New book tunes into music role in modern world

Bookmarks spotlights the personalities and published books of faculty, staff and alumni.

Today, Paul Woodford, professor and former Chair of the Department of Music Education at the Don Wright Faculty of Music, answers questions on his ‘bookishness’ and writing.

His new book, Music Education in an Age of Virtuality and Post-Truth, looks to place music and art education within a context of contemporary social and political problems in a time of growing disruption and authoritarianism

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HITCHENS

What book do we find you reading tonight?

I’m currently serving as an external reviewer for a faculty member seeking promotion to full professor at a prestigious American university and am composing a letter in support of the individual in question. As anyone who has assumed this kind of responsibility knows, this action requires depth of knowledge and critical analysis of the applicant’s many publications, and so I’m reading his newly published book. I can’t say who the author is, but he is a prominent scholar in my own field and area of philosophy of music education.

The question implies that faculty have time for leisure reading, but there regrettably just isn’t much time in our busy schedules to venture very far from our academic agendas.

Having said that, my own scholarly work bridges philosophy, music, art, political science, history and other disciplines, including indirectly literature. Among my favourite readings outside of my own immediate field are the essays of Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, Martin Amis, and Christopher Hitchens, to name only a few. I don’t always agree with their politics, but I like their literary allusions and bold styles of writing.

How you decide what to read? Reviews, word of mouth, maybe occasionally judge a book by its cover?

Well, my professional role, outside of teaching, is to contribute to the literature in music, philosophy, education, and politics etc., and so I am always looking out for new publications of use to me in my own essays and books. I’m a social, as much as a music education, critic and try to keep abreast of current and recent developments, for example Donald Trump’s rise to the pinnacle of power and what that might mean for the future of public education and beyond the United States.

Much of what I research and write about involves the politics of music in society and its institutions, including educational ones. Music is everywhere but people tend not to attend to it as much as they should and thus don’t necessarily realize its power to persuade or penetrate their intellectual defenses. Politicians and their handlers know that music can seduce or liberate, distract, decorate or entertain, energize or elevate, but it can just as easily enervate, manipulate, disturb, appeal to the basest emotions or incite to violence.

Those are important themes of my just released book Music Education in an Age of Virtuality and Post-Truth (Routledge, 2019). The young learn most of that they know about their world through music- and art- saturated social media. They should, accordingly, learn in school and university to be more critically aware of the music and art they consume in their daily lives. That way they can be better informed of the intentions of those creating or using it (and social media) for their own ends. Tim Wu addresses similar themes in his 2016 book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside our Heads.

Name one book you wish you had written. And why?

Nothing comes to mind, as I’m generally satisfied with my own books and many chapters and journal articles. Another book of mine of which I’m proud is Democracy and Music Education: Liberalism, Ethics and the Politics of Practice (Indiana University Press, 2005). I tend not to be envious of other writer’s themes and content; I’m more impressed with how some of my favourite authors write rather than necessarily what they write.

Are there any genres you avoid? And why?

I don’t so much avoid any genres as I seek out books that challenge me to think and learn more about the past, present, and future while sometimes also making me laugh, and whether fiction or non-fiction. I have a great appreciation for the sometimes ridiculous in history, fiction, and politics.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Stephen Harper by John Ibbitson. I was drawn to Harper’s biography because I couldn’t understand his motivations when elected Prime Minister in 2006 for disparaging so-called elite musicians, artists, and academics. My own research addresses some of the political connections between American and Canadian conservatives, as illustrated by Harper’s politics and use of music as a political tool to curry favour among the electorate. American conservatives are notorious for co-opting anti-establishment protest music to appeal to the masses, and Harper was very much influenced in his politics and music-making by American neoconservatism.

If you could require every university president to read one book, what would it be? And why?

At risk of sounding egotistical, my abovementioned Music Education in an Age of Virtuality and Post-Truth was very much motivated by a concern about a possible global decline in music education – and the arts and humanities, generally – and how today’s politicians and educational bureaucrats don’t understand or necessarily appreciate their importance to democratic citizenship and to the good life.

Too few government, university, and school officials seem to understand, or turn a deaf ear to, the social significance of music and its centrality in the lives of children and youth. Contributing factors to this deficit of understanding of the importance of the arts in education among university administrators are over-specialization and increasing reliance of our educational institutions on corporate funding. University presidents and school principals are not always – or often – well-rounded in their education. It goes almost without saying nowadays that increasing reliance on corporate funding comes at a cost for the arts and humanities.

Those faculties and departments cannot realistically compete with the sciences for corporate dollars and, in consequence, are in this age homo economicus seen as fiscally feeble and therefore less valuable and, I fear, expendable.

Musicians, too, have arguably been a part of the problem because for far too long committed to the mantra of ‘art for art’s sake.’ We’ve long cocooned ourselves from the wider university society and have not been as outspoken as we should about institutional, provincial, national, and global politics and economics affecting us.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

BURGESS

The Catalan painter and music lover Joan Miró would be one guest, as one of his paintings, Blue II, above, adorns the cover of my latest book. My wife, Music professor Jill Ball, and I have long been inspired by him, but we only recently learned of his thinking about the politics of avant-garde music and art.

Anthony Burgess would be another guest. Although most famous for his many novels, he was also at one time a music teacher and composer and was politically aware and engaged in his day.

VIDAL

American Gore Vidal is another literary figure, politician, and a critic of American politics and militarism whose novels and essays I have long enjoyed and found useful. His work is cited in my book with reference to the American Empire (see also Scottish historian Niall Ferguson’s 2004 book Colossus: The Rise and the Fall of the American Empire) with respect to music’s many contributions to its creation and perpetuation in print, film, and other media.

How do you explain what your latest book is about to them?

Given music’s ubiquity in our lives, I start by drawing people’s attention to the histories of music and art (including literature) demonstrating, with numerous examples, how they have always been implicated in the joys and moral frailties of the human condition. George Orwell, Ray Bradbury and many other literary figures also knew, wrote about, illustrated, and warned of some of the potentially negative personal and social consequences of music and/or art. In his 1951 book Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury presciently warned of the development and addictive potential of earbud technologies.

What is the best line you’ve ever written?

That’s difficult to say. I do like the sentence from my abovementioned latest book stating, “Ironically, all the while Ronald Reagan and his neoconservative friends were calling for smaller government, they were seeking to extend its reach into the minds of Americans through the taming of culture.”

This sentence is found in a chapter entitled Harperland and Conservative Disdain for Music and the Arts. The chapter explores some of the roots of former Prime Minister Harper’s neoconservatism and explains how American conservatives in the mid-1970s and thereafter were attempting to shape the moral character of the nation, in part, by labelling socially progressive musicians, artists, and academics ‘undesirable others.’ They were attempting to gain control over the spheres of cultural production, reproduction, and reception. In this Platonic political scheme, government functioned as moral tutor to the nation in attempting to shape the moral fibre of the citizenry.

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Music Education in an Age of Virtuality and Post-Truth is available at The Book Store at Western or through other popular online bookseller.