Music Could Lead Us Into Future

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," December 19, 2000, p. 11A

Our school district is blessed with an outstanding offering of curriculum and activities. We’re winning competitions in everything from athletics to chess to music to poetry.

This column only emphasizes music. That’s just a concession to space limits and the spirit of the season. All our programs are worthy of praise.

Music has been part of winter holidays for all recorded history (no pun intended). But music is everywhere every season of the year.

We have much in common with other animals. It’s embarrassing how much I’ve learned from my cat, Beasley. What sets humans apart is our ability to create and manipulate symbols.

Education about those symbols serves many purposes for our species.

Much of what we do each day enables us to “keep on truckin’” –figuratively and literally. The provision of food, clothing, shelter and other essential functions. Work for which education is necessary. But, to quote the song, “is that all there is?” Just survival? Survival for what?

What is our highest calling? What are we to do after the chores are done? What most sets us apart from our fellow mammals?

The arts in general and music in particular are high on the list. Music needs no “secondary benefits” justifications. It’s worthy in its own right. But there’s research to support its impact on early childhood brain development, academic achievement, self esteem, cooperative social skills, parental involvement and improved attendance.

Our school district reflects that understanding in the skills and passions of our staff.

A local exploration of our school district’s educational opportunities is now under way. What is our vision? How would we know if we were successful in reaching it? There are many alternatives, thoroughly tested and widely adopted nationally.

Among them are magnet schools. One of the characteristics of a magnet school is teaching to a theme. It may be science or math. But often it is the arts – especially music. Does this mean kids are singing and playing instruments all day? Of course not. It means teams and themes. Teams of teachers weaving the school’s theme into the daily curriculum.

Why? Because magnet schools’ students want to be there – the school’s focus is their passion. Anything related to that passion creates students’ enthusiasm for learning other subjects.

Music is especially suited for this purpose. There is virtually no academic subject, from anthropology to zoology, that does not have a potential music component. Music in primitive cultures. Whales’ songs. Military marches.

Songs of social protest and union organizing. The economics, politics and law of the music industry. The public policy of Napster. Music and slavery. The math and science of music.

Our elementary teachers are already doing it.

While a few still voice objections to the merits of magnet schools, we are living in what is, for all practical purposes, a magnet school district.

Harold Geneen, former CEO of ITT, was a case study in how to build a conglomerate corporation. He once told me he had over 400 boards of directors reporting to him. ITT began doing everything from baking bread to renting cars. The analogy in education is called a “shopping mall high school.”

Then conglomerates became passe. Corporate gurus advised companies to stick to “core competencies.” What the work force does best. Profits soared.

Our teachers have many competencies. But the themes and teams with a music focus are one. Private music schools and the university’s music department enhance our public schools’ programs. What might additional focus and resources produce?

Roughly half of our secondary school students are involved in performance music. As Julie Andrews might have sung, “The halls are alive with the sound of music.”

We’re all proud of our musicians national and state recognition.

But music is more collaboration than competition. Every student who participates benefits.

What’s our “magnet district’s” core competency? There are many.

Music is but one example of this way of thinking about our future.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site