"We live in an era of growing inequality." Thus begins Vincent Bates's latest Music Educators Journal piece. Educational institutions often worsen inequality by sorting students, which is done at the district level (success on national tests), school (this is the good elementary school), and within-school (academic track/non-academic track) levels. And school music hasn't avoided this inequality. In music education (like in birdsong), it's a hierarchy connected to mating: I married someone that was in band, not in the vo-tech track. We teach within, in Bates's words, "a competitive system," and "those with a head start are usually the ones who win." Bates suggests music teachers 1., "learn about and embrace the musical traditions of less affluent students," 2., "teach for lifelong music-making," 3., "make school music free for everyone," 4., "let musical participation be its own reward," and 5., "use music as a means to teach about economic disparities." Bates commented on the sustainability implications (an interest that we share) of his 3rd point. I'm going to focus in on the 1st and 5th points, specifically discussing implications for sustainability.
Like Bates, teachers embracing the musical traditions of our students is at the core of my work, what I have called a philosophy on soil. In an article I wrote for Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education, Music Educated and Uprooted, I use the Foxfire approach as an example of a rooting pedagogy. They are well known for producing a magazine, but their approach isn't merely about producing a magazine. It is a way of teaching rooted in students' out-of-school life. They send children home, where they talk to their relatives and other community members. They collect folk knowledge, which includes musics. There's no reason this can't be the starting point for music teaching. Teaching should not be a practice of bringing generalizables, those published artifacts we learn about in universities, like evangelists but our sacred artifacts are Percy Grainger scores and Carl Orff's instruments instead of the image of the Madonna. Music education should rather begin with human beings in a specific place. Music educators can begin their careers by recognizing the place they're entering, valuing it as a resource. This is the start of the metaphor of roots.
Estelle Jorgensen, back in 1995, already recognized the need for rootedness in music teaching and learning. She writes, "Place also provides a sense of rootedness. Individuals share ties to and roots in this place that stabilize beliefs and practices and promote cross-generational traditions, personal feelings of identity, security, and connectedness with this place and the people in it. ... People's disconnection from family and friends causes them to feel insecure, unsure of their identity and where they belong. The decision to make a home and stay put in this place, become identified with it, share in its responsibilities, challenges, and limitations, and joys, is a personal affirmation of the importance of rootedness in one's life." If disconnection from a sense of rootedness leads to insecurity, why is so much of schooling dissected from the communities we ostensibly serve? This is the question that Jorgensen and Bates and other music education scholars have wrestled with. We ask ourselves, What does it mean to actually be in a place?
Since some places cultivate more of a sense of rootedness than others, it follows logically that some places are more sustainable than others. It has been long noted that poor city neighborhoods and poor rural towns, where intergenerational knowledge is commonplace since everybody's relatives live within a few blocks of one another, are less polluting than suburbs. But our university system promotes, as the American ideal, suburban living. We export that ideal around the planet, to uproot rooted communities. We call it globalism. University professors treat as a right their hour-long commutes, ecologically disastrous suburban lawns, internationally owned shops (rather than local bodegas and Ma and Pa shops found throughout non-suburbia), globetrotting jobs, not knowing neighbors, not having porches, and seeing family just once a year. None of this is sustainable. Humans were made to walk. Everything we need must be within walking distance, so that when we choose to drive somewhere it's a choice, not a necessity. If we want to support our soon-to-be 8 billion human population, we need a return to home. To the inner-city and rural neighborhoods too many of us have fled for the illusion of social mobility. All hierarchies are unjust. That includes the hierarchy that places suburbia above traditional urban and rural living.
On to Bates's 5th point, that music teachers can use songs that teach about economic disparity. One of my favorite such songs is John Prine's old country classic, Paradise. My dad used to sing this song while we were walking. This song can be used in classrooms to raise a number of questions with students. These questions, this questioning-infused-pedagogy, can lead to greater ecological literacy. What can be gleaned from Paradise? Moving away from home was already normalized. And not just for upper-middle-class professionals. My own parents moved to D.C. for construction work in the 1960s. I didn't reroot in Patton, PA until the 1980s. 4th grade. In the song, Paradise was destroyed. "Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away." Memories are how Paradise is kept in the heart for uprooted people. How is it cared for though? Are uprooted masses, suburbanites, impotent to lend a hand and stop Mr. Peabody? And what is the Paradise story for those who stayed? For those who don't participate in "the progress of man"? For those who don't just remember the loss of Paradise, but need to live on the poisoned soil that progress has lead to?