Wynton Marsalis on the Importance of Arts Education

“We hear widespread calls for ‘outcomes’ we can measure and for education geared to specific employment needs, but many of today’s students will hold jobs that have not yet been invented, deploying skills not yet defined,” write Harvard President Drew Faust and trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis recently in USA Today. “We not only need to equip them with the ability to answer the questions relevant to the world we now inhabit; we must also enable them to ask the right questions to shape the world to come.”

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Over the past three years, renowned musician and arts advocate Wynton Marsalis, the managing and artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center, has delivered a lecture/performance series at Harvard University, titled “Hidden in Plain View: Meanings in American Music.”

“During his inspirational appearances at Harvard, Wynton has shown us time and again how music captures the human experience in a way that connects us to something larger than ourselves,” Harvard President Drew Faust said.

Together Faust and Marsalis emphasized the critical need for music and arts education in America to meet 21st-century demands. Here are a few points to ponder from their recent column, “The Art of Learning”:

“We need education that nurtures judgment as well as mastery, ethics and values as well as analysis. We need learning that will enable students to interpret complexity, to adapt, and to make sense of lives they never anticipated. We need a way of teaching that encourages them to develop understanding of those different from themselves, enabling constructive collaborations across national and cultural origins and identities.

“In other words, we need learning that incorporates what the arts teach us. …

“Music stresses individual practice and technical excellence, but it also necessitates listening to and working with others in fulfillment of the requirements of ensemble performance. In jazz, collective improvisation offers musicians the freedom to reinvent, adapt and change. But that freedom is tempered by a shared overall objective: swing. The art of swing is the art of balance, of constant assertion and compromise. …

“We once knew better. In 1884, the National Education Association established a Music Education Department, and the teaching of music proliferated across the country. It is worth remembering that Louis Armstrong, born in 1901, has described being given his first music lesson — and a cornet — in a segregated, underfunded reform school. …

“We must teach our children to be ready for a world we cannot yet know, one that will require the attitudes and understanding sparked and nurtured by the experience of the arts.

“These are the qualities by which the future will measure us.”

Catherina Hurlburt, Special Assistant, January 2, 2014. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)