Is Music Education a Waste of Public Money?

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Last week I heard from a friend about an experience that was bothering her 17-year-old son. He’s currently studying for A levels, and planning to apply for a place on a BMus course. His career aspirations seem quite clearly thought-through (way more than mine were at that age!), with a desire to perform professionally backed up by Plans B and C of teaching music and/or doing something else to pay the bills while moonlighting on the semi-pro circuit.

The first thing to note is that Plan A will almost certainly involve either or both of Plans B and C en route. Very few people support themselves throughout their career entirely from performing. It’s not just when you’re in the early stages needing to supplement income either. You also see people shifting away from full-time performance later on, in order to see their kids before they grow up, or for the chance to spend a bit of time enjoying the house they’ve been paying the mortgage on.

Anyway, that’s the background; the problem is this:

But now, someone has told him that studying and playing music is a "Waste of taxpayers’ money - why should we work and pay taxes so that you can play a trumpet?", and he is quite upset. He is now questioning all his Plans and asks why he should bother teaching more people to be a drain on society.

So I said I’d write a post in response. I’m hardly an unbiased observer of course, having spent 15 years being paid by the tax-payer to train musicians. But if I can’t persuade him of the moral validity of spending a life that way, I can at least show that it’s possible not to feel bad about it.

And in fact, it’s a strangely complex attack - even though it looks like simple utilitarian Conservatism - and it’s taken me longer to unpick than I anticipated. The first part of the premise is that public money should only be spent on things that offer value back to the rest of society. Which is fine – most political debate about public spending consists of different opinions about what constitutes value to the common good, about whether the depletion of individual wealth from taxation is adequately compensated for by the common uses that money is put to.

But according to this person, having people learn music does not offer any value back to society. Or, maybe it’s that they consider learning music to be essentially a leisure activity, and they are worried that they are paying for people’s hobbies. There’s possibly a touch of sour grapes lurking in there too: why should people be able to make a living out of something they actually like doing, and which many people do for fun, when other people are miserable at work? Which makes me think that they either need to find a more rewarding job or to wise up to the work ethic required to make it as a musician. Or possibly both.

Anyway, this notion that subsidising the training of musicians is a waste of taxpayer’s money clearly casts music as one of life’s non-essentials. It may be nice, but it’s a luxury, and so whilst you are welcome to squander your own money on it, you should keep your sticky fingers out of the public purse.

Now, the musician’s instinct is to defend the value of music to our world. Imagine a world without it, we say, and think how impoverished our lives would be! But this is to attack the strong side of the argument rather than the weak side, as any such defence can be countered ideologically by an appeal to the market. If the world values music, they can say, it will provide the funding without government intervention.

More to the point, though, is this: even if music is nothing but auditory cheesecake, that doesn’t mean that publicly-funded education has no role in supplying the industry. The food technologists who create non-metaphorical cheesecakes need to be educated too; pre-made desserts are also a luxury, but you don’t hear people objecting to the inclusion of organic chemistry in the curriculum.

So that’s one dimension. Another is to consider education as distinct from vocational training. It is interesting that my friend’s son’s other A level choices of Philosophy and English Language aren’t similarly attacked for their non-utilitarian nature. My guess is that fewer people get gainful employment as philosophers than as musicians. But we accept that a lot of traditional subjects have a value in developing the capacities of the student independent from the content of the discipline.

And music is at least as valuable as history or geography or English literature in this respect. You get the academic dimensions of research, judgement, marshalling an argument, literacy, etc., plus all the human skills of self-discipline, team-work and physical coordination. So music has a useful place in the curriculum for all the folk who don’t want to go into the profession, but can still become more effective in their specialist fields from having learned to operate musically.

And let’s not forget: musicians pay taxes too. Our basic social contract in education is that the state pays to develop its citizens in their youth, and they then spend their adulthood subsidising the next generation. And while today’s engineers may be subsidising tomorrow’s trumpeters, it’s also true that today’s bass guitarists are paying for the training of tomorrow’s cheese-cake manufacturers.

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