In defence of an instrumental view of higher education

Introduction to Music StudiesReaders of this blog know that I’m vituperatively opposed to contemporary political attitudes to higher education, which see it as nothing more than a machine for growth, a productive sector of the economy which should be intellectually docile and do its ideological master’s bidding. And some people who come to my blog before they come to the musicology textbook, written by my colleagues in the Royal Holloway Music Department, which I edited with Jim Samson a few years ago (An Introduction to Music Studies), are surprised, even disappointed, by some of the things I wrote in the four-page introduction. The start of another academic year, when this book tends to be pulled out for discussion with first-years, has made me reflect once more, with the usual stoicism, on why I let this into print, and I thought that this time I would blog about it. Maybe students, or scholars writing similar introductory textbooks, will find the ruminations useful.

Students frequently ask me what the hell I was thinking when I wrote this. I seem so often to be siding with an instrumental view of higher education: the view that education’s function is to make people more employable, not better equipped to reflect on their world and the people around them. How could I do something so ghastly, so cowardly? The first thing to say, I guess, is that of all my publications, this introduction contains the least thought. It is purely functional prose, written to order: I was in the first year of my job, fulfilling a duty to my department and the publisher, and not in a position to make a scene in the introduction to a book that was a major collaborative enterprise in my new home. I didn’t intend to write a manifesto.

But the second, and much more substantial, defence is that, actually, the instrumental view is true, though of course it’s only part of the story, and it has to be looked at the right way round. The wrong way is the currently dominant Westminster view: the idea that universities ought to train the human resources for business, so that our economy remains competitive. On that view, universities are performing a service for business. But there is nothing ignoble in a prospective student saying ‘Music is the greatest love of my life, and I can think of nothing more wonderful than doing a degree in it. But I’m from a fairly poor background, I’m taking on £40K or so in debt, and I know that there aren’t all that many jobs in music, so I need to know: I’m not making a stupid mistake, am I? Should I be doing something more like maths or science, or is it OK for me to do this thing I love?’ It’s quite clear that such a student wants to read for a music degree for the love of learning about music; but as well as learning about music, they do want to be able to exist in material comfort and security in a world which requires them to work, and in addition to a university’s principal purpose, to add to the store of human knowledge, it also has a vital instrumental function in the service of individuals, who want to be able to get a job. That’s the instrumental view that I think should be defended, not the view that universities owe a service to business.

Many people feel that subjects like music, art, literature, and so on are somehow cheapened if they are brought into contact with the question of money. Well, it must be pleasant not to have to worry about money, but for the majority it is a matter of huge importance whether they can find good employment. And as I wrote the introduction, I had in mind A-level students, pre-major US students, or even interested parents, browsing the book with just this sort of anxiety in mind: they are or their child is interested in doing a music degree, and they want to be reassured that it’s not going to be a disadvantage in the long term. The last thing such a reader needs is a musicology textbook that opens with an eloquent paean to the liberal virtues of a humanities education, the good it will do to your beautiful soul, and so on. They know all that already – that’s why they’re interested in the first place – but they want the additional, vital, final reassurance that it’s OK to pursue this. In this context there’s room for crude, bland reassurance, in the language of the job centre advert and the office-job application CV. So I wrote that ‘a music degree offers a more genuinely useful training for graduate life than might at first be imagined’, and that it will ‘provide a breadth of training in transferable skills that will make you particularly valuable to other professions as a music graduate’. And I did so hoping that some people might think ‘Oh, thank god, it’s not just a pleasant opportunity for the rich who can afford to idle away three years thinking about the difference between a Corelli and a Handel concerto grosso: it’ll do me just as much good as a Maths degree, and I can do what I love!’

Admittedly, if I had to write this again today, I’d choose different words from time to time. But I’d make the same general points again. Reviewers have sneered at what I wrote. But, respectfully, I’d suggest that to sneer at this kind of reassurance is to do a disservice to precisely the students who need our support most, in order to be able to enter into an intellectual world that can radically change their lives. Not to descend to the instrumental level of the opposition to their taking the subject in the first place – not to talk, that is, the shabby language of economic utility – would be, in the introduction to an introductory textbook, effectively to say that musicology is only for the elite. Because it is only a student from an elite background, who has sufficient family experience of university, who needs no such reassurance. The comprehensive-school kid, or their parents, on the other hand, might need it – though if they don’t, they can skip the reassurance and get into the meat of the introduction, the pages that detail the contents of the book.

If the introduction has provided ammunition for a single kitchen-sink altercation with a defensive family that is trying to prevent their child from studying music – whose emancipatory potential I laud in virtually everything else I’ve written – then I’ll be glad to have written it. In fact I’d do it again.

2 thoughts on “In defence of an instrumental view of higher education

  1. Thanks for this post and for initially writing the introduction to the text book. I have to say, I read the book before I started my undergraduate studies, and then again before starting my masters (I happily disagreed with more of the chapter content the second time around but that’s besides the point here), and it was this aspect of the introduction you defend here that I found most comforting the first time around. I did face some difficulties justifying why I should ‘simply study something I love,’ and found it hard having just left school to defend my choice in terms of job prospects to those who asked. The introduction confirmed that I was in fact going to study something worthwhile, for others even if I didn’t need it myself, and actually made me more excited to get started. And hey, three and a bit years later, I regret nothing. :)

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