Philosophical Dialogues

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In each newsletter we will highlight the dialogue among music education philosophers throughout our international community, in a hope to manifest both the theoretical and the pedagogical.
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    On the Concept of Leisure

    A philosophical dialogue between Christian Rolle and Roger Mantie, January to March 2024

Dear Roger,

I am pleased that there is an opportunity to continue the dialogue that we started at the symposium in Oslo. I am grateful to all the participants in the panel on music, leisure, and education. The contributions were very exciting, and the discussion was extremely stimulating. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the time was too short, and I still had many questions in my mind afterward.

In reading your bookMusic, Leisure, Education — and in the many discussions on the topic (since the 2019 ISPME conference in London, Ontario), I have not only learned a lot about the music education discourse in North America but also about my own entrenched thought patterns. Music educators in Germany and other European countries are too preoccupied with the question of which musical competencies should be acquired at school and how they can be assessed. We deal with curricula, but the fundamental question of the goals of music education is rarely asked. And when it does come to the point of what music education should be good for, the answers are all too often just attempts to justify the status quo. Instead of thinking about good music teaching, reference is made to the supposed transfer effects of making music.

It is refreshing to read how the concept of leisure and thus the question of the art of living can be taken as a starting point for thinking about the issues of music education. I understand your reflections as a critique of current debates about education; such debates often focus on the effectiveness of school learning in a society characterized by neoliberal views. At the same time, I think they are a critical commentary on ideas about music education that focus too much and too one-sidedly on the image of the professional musician and lose sight of what music can mean for everyone.

“It is desirable that music is offered in schools,” you write, because “all people deserve the opportunity to develop the requisite skills and dispositions for meaningful, non-professional music making to be one of life’s options” (p. 209). I agree with that. Your book makes it clear that to say something about how music education should be delivered, we need to look at how music can enrich our lives. Philosophy of music education, therefore, means asking questions about the art of living. That convinces me, and yet from my point of view, there are still some questions that I would like to discuss with you.

Your discussion of the sociological and philosophical literature on leisure is very illuminating. I read with great interest that leisure is very often about normative questions. Leisure alone cannot be relied on, one might assume, but better leisure is what counts. I was particularly interested in the evaluative distinctions within the concept of leisure, which you take up and draw yourself in chapters 8 and 9 of your book. You write:

“While any activity connected to a life purpose that contributes to one’s happiness and QoL can be considered good leisure, better leisure should be determined according to those pursuits that connect in some way to a concept of the common good.” (p. 206)

Not every form of leisure has this ethical quality, but only those that have eudaimonic and scholé potential, as you explain with reference to ancient ethical approaches (p. 203). In this context, you emphasize that “music and music-making cannot be simplistically assumed as inherently good” (ibid.). Music making “needs to be situated within a larger context of care and concern” so that we can speak of leisure in the sense of scholé (p. 190). I can follow these thoughts, but I don’t quite understand why in the next paragraph you emphasize making music together with others as particularly worthy of support from a music education perspective, while solo piano or guitar playing is suspected of expressive individualism (p. 191). Or is this a misunderstanding? The objection would be that the context of collective welfare of making music together can be limited to one’s own group. You know the concern (not only from Adorno) that the emotionality of collective singing and its manipulative power to build identity can lead to exclusion.

The second question that is related to this concerns the evaluative distinction of serious leisure. Serious leisure “depends on a particular attitude of ethical seeking (sensitive to the common good) and an investment of time and energy” (p. 234). Serious music making must be more than dabbling. What is required is a minimum level of musical competence “for music making to afford serious leisure possibilities” (p. 236), even though meeting the threshold does not guarantee leisure satisfaction. I can understand this very well from my experience. Activities are often more rewarding if we are good at them. But this does not answer the educationally relevant question of what kind of musical practice I should acquire skills for, and to what degree, so that I can perform satisfactorily at some point in the future. Who should determine that? In this context, you speak of the “paradox of paternalism” (p. 225). Do you see a solution? You argue “that music learning during one’s formative period should be predicated upon an imagined future where musical engagement is part of a meaningful and purposeful conception of daily living.” (p. 227) It is about developing “dispositions and capacities in such a way as to keep the door open to as many possible participatory options throughout the lifespan” (ibid.). These are certainly good maxims for music teachers, but they don’t resolve the paradox of paternalism, do they? What would it be like if school music practice were to be understood from the very beginning as self-purposeful leisure practice? Can musical skills not develop while making music?

Dear Christian,
Thank you for your thoughtful responses and questions. It never ceases to amaze me how much we learn from each other through dialogue.To your point about differing discourses, I am reminded of Cathy Benedict’s famous line uttered at ISPME many years ago: What the hell is Bildung?! While we can all chuckle about this today, I think Cathy’s words serve as a potent reminder that our music education practices — like all human practices — are laden with histories that reflect our contexts, be they geographic, linguistic, cultural, or otherwise. What I have always loved about participation in international “discourse communities” is how much I learn about my own norms, values, assumptions, worldviews, and so on. From what I have observed (which is hardly original or profound), tensions occasionally arise in those situations where some people assume that everyone everywhere shares the same set of norms, values, assumptions, worldviews, etc., or believe that everyone everywhere should! Tensions also arise, I think, when people feel that the existence of their beliefs and values is threatened by the beliefs and values of others. This sometimes happens in international settings.

In writing Music, Leisure, Education I was very much aware that the book’s reception would reflect the context of the reader. While I do not profess to have intimate knowledge of all education and music education norms and practices around the world, I know enough to know that differences exist. By invoking the question of living (i.e., how to live) and the concept of scholē (leisure), I attempted to transcend some of these differences, if you will. Although there are still some important considerations at a meta-meta level that go beyond what I felt (and feel) comfortable discussing — Indigenous worldviews, Eastern versus Western worldviews, etc. — I find it difficult to imagine anything more basic or universal than the question of living. (A shout out to Victor Fung and his 2018 book, A Way of Music Education: Classic Chinese Wisdoms, which is an amazing resource for those of us less familiar with Eastern philosophical perspectives and their educational implications.)

As you have identified, one of my main points in the book was to try to interrogate the implications of the “art of living” for music education. If — and it is an if — we believe that non-professional (i.e., non-occupational) music making can or should play a part in human life beyond the school years, what then? What does music making look and sound like in this case, and what might this mean for music learning and teaching, especially the learning and teaching that happens in the important formative years of human life? I realize that the answers to these questions are highly normative. Hence, I put forth not what I believe to be the right answer, but rather, an argument for what I think constitutes a worthy answer to these questions.

It is true that I argue for “better” leisure, an idea that is quite contested, even (or especially) in the field of leisure studies. For my purposes, the idea of better leisure must be considered not in the exclusive sense of what people choose to do in their non-obligated time, but in the context of upbringing. While this is still a normative matter, it seems difficult to imagine parents or teachers anywhere who believe it is better to teach young people how to abuse drugs and alcohol or torture animals than it is to teach healthy lifestyle habits like eating fruits and vegetables or to teach things like music making that have the potential for lifelong enjoyment. We might not be able to agree that tennis is better than golf or that playing bagpipes is better than playing the violin, but, in our role as educators, we can all hopefully agree on the basic premise that we have an obligation and responsibility to teach for the ideal of better leisure, regardless of the specific form this might take.

When it comes to the question of the specific form of what might constitute better leisure in music, my appeal to the common good reflects a particular, and admittedly political, worldview. I have nothing against individual forms of leisure-time music making, such as that represented by the solo pianist who derives pleasure and satisfaction from sitting by themselves playing after dinner every evening. Who would deny the value of this? My argument for “social” forms of musical engagement in music education is based on the position that if educators, as public servants, are going to teach people to make music in their formative years, they should emphasize music making that promotes sociality rather than individualism (with sociality representing for me a better common good than individualism). Children in many countries are bombarded with neoliberal-fuelled individualism in almost every aspect of their lives. As music educators, we have an opportunity to offer a counter-balance, however small and insignificant it may be in the bigger picture. I suspect libertarians would likely disagree with my position, with some maybe pointing to the danger of exclusion you identify. But is this exclusion perhaps not a case of mistaken causality? It seems to me that the exclusionary tendencies probably come first and the music is subsequently used as a tool or weapon. I’m not yet convinced that identity formation leads directly to exclusion. Just because I identify as a banana doesn’t mean I automatically despise apples.

As for “serious leisure”, I was surprised in my research to find Paul Goodman use this term in the 1950s, many years before Robert Stebbins helped to bring the idea to prominence. In some of his writing, Stebbins is guilty of suggesting that some forms of music making like classical and jazz lend themselves to serious leisure in a way that “popular” music does not. This is definitely not how I understand or use the term. My point about serious leisure was really more about the pursuit than the specific form of skills or the style/genre of music making. To engage seriously is to engage passionately and with the awareness that deepened enjoyment derives from attaining a minimum threshold of competence in our pursuits. Dabbling may be an important first step for some people, but dabbling alone is not likely to produce the kind of leisure satisfaction implied by concepts such as hedonia or eudaimonia. Ultimately, I do not see a way around the paradox of paternalism, nor do I see a way around the fact that when the rubber hits the road, we teach something. But I also don’t see that as a reason not to teach something. Half a loaf is better than no loaf in my opinion. Better that we keep the ideal of leisure clearly in view in our music learning and teaching than disregard it because it isn’t perfect or because we can’t all agree on the exact form that music learning and teaching should take.

Dear Roger,
Thank you very much for your clarifications. I now better understand your argument that the experience of sociality students have when making music together is vital as a counter-balance to the neoliberal norm of individual optimization. You rightly emphasize in your book that school music ensembles should not be dominated by practices of competition because that would undermine the idea of music as scholé. However, I feel the need to delve deeper into the concept of sociality. What form of society do we envision when we call for community? Understanding sociality as opposed to individualism and libertarian views, which are, by the way, not very widespread in continental Europe, is not sufficient to answer this question. My concerns, rooted in Frankfurt School Critical Theory, were directed against a pre-modern “Gemeins(c)haft” conception, which, in my opinion, does not fit the challenges of increasingly complex societies in times of advancing globalization. The ethical mindset of care and concern that can arise from the experience of community must extend beyond one’s own group. I believe it is the task of education to promote an attitude of responsibility in this broader sense, and I ask myself what contribution music education could make to this. Your book has inspired me to reflect on this.

I speculate: If the desirable ethical attitude includes the willingness and ability to communicate with those who have different values and ways of life, one of music education’s contributions could be to promote (cross-cultural) music dialogue. One possible approach would be to offer hybrid, transcultural, inclusive music ensembles in schools that mix a variety of different musics. The musicians would be faced with the challenge of developing a shared musical language because they cannot rely on genre conventions. Would that be compatible with your ideas and the aims of music education as leisure education? It would mean not relying solely on traditional music ensemble formats (in many countries, these include orchestra, band, and pop choir) and the associated routines and habits. New hybrid forms of collaborative music-making – and opportunities for communication – would have to be added. Teaching would include talking about music. Teachers could not see themselves as leaders, but rather as facilitators of an open process that prepares for a future that we do not yet know.

But I admit that these are still half-baked ideas, and of course you are right: the paradox of paternalism cannot be resolved. Because talking about dialogue doesn’t change existing power relations, especially the power imbalance between pupils and teachers, children and adults. Even with the best participatory approaches to progressive education, we cannot escape the fundamental pedagogical antinomy that Immanuel Kant writes about in his “Lectures on pedagogy.” The fundamental question of education remains: “How do I cultivate freedom under constraint?” But it is a question that should not simply be answered with the promise of an imaginary future. Friedrich Schleiermacher stated, “It is truly the nature of the pedagogical influence to be oriented toward the future,” followed by the question, “Is one permitted to sacrifice one moment of life” (of the child) “as a mere means to the end of another?” Against this background, I asked the question of whether school music could be understood from the very beginning as self-purposeful leisure practice. I could also refer to John Dewey, who states in his pedagogic creed that education “is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”

For many years, I had an ongoing debate with Werner Jank (with many others involved) about whether music education was primarily about building musical skills (that was his position) or whether it was more important to enable fulfilling moments of aesthetic experience (which I argued for). We never finally settled the argument, but we soon agreed that the either-or dichotomy was misleading. Fulfilling musical practice needs skills, but it is important that these skills are acquired through play (and not in prior training units). Such learning takes the form of self-purposeful practice. That’s the idea of scholé, isn’t it? Serious leisure is also playful leisure, right?

While reading your book, I was struck in many places by the similarity between theories of leisure and the aesthetic theories common in German-language debates on music education. As leisure activities, aesthetic practices have no purpose or goal external to them. They are characterized by their playfulness. What I appreciate about the concept of aesthetic practice is that it bridges the gap between art music and music in everyday life and also opens up the possibility of understanding music education as critical pedagogy. Aesthetic experiences can open up new perspectives and challenge me to rethink my habitual perceptions. I know that the debates in North America between PME and MEAE have taken a completely different course over the last 35 years, which is difficult for me to understand from a European background. Of course, the critical potential of cross-genre aesthetic practice only becomes visible if one does not orient oneself towards the tradition of classical music aesthetics using a concept of aesthetic experience based on art music, which dominates many North American debates on music education and has rightly been criticized many times. I refer to an advanced concept of aesthetic practice as found, for example, in publications by John Dewey, Simon Frith, or the philosopher Martin Seel. Hanne (Fossum) Rinholm and Øivind Varkøy have written about this, as did Heidi Westerlund 20 years ago.

The question of which theoretical concepts allow us to develop a critical music education moves me. You rightly emphasize the critical potential of the concept of leisure, which helps to analyze the dominant social norms of living that lead to the devaluation of leisure in favor of a neoliberal agenda. Do you think it would be possible to combine music education as leisure education with notions of critical aesthetic education, in which music is a medium in which we reflect on social transformation and in which we are politically active? I remember we talked about these questions once before, after your lecture in London, Ontario. I was inspired at the time by the reflections of Mya Scarlato, who in the pre-conference (she was then still a doctoral student from Columbia University, advised by Randall Allsup) shared her ideas concerning the concept of critical leisure in music education. Would you agree that leisure music activities could be considered aesthetic practices that open up spaces for imaginaries of a better life? I ask further: Do you think it is imaginable that leisure music practices can be part of political-artistic activism?

Dear Christian,

I am again reminded of how much can be learned through dialogue. To be clear, I am not implying any kind of dialectics here. That is not how I understand this exchange. I am only expressing my own experience of growth through reading your well-articulated thoughts, observations, and questions.

You remind me (again) of the nuances of vocabulary (I’m obviously thinking about English here) and how it can often lead to people talking past each other. I am definitely guilty of doing this by using a word like “libertarian,” which, as it turns out (from what I have discovered online), is understood quite differently in the U.S. and in continental Europe — to say nothing of how it might be understood in other parts of the world. So too, “individualism” (which one website about European values distinguished from “individualization”). When it comes to a root word like “liberal,” there are no doubt important distinctions to be made between economic, social, religious, political spheres and so on, and how these are manifested in various contexts. The Pew Research Center, for example, published a rather revealing study in 2011 on what it called the “American-European Values Gap.”

I am not going to pretend I have any kind of deep knowledge of the subtleties of European value systems. Trying to understand the political platform of the German Free Democratic Party made my head spin. Are they right? Are they left? (And what the hell is ordoliberalism?!) Fundamentally, however, my point about individualism was intended to emphasize how, as a comment that I believe is difficult to refute on a broad and general level, the world (or at least most of the world) has moved in a direction that privileges market rationality — a rationality that promotes a conception of human life based on competition, consumption, and “choice.” Importantly, I think, this logic frames choice as freedom, both from and to. As members of this geo-political economic system, it has somehow become a moral obligation for all people to keep it going, no matter what the consequences (to other people, to the environment, etc.). Recognizing and naming this prevailing logic may not dismantle it, but calling it out at least provides the opportunity to discuss how it may be unconsciously seeping into something as seemingly innocuous as music education.

It would be a naive conceit to believe that music education can somehow undo the current zeitgeist of individualism, but I do believe that how we conceptualize our practices matters. This is really one of the main points behind the music education as leisure education idea. It’s about how we understand music participation as part of a larger conception of life — which means that we have to start not with music but with living. That is why I posed the relationship between the imperative and interrogative: How one should live and How should one live? It is also why I quoted Wayne Booth, who wrote, “No institutional change will make much difference unless we can transform the prevailing picture of what makes a successful life…[U]nless we construct a culture in which true happiness is seen as something far beyond getting ahead…amateuring is doomed” (1999, 190). Although I do not quite share Booth’s pessimism, I do take his message: we are banging our head against the wall worrying about things like “paraxial” versus “aesthetic” or large ensembles versus “popular music” (or cross-cultural musics) when the real issue lies with misguided visions of what makes life worth living. Only by being thoughtful about how we make our way through the world — our personal aspirations and actions and how these relate to others (and the planet) — can we attempt to conceptualize what music education might mean.

In the book, I drew upon scholē as an inspiration for thinking about what music education might mean in the context of daily living, but do not think that scholē is the one and only way to think about how one might live responsibly as a member of the planet, with all its social, cultural, and communal complexity. Although I share sympathies with Dewey’s pedagogic creed (which I think resonates with scholē and is why I point to Democracy and Education , which sets up a pragmatist compromise of education for work coupled with education for life), I think there is some nuance to be observed. Scholē, for example, is consistent with the idea of education as a process for living. But surely there can be no denying the importance of the formative years of life. I am at heart resistant to discourses of “development,” with their many unsavoury aspects, but I don’t see how we can ignore Vygotsky (or Bourdieu, for that matter). The experiences of young people matter. When people like Gert Biesta critique the trope of “education as preparation,” I think they are drawing attention to the preparation for what? part and how this has been co-opted by people with self-serving agendas; they aren’t trying to deny the importance of the earlier years of life.

And so we inevitably land on the experiences part of the discussion. You will get no argument from me on the value of play. It was surprising but encouraging to me to see several papers on and about play at ISPME in Oslo this past June. (I am proud to say that my own paper on play will appear in an upcoming issue of PMER.) As you and I have talked about, I am drawn to your use of the term “aesthetic practices.” For me, the word “practices” highlights doing in a way “aesthetic experiences” does not. I see some potential in the way notions of play and aesthetic practices can emphasize a non-instrumentalist understanding of experience (the instrumental assumptions of play in the child study movement notwithstanding). At the same time, however, I worry that the word aesthetic is unable to shed its baggage, at least in the context of music education discourses. It inevitably smuggles in some form of art music hierarchy. Always. (Even in Europe, where the concept originated.) So: if by aesthetic practices in music education we are referring to the kinds of doings that celebrate imaginaries of a better life — by all means, yes. But can we not find a better term?

My concept of “music education as leisure education” is imperfect, of course. As I discuss in the book, there are inherent tensions in the notion of educating for leisure (which is why I call it the paternalism paradox). My hope for the phrase is that it might become part of the political-artistic activism to which you allude. Let us embrace our resistance to neoliberal discourses that fail to respect conceptions of living based on the good life and the common good (defined loosely in terms of human and environmental welfare rather than a nation’s GDP). No matter what form our individual music education practices take, let us ensure that they are oriented and guided by a conception of living, not by “the nature and value of music.”

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