Vincent Bates teaches elementary arts integration, secondary student teaching seminar, and values education at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Most of his scholarship relates to social class and rural music education. He is currently in the middle of a five-year term as editor of Action, Criticism, and Theory in Music Education, and recently completed a two-year term as chair of the Weber State University Storytelling Festival, one of the largest storytelling festivals in the world to feature youth storytellers.
A Critique of Music Education as Urbanormative
In this presentation, I will explore some ways in which formal music education is urbanormative. I will base this critical analysis in critical rural theories recently developed by a collection of rural sociologists (Fulkerson and Thomas 2014; Thomas et al. 2011). Urbanormativity refers to the underlying structural and cultural rationality that privileges the urban center and, although dependent upon it, represses the rural periphery (Fulkerson and Thomas 2014).
Cities are associated with a range of positive values: prosperity and progress, education and refinement, cosmopolitanism and diversity. In contrast, those living in the country are associated with poverty and backwardness, ignorance and crudeness, boredom and homogeneity. And as the world becomes increasingly urban, the effect is not only demographic but cultural as well. (Fulkerson and Thomas 2014, 5–6)
Music, musicing, and music education, as socially situated practices, are built on the same rationality, reflecting the same structures and cultural patterns existing in society generally. The relationship between structure and culture is central to this analysis. “The critical school maintains that structural domination cannot be achieved without cultural legitimation as expressed in ideological forms” (Fulkerson and Thomas 2014, 17; see also Thomas et al. 2011). These forms are difficult to recognize because they are largely part of a social unconsciousness of taken-for-granted traditions, standards, and assumptions. They are automatically adopted by both urban and rural populations alike, yet tend to be legitimizing for dominant urban populations while they are hegemonic for rural populations. “The most effective way to achieve hegemonic domination is to package it in such a way that it seems normal, natural, and even desirable” (Fulkerson and Thomas 2014, 17).
Fulkerson and Thomas (2014) discuss three forms of cultural capital as outlined by Bourdieu. First, embodied cultural capital refers to the “way we walk and talk” (20), our general habits. Second, objectified cultural capital includes cultural artifacts that have high levels of currency. Third, institutionalized cultural capital pertains to professional credentials and affiliations. Formal music education is urbanormative in a variety of ways that combine embodied, objectified, and institutional capital. In this presentation I will discuss at least the following four:
First, formal music education throughout the world revolves around university schools of music, most often located in urban centers. In North America, faculty members at these institutions recruit prospective students primarily on the basis of their skills in performing jazz and classical music and primarily from other urban or suburban places. Faculty members also serve prominently in professional organizations that develop urbanormative curriculum and policy to be applied in rural areas.
Second, school music is focused on “bigness.” Large ensembles — particularly bands, orchestras, and choirs — dominate at universities, high schools, and middle schools. In fact, secondary school music in North America is nearly synonymous with large ensembles. Plus, the growing international El Sistema movement has been focused on large orchestras as well. As features of cities, large ensembles require large performance spaces and large groups of people to perform and to attend performances – characteristics not typically associated with rurality.
Third, genres of music that receive priority in formal music education are, by and large, urban genres — classical, jazz, and, to a lesser extent, rock and hip-hop — associated with large performance venues and — at least in the case of jazz, rock, and hip-hop — urban themes. A romantic view is taken of “multicultural” and “folk” musics (and places) as they are appropriated into more urbane practices (e.g. concert band or choir arrangements of folk songs from around the world), and as a starting point for developing an appreciation for classical music (e.g. Kodály methodologies).
Fourth, as an extension of industrialization and urbanization, applications for technology are expanding in music education. This includes the use of the internet to extend the cultural reach of urban values, ideals, and practices. It also can serve to increase the influence of urban institutions as they provide instruction over ever larger swathes of the countryside.
Finally, building on my previous scholarship regarding rural music education, I will also argue that urbanormativity in music education is oppressive and repressive to rural music students as their own cultural and structural backgrounds are framed as backwards and deficient. I encourage music educators and scholars to seriously consider the cultural, social, and personal impacts of their urbanormative actions, potentially on a large portion of the world’s population, and especially as they participate in international urbanizing efforts in music education.