“The Music Man”

The Music Man,” Culture11, 15 September 2008.

WASHINGTON — “She was just seventeen,” sang Bronx congressman Joseph Crowley, with Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee on the bass. “You know — what I mean…”

Huck and Crowley were jamming their way through the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” rocking out in clunky-but-sincere fashion, and drawing “whoooo-oooh”s (at the appropriate moments) from the audience of wonks that had gathered Wednesday at the Center for American Progress (CAP) to discuss the state of American education policy.

The Beatles act, in fact, was just an intermission in Huckabee’s larger routine, which promises a veritable battle for the bands. Together with CAP and the nonprofit Music National Service Initiative (MNSI), he’s angling to better civil society by expanding quality music education in America. As Huckabee has been claiming since December, “one of the reasons we have kids failing is not because they’re dumb, it’s that they’re bored.”

The event, of course, took place the same week that Sen. Barack Obama outlined a comprehensive plan for education reform in America, and that media outlets were revealing that Sen. John McCain had once favored “doing away with” the Department of Education. It also coincided with a town hall meeting on national service at Columbia University, during which both presidential candidates appeared on Thursday.

Though MNSI is a coalition with a decidedly liberal bent, both Democrats and Republicans are divided on education policy — neither withholding support from President Bush’s landmark No Child Left Behind legislation nor fully supporting its rigorous testing regime and dysfunctional mechanisms for accountability among teachers. Rather, a centrist coalition prevails, agreeing on the need for standards and assessments, as well as improvement in the way states pay and recruit instructors.

So where does Huckabee, whose rock band recently opened for Willie Nelson and wrapped a gig at Denver’s famed Red Rocks amphitheater, stand? “If we’re really going to change the country,” he said, recycling a line that served him well during his year on the stump, “we’re going to need to unleash weapons of mass instruction. And to me, that means music and the arts.”

Huckabee can play the populist wag like no politician since that other governor from Hope, Arkansas. He chided state and federal administrators for treating music and the arts as “extracurricular, extraneous, expendable,” casting himself as the rare breed who finds such programs “essential.”

But are they? Huck made a compelling case that more drama in schools produces self-discipline and self-esteem, reducing extracurricular distractions during the three to six o’clock stretch when American adolescents get up to no good, and that music theory and performance are actually quantitative skills that lead to better math scores.

The National Association for Music Education backs up this claim with studies showing such learning corresponds to higher performing students and adults. And, empirically, the former governor’s primary assertion — that underperforming school age Americans are not stupid, but bored — is quite true. Dropout rates are at a record high; one third of ninth graders will fail to complete their degree, and the rate nears 50 percent in some urban school districts. NCLB’s enhanced requirements for English language instruction are cutting into time spent on music and the arts, as well as other “disposable” periods like PE, recess, and even lunch. A recent Center on Education Policy report notes that in the last seven school years, arts education instruction time has been slashed by an hour on average — a decrease of 35 percent.

The “music instruction” that does exist is often subpar. Huckabee, who at times mocked the mannerisms and diction of southerners (beware, Democrats, of even attempting such a thing), said he encountered a teacher who drawled, “Heck, all you have to do is put on a record.”

That’s not what the MNSI folks have in mind. Their scheme, to train a “musical peace corps” as instructors and send them out into the schools of America, received a coveted spot on the Aspen Institute’s roster of “big ideas.” And musician Kiff Gallagher, a representative of the San Francisco-based project, claims proper music instruction, with trained specialists, “has a far greater value to society than entertainment value.” He rattled off the talismanic powers of arts learning — in therapeutic learning; in dealing with autism, Alzheimers, and PTSD; in the entire realm of health as a whole. The MusiCorps would also provide jobs for young talent otherwise at the mercy of an increasingly atomized world of performance art.

Huckabee concurred. He has, after all, a decent record backing up that belief. While governor of Arkansas, he signed laws requiring elementary school students to take 40 minutes of weekly music instruction, and high schoolers to take half a year of classes in art, music, or dance. He also earmarked state dollars to train teachers. Still, Arkansas ranks 43rd of the states in education performance — and this is the record of a Republican who is trying.

Which begs the question: Are conservatives, who have been reticent to adequately fund public education, going to pony up for such an artsy-fartsy endeavor? During a series of 14 debates during the primary season, only one of the Republican presidential candidates touched upon the issue of education policy — the Miami debate, in which Huckabee launched his “mass instruction” zinger. Are Americans to believe that such a compassionate conservatism comports with the Republican agenda — outside the ambit of one man’s imagination?

And while this liberal arts graduate is all for more efforts in the humanities — like the 90 percent of parents who support more arts in schools — the notion that arts education would, as Crowley and Huckabee suggested, dramatically “improve” the US economy seems a bit farfetched. American math and science education programs continue to lag behind those in other major developed countries. (NCLB does require that students be assessed in science in every grade level, but the science test score is not included in the accountability system.) Surely an infusion of capital and expertise, geared at training a corps of engineers or chemists, offers American students better chances to compete in the new tech century.

But Huck stuck to his tune — and defended his party brethren with the same folksy bluster he used to skewer the record-playing music instructor: “Just so you know, Republicans like arts,” he said. And if students learn and achieve more through music, he joked, “they make better taxpayers.”

Dayo Olopade

For video of Crowley and Huckabee’s performance, click here.

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