve the needs of most if not all students, we will feel that hot breath of the public wondering whether to support us as we so desperately want to be supported.

Q: What do you tell young teachers just entering the profession?

At Northwestern and around the country I am often asked to speak to music education majors who are studying my book, A Philosophy of Music Education, in preparation for entering the profession. I tell them that we have to honor and protect the admirable success we have achieved with teaching the performance of composed music, but that we have to go far beyond that if we are to survive and flourish. If we are ever to be more important to people, and therefore more fully supported in education, we must satisfy more of the musical needs and enthusiasms that really exist in our culture. Otherwise we will continue to hang on by the few threads we have settled for in our history.

As the next generation of music educators, the weight of significant change is in their hands. Which means we must now, not later, begin to prepare them for their work in all sorts of new and challenging ways, ways that more honestly and fully represent the real world of music. While some, even many of them, will continue and need to continue our excellence in performance education, many will have to achieve the same excellence in the many areas of music we have woefully neglected.

Big changes are needed. I tell [future teachers] facing these changes in their careers that there are exciting opportunities awaiting them, opportunities to begin making music education whole. It is an ideal well worth a lifetime of fulfilling effort. To better enable them to make those changes remains the pressing obligation of all who are presently preparing these young music educators for a life of challenge and fulfillment.

Visit the Rowman & Littlefield Web site for more information on ordering the book. NAfME members receive a 25% discount off the list prices of $90 for the hardback version and $44.95 for the paperback edition.

Roz Fehr, September 3, 2009. © The National Association for Music Education