In this post I’ve blended ideas from several inspiring books, listed below. History, in my view is often cyclical, rather than linear. As we move rapidly into climate crisis, artificial intelligence (AI) and a school curriculum, dominated by science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), I wonder how relevant the curriculum of today will be in five years, given the fast-pace of change.
Since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, (EBacc) the place of creative disciplines in the school curriculum, which provide an arena for critical debate, rebellion and the development of radical ideas has been devalued, and I wonder, to what end?
Transition from a Pagan to a Christian worldview
During the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, huge cultural shifts came into play. The suppression of the arts in society, regarded as pivotal in the enforcement of Christianity stemmed from the perspective of Saint Augustine. He wrote extensively on music, claiming that rhythm could be classified into four levels from the highest which was spiritually-aligned, down to the lowest level level, that stimulated the flesh.
Monks of the order used physical force against ordinary people who celebrated pagan feasts with music and dancing. Music with a strong beat was strictly banned, as was dancing (Blaukopf, 1992). Intellectuals were persecuted. for example, Hypatia - a mathematics scholar in Alexandria had been lynched in 415 CE for her ‘blasphemous’ study of ancient Greek texts (Rovelli, 2007). By the end of the 5th century, the Great Library at Alexandria had disappeared, and in 529 CE the Platonic academy in Athens was closed by decree of Christian emperor Justinian (Pieper, 2020).The significance of the Great Library was that it housed all of the books in existence, as well as being part of a hub for scholarship, achieved through practices of reason, logic, rhetoric and academic freedom. The achievements of the Greek scholars at Alexandria were impressive. For example, Eratosthenes, in 235 BCE calculated that the world was round, giving its circumference and its diameter; Heron of Alexandria created the world’s first steam engine.
Fanatically, the Christian authorities set to rewriting the knowledge and wisdom of the pervious (pagan) era, notably maintaining that the Earth was flat. Within this context we find Boethius (c.470- c.524 CE), a classically-educated statesman and philosopher, keen to find the middle road between reason and faith. He was executed for treason, shortly after having resolved the schism between the early Christian Church in Rome and Constantinople. Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy during his imprisonment, and this text became the foundation of medieval scholasticism (Shiel, 2020).
Appropriation of Greek scholarship
After 500 years of teaching and intellectual activity in cathedral schools and monasteries, early medieval universities were chartered by a Papal Bull. Each university was founded under different circumstances:- at Bologna (1088), Paris (1150) and Oxford (1167), and with differing levels of academic freedom. Highly influential across Western Europe, the liberal arts were taught, although the Christian Church had appropriated ancient Greek curricula for its own purposes, retaining only the structure and main elements of the system (Bernstein, 2000).
Medieval scholasticism, light on rigour and politically-inclined, attempted to reconcile classical reason with traditional early Christian dogma, but with limited success. Students taking the first part of the degree, the trivium, were taught word-related principles: grammar, logic and rhetoric, before taking the second part, the quadrivium which explored the physicality of the world through arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music.
The trivium of the time had strong religious connotations; similarly, the corresponding quadrivium was adapted to suit the dogma of the day (Bernstein, 2000). For example: music was taught only through the disembodied, polyphonic rhythm (rather than the Greek rhythmos) and in astronomy, students were taught that the Earth was flat (Blaukopf. 1992).
Renaissance and reading
The tension between traditional Augustinian dogma and the classical texts of Boethius eventually gave way in the early Renaissance. Music, dancing and decorative arts, along with academic freedom in scientific thinking had been suppressed for at least a millennium across Western Europe and quickly reappeared.
Music regained its metrical ratio-based system; its integrated rhythmic nature was reinstated and dancing immediately became fashionable. The publication of articles promoting the rise of the importance of the vernacular supported the spread of reading, which soon became widespread, further weakening the authority of traditional Christian dogma.
Transition from post-industrial to digital
There is a linear feel from the Renaissance and Enlightenment years, through to the present day. However, in the contemporary devaluing of arts subjects in the school curriculum with the advent of the English Baccalaureate, we seemingly appear to be cycling back the dark ages with the curbing of academic and creative freedom.
Many young people face a bleak future following poverty in childhood and also having been deprived of an opportunity to develop a creative outlet for self-expression. At the same time, many communities have been impoverished by austerity.
Given that global hubs such as London are the economic areas towards which a disproportionate amount of the world’s digital enterprise, wealth and wealthy have been attracted, the transition to digital has created sharp economic inequalities between the digital hubs and post industrial regional centres, which acutely lack investment and have suffered chronic deprivation.
Alongside the glitz of digital, there is a mindset that blindly accepts what appears on the screen with too little criticality. At best, the data-driven positivist perspective on knowledge is no more than instrumental, because its influence is dependent on the empirical tools and the technology of the day. At its worst, positivism commits the grave error of confusing the ends with the means, because it is not contextualised and it is not subject to critical debate (Rovelli, 2007).
The ‘knowledge economy’ promised a fiscal flow generated by the unlimited availability of knowledge via the Internet. The quality of such knowledge is often very poor, as has been shown by its influence on voting behaviour in democratic elections. Unscrutinised, low-grade, data-driven knowledge that supports the spread of technology in relation to health, education, trade and food supply puts society at risk of sub-standard ideas and policy.
The true nature of science is critical, exploratory and visionary (Rovelli, 2007). As such, science is grossly limited if it is reframed through positivism as a mere producer of testable predictions. To protect our societies from positivism, disciplined creativity is essential if breakthroughs and radical thinking are to flourish in the ‘knowledge economy’.
Creative thinking is best nurtured in the domain of the arts subjects, an arena where it is essential to take disciplined risks, to implement ideas and to work through creative issues.
Disproportionate emphasis on STEM
The dominance of STEM subjects in the school curriculum will train our young people to think logically, but in order to solve the substantial problems facing us all in the coming decades, they also need the courage to think creatively, to make cognitive leaps rather than continuing to step slowly in a linear fashion, outpaced by AI.
What is taught in schools today will be out of date by the time pupils start their careers, so the disproportionate emphasis on STEM is seemingly short-sighted. It is only with a greater emphasis on disciplined creativity in the curriculum, that pupils will have the confidence to invent, innovate and implement the solutions, breakthroughs and radical new ideas that are needed for the future.
Bernstein, B. 2000 Pedagogy, Symbolic control and Identity: Theory, research, critique, Revised edition, Lanham, MA; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc,
Blaukopf, C (1992) Musical Life in a Changing Society: Aspects of Musical Sociology, Amadeus Press
Pieper J. (2020) ‘Scholasticism’ in Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Scholasticism, accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.37
Rovelli, C. (2007) Anaximander, trans. Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Yardley, PA., WestholmePublishing
Shiel, J. (2020) ‘Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius accessed 29.2.2020, at 10.57
Last year, I went through a major rethink about my approach to the Rhythm for Reading blog. To ‘incubate’ the new outlook I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring new themes and scoping out a broader awareness of rhythm in everyday life.
The shift started unexpectedly twelve months ago. I happened to be working in the San Francisco Bay Area in November, as the State of California braced for the driest month of the year, which typically generates a high fire risk. You may remember the wildfires that blazed out of control at that time. More than 80 people tragically lost their lives in the deadly ‘Camp Fire’ that completely destroyed the town of Paradise. For eight days, the Bay Area lay under a thick blanket of smoke. From my hotel window and when travelling to work I could see that the condors had stopped riding the thermals high in the sky. There was hardly any sunlight, and the air quickly became the filthiest on the planet. Nature seemingly had shutdown, but we humans had stayed calm and carried on regardless. The freeways were absolutely crammed with vehicles, pumping fumes into the already saturated air.
Although I was lucky enough to be staying in air-conditioned accommodation during the worst days of pollution, I worked with people who were not so fortunate. They told me about the dreadful effects of the smoke on their young children and elderly neighbours. Given that an hour of exposure to the Camp Fire smog was judged to be the equivalent of chain-smoking ten cigarettes, it was unsurprising that poorer people in the Bay Area, those without air-conditioning living some four hundred miles from the wildfires, were struggling with their breathing, feeling nauseous and even collapsing. This situation made me realise the extent to which I have taken clean air for granted. I have always gratefully acknowledged the work done by trees to reduce carbon dioxide during the night, but naively, I have assumed that this natural recycling process was sustainable. Following the Camp Fire, I no longer presume that forests will continue to maintain the fragile balance of gases that sustain life on our planet.
In California last year, deadly particulate matter from the burning of the forest caused the toxicity in the air. In other words, we were inhaling carbon particles from the very trees that we need in the long term to recycle the air. In the same twelve month period, it has been heart-breaking to see fires started deliberately, that have caused enormous devastation in the Amazon Forest, the ‘Lungs of the Earth’, and tragically, huge areas of New South Wales, Australia are ablaze as I write this.
Like me, you may have been shaken recently into a new awareness of our responsibility for Earth’s atmosphere. Is this the beginning of the end? Historically, seasonal rhythms have driven the cyclical flooding of rivers, as seen in the beautiful hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. The predictability of dry seasons and rainy seasons has supported the cultivation of food crops for twelve thousand years. Going back even deeper into pre-history, when an alternating rhythm of warmer and cooler periods caused the ice-sheets of North America and Scandinavia to advance and retreat, hunter-gatherer peoples became highly adaptive and innovative.
According to anthropologist Professor Brian Fagan, Cro-Magnon humans, Neanderthals and many of the larger mammals proved to be temperature tolerant, demonstrating ample capacity to adapt during climactic shifts of the rhythmic, ‘Dansgaard-Oeschger (D/O) oscillation’ (Fagan, 2010, p.55). There was also a remarkable explosion of creativity that followed warmer periods of climate change, marked by magnificent art in the caves of South Africa, Spain, Germany, Austria and France.
Unlike the hunter-gatherers, who breathed pristine unpolluted air in conditions that were on average considerably cooler than those of today, we inhabit a rapidly warming planet, in which unprotected forests as well as coral reefs are lost every year. The situation that we face is pushing us towards the upper limit of our temperature tolerance. Unfortunately, industrial technologies and economic models have encouraged a false perception of our independence of nature, which has led to widespread abuse of the natural world.
Earth’s indigenous peoples on the other hand, have maintained values and technologies that are closely aligned with nature (Fagan, 2011). Living and breathing in harmony with nature, they have maintained sustainable cultural traditions, that offer a balance between ideals of freedom and security. Now, we must all work together to restore rhythm and balance, to protect and nurture higher values of respect and appreciation for Earth’s resources.
Fagan, B. (2010) Cro-Magnon: How the ice-age gave birth to the first modern humans, Bloomsbury Press.
Fagan, B. (2011) The First North Americans: An archeological journey, Thames and Hudson
Creativity is in us all. Our creative impulse generates streams of language, songs, gardens, new recipes based on what’s in the fridge and spontaneously occurring ideas. There is a playfulness in the ‘what if …’ process which guides the initial impulse into something more considered, more useful, more committed. Shaping and honing lead to rapid iterations of the initial idea. A sense of expectancy and involvement builds as the creative process gains momentum.
Imagine a group of children aged nine years who have fallen many years behind their classmates and cannot maintain their attention for even five seconds, but they are highly motivated to learn to play a musical instrument. Imagine their confident teacher, who spent 20 minutes of a half hour lesson trying to find a task that engaged them, but had failed to teach them anything at all.
As the teacher inwardly acknowledged the failure of the lesson, the children visibly braced themselves for harsh words. The atmosphere in the room was hushed and expectant. What happened next? The teacher looked for the path of least resistance asking, “What do you do after school?” They loved to play football and the teacher quickly discovered that they were better able to learn when they moved their feet.
This approach was unorthodox, but justifiable because the children’s self-control and self-awareness was far better practised in football skills than in anything else. Some months later, their progress in music had been excellent and their classwork had transformed. They were showcased by their headteacher: playing as a group and individually in full school assembly in the presence of Ofsted inspectors and invited to join the school orchestra immediately afterwards.
Here’s the take away message. The four conditions that ensured the lasting success of this approach point to the importance of outrageous levels of optimism in a school (judged to be outstanding).
1. The children wanted to learn to play a musical instrument.
2. Their class teacher saw this as an important opportunity for them.
3. The headteacher placed a high value on music in the school.
4. The continuity of weekly lessons in a suitable room meant that the creative process evolved without interruption.
The Power of Music - a research synthesis of the impact of actively making music on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people, by internationally renowned Professor Susan Hallam MBE, University College London, Institute of Education was published at the end of January 2015. The review brings together more than 600 scholarly publications, which provide compelling evidence of the positive effect of music on literacy, numeracy, personal and social skills to support the argument for the inclusion of music in the education of every child and young person.
Music, more than any other discipline consists of ways of doing things (techniques and methods) and ways of being (empathy, intention, style etc). Perhaps, the most important of these is how to listen well. Children, immersed in their family and home environment from pre-birth to school age, have learned nearly everything they know about their language and culture through listening. A high quality musical education develops listening far beyond the everyday level by enhancing and deepening communication; it also refines physical coordination skills far beyond what can be achieved through sport. The unique combination of these elements contributes immensely to pupils’ wellbeing and to learning more efficiently.
The value of a high quality musical education in primary school, consisting of the integration of listening skills with singing, physical coordination and notation reading skills cannot be overstated. As musicians we have a huge responsibility to equip primary teachers with great tools, and training of the highest quality so that they feel confident, secure and empowered in this exciting and creative role. With the tools and training in place, all primary teachers can deliver a high quality musical education, bringing the power of music into their classrooms and witnessing the profoundly vibrant effects of music education.