Harvard’s Music Curriculum Changes: Another Attempt to Sidetrack the Asians?

Harvard tries to shake things up in its music curriculum:

University curricular reform doesn’t typical ignite fiery internet controversy. But last month, when The Harvard Crimson reported on the adoption of a new undergraduate curriculum at Harvard, the classical music corner of the internet—composers, performers, theorists, musicologists – briefly erupted in intense discussion. The college’s elimination of typical core requirements for concentrators (Harvard’s word for “majors”), including its introductory theory courses, caused some commentators to voice concern about the decline of traditional analytical skills; others instead pointed out that older curricular models often exclude non-Western musics and limit diversity.

One of the things they’re trying to do is this:

And our old curriculum was saying to those students, “You cannot major in music because your parents did not give you 12 years of this kind of education that we implicitly require.” Although it says nowhere on our website that that is required, that’s essentially what we’re requiring. We’ve gotten rid of this whole notion of this implicit – and it is, ultimately, a class-based implicit requirement. And students come with a variety of backgrounds and musical interests. For example, a highly skilled singer-songwriter can become a music concentrator.

Music at the university level is an interesting proposition.  It’s true that music academics commonly expect that the major has been doing this all of his or her life, which is a leisurely approach to being an academic.  (Everyone else struggles with products of a school system which doesn’t bring students to a high enough level, so we’re a little envious.)  And it’s true that “classical” music (and that term really isn’t used properly) dominates most university curricula, although there are  excellent jazz programs.

The bottom line is that music academics, whether they want to admit it or not, realise that the musical world they’re preparing their students for is not the same as we see in the, say, pop culture.  Here in Tennessee that’s especially obvious with the dominance of the country (and Christian) music industry in Nashville.

It’s easy to say that this is the problem Harvard is trying to fix.  Or is it?  Harvard and the other Ivy League schools, their reputation for excellence notwithstanding, have a long history of “levelling the playing field” when overachievers arrive.  This goes back to their treatment of the Jews a century ago, when they discovered the “well-rounded” person and reduced their Jewish admissions.  They’ve done basically the same thing with the Asians, which is why the Asians are suing.

Anyone who has been around music education knows that the Asians are very much dominant in competitions, just as they are in the STEM fields.  They are the primary recipients of the twelve (and more) year music education before they arrive (homeschoolers are another group that turn up in this bunch.)  Harvard’s changes strike me as an attempt to change the rules and “defend” the system against people who diligently followed it, all in the name of addressing a “class-based” problem.

The husband of a past president of the Tennessee Music Teachers Association expressed to me the sentiment that what music academia really needs is an audience.  Much of the system is a “closed loop,” which has made it a prime target for university budget cutting.  Starting with the audience would go a much longer way to addressing the “industry’s” problems than tinkering with the curriculum.

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