"Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known." - Oscar Wilde
Being involved with presenting arts organizations, as well as music education in formats ranging from college to outreach, I am constantly reminded by friends and colleagues in the field about the steadily increasing pressure to adopt to the 21st century challenges and values. I think this topic has implications well beyond music education. I am sure Harvard faculty is asking themselves (or at least they should) questions about what possible value can undergraduate student expect to receive from four years of getting basically the same information they could find on the internet? Beyond social networking and a badge of honor from gaining admission into a coveted school in an artificially inflated competitive environment, there is hardly a reason to justify the astronomical tuition prices, as well as losing four years which could be spent gathering useful life experiences through work, service or apprenticeships. If humans truly learn best through small group/individual coaching and experience plus deliberate practice, as a lot of current research has shown, then the entire current undergraduate college education model is failing.
In fact, conservatories and other vocational/trade schools are perhaps more effective in equipping their students with useful skills than generic undergraduate college courses. That said, I can’t imagine an educational model that can address the 21st century arts relevance problem, because it is ultimately in the realm of personal agency. No amount of supplemental marketing/business courses can prepare an aspiring artist to effectively compete for attention with highly sophisticated, well-funded marketing efforts of large institutions or businesses. Being honest about what conservatories/music departments can’t offer perhaps is more important today than ever. People passionate enough about an art form to devote their life to it deserve nothing less.
The ridiculous pressure to compete with commercial forms of entertainment and other for-profit enterprises would be removed if we accept personal empowerment and enrichment as main value propositions of art education. From evolutionary biology point of view, art’s function is a “fitness display” signaling vitality and surplus resources to other humans. Recognizing that would finally put to rest debating “virtuosity” verses “meaning/depth.” Humans respond to a good live performer in front of them powerfully without giving much thought to the source material unless they are pointed in that direction. To most people, Beethoven and Balanchine mean little without musicians and dancers bringing them to life. Great performers have always known that and have never bought into the self-defeating nature of the current trend, among those, who abdicate responsibility hiding behind “serving the composer” in their quest to avoid criticism. Recognizing that there is little to no commercial value in mastering an art form would lead to fewer professional musicians, dancers, writers and actors, but reimagining arts education as means of achieving personal growth, empowerment and enrichment could give completely new life and meaning to the artforms we cherish, as well as find unexpected new sources of support and build new powerful alliances across disciplines.