The task before us is challenging and requires balance.
There is no question that many institutions within our society are impacted by systemic racism and resulting inequity. We face a national reckoning and an urgent call to correct these wrongs, frequently imbedded in generations of assumptions, presumptions and behaviors found in our legal systems, employment practices, citizen’s rights and, yes, even in our classrooms. There is a growing and earnest ambition among leaders of all races and backgrounds to right the ship and chart a new course. The “why” of the dilemma is becoming clear. However, the “what” and “how” remain elusive.
What qualifies as sufficient?
When are good intentions reaching too far?
By example, The Telegraph recently published an article reporting that professors at Oxford University are pushing a ban on sheet music and an end to the focus on classical European composers — claiming the prestigious UK institution would be complicit in “white supremacy” otherwise. The faculty board, seeking to address a “white hegemony,” included in its recommendations the cessation of teaching historic musical notation; calling it a “colonialist representational system.”
Here’s another example. Administrators at Howard University, one of the nation’s most eminent Black colleges, recently announced plans to dismantle the classics department by absorbing courses into other academic areas, viewing it as a field dominated by White scholars.
I’m reminded of a colloquial phrase - “Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
In the aspiration to achieve greater equity, is it necessary to pretend that Mozart or Brahms never existed, or to ignore an international language used to capture musical ideas solely because of their white origins? Does building a racially balanced system require the obliteration of the classics as a field of academic study? “Classical history is also Black history,” said Anika Prather, an adjunct professor in Howard’s classics department.“In most college classics departments, they will read these texts and will skip right over the fact that they’re from Ethiopia. The world of the ancient times was a really integrated, diverse society,” Prather said. “If we lose it, we lose a piece of all of us.”
Something does not become more true or more valid if it merely replaces another truth. The answer to our shared dilemma is not found by revision. Rather, it is achieved by inclusion.
It is admirable that the music faculty of Oxford University recognize a lopsided curriculum that is focused on the contributions of primarily white musicians. Good for them! Faced now with what to do and how to accomplish it requires inclusive balance. Continue to teach European music history without being euro-centric. Balance these studies with the accomplishments and traditions of other cultures. (Note: I said “balance.” I did not suggest that mentioning other cultures was sufficient.) The tapestry of music, as a form of expression and as a powerful cultural artifact, is rich in its diversity. So, along side Beethoven, Tchaikowsky and Debussy, explore how this form of expression is manifested in other cultures and how it is transcribed. What is a renaissance? Don’t just dwell on the Italian Renaissance. How about the Harlem Renaissance? How are they connected? Oxford would be smart to expand and broaden their repertoire of musical inquiry to include “African and African Diasporic Music,” “Global Music” and “Popular Music,” not to simply focus on them as the faculty proposal suggests.
The racial origins of a discipline of study should not make it inaccessible to members of other race communities. As reported by The Washington Post, “There are plenty of students here who care deeply about the classics,” said Sarena Straughter, who is studying political science and Latin at Howard University. “It’s really necessary to keep the focus on Black students in the classics and making sure that they have the same chance of attaining that as any other student does in the U.S.”
Harvard University professor Cornel West, in an op-ed he co-wrote for The Washington Post, said that by removing the department, the university is “diminishing the light of wisdom and truth” that inspired freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The present curriculum of our national K-16 system of education is riddled with omissions, half-truths, slights of perspective and, in some cases, bias. It is a curriculum that has been constructed by a specific racial community to tell its story in a flattering, if not one-sided, light. When this occurs, students outside of that specific race community stand to be under-represented and mis-served.
It’s time that we employ a curriculum that is rooted in the truth. It’s not sufficient to focus on reparation of an unbalanced or unjust circumstance. We must also understand how we got to the situation in the first place. We must teach for understanding, deliberately trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. The famous Trail of Tears was not just a tragic event. It was the culmination of a litany of injustices inflicted on a nation of people by another group of people who did not care to understand them. Rather, the indigenous people were in the way of achieving a larger goal.
It is in understanding the truth, the unvarnished whole and accurate story, that can allow healing to occur. The truth should not be something to fear. It is teaching the truth, so that children have a grasp of the truth, that is foundational to affording kids the education they deserve.