if formal music education is a privilege, spread the privilege

I was encouraged by this open letter from musicians and music educators in the Guardian, responding to a deeply wrongheaded essay arguing that, since formal music education is increasingly restricted to the white and wealthy, formal music education (that is, notation and theory) is therefore somehow bad and we should stop trying to do it at all. That sounds ridiculous but look and see for yourself.

This is hardly a unique argument in education or outside of it. (A recent vintage I’ve heard, particularly ludicrous, is that the impending shutdown of the New York L train is a good thing, because the L train is ridden by privileged hipsters, which… I can’t even begin to tell you how immensely stupid that is.) French poetry and other “impractical” majors sometimes get this routine – they are disproportionately concentrated in elite private colleges, so therefore there is something inherently decadent about studying them. Their connection to privilege somehow renders them unclean. But of course the fact that these wonderful subjects are now the province of those who have less immediate pressure to achieve independent financial stability only means that we should spread that condition.

A more equitable and humane society is one in which more people, not fewer, can spend their time on beautiful, “impractical” pursuits. Yet there are those deluded leftists who sometimes take a similar tack; why, they ask, are we funding Shakespeare in the park when there are people without warm clothes for the winter? Why pay for museums when some people go hungry? But follow this thinking long enough and you realize what they’re really saying is “poor people have no inner life.” In a just society we recognize that nobody, rich or poor, lives on bread alone. If your socialism doesn’t spread access to music and art and theater and cathedrals and tree-lined boulevards, I have no use for it or for you.

The point of privilege analysis is to spread the privileges to everyone, not to end them, and since music is the food of love, let rich and poor kids play on.