A national charity named ‘Youth Music’ has just published a report funded by Birmingham City University, calling on the government to ‘shake-up’ the music curriculum by teaching hip-hop and grime. While Youth Music kindly say they don’t want Stormzy to replace Mozart entirely, we all know there is finite room in the curriculum, and every addition means a subtraction somewhere.
I have been in teaching for a while, including the last few years in senior leadership and I wonder if I am alone now in education in thinking that we shouldn’t be teaching the latest artists / genres but the best there has ever been. Forgetting for a moment what’s popular this year may be old the next, the work of these new artists has not yet stood the test of time. I’m sure there’s plenty to be learned by studying Stormzy’s ‘Shut up’ (his most popular track, according to Spotify), but does it contain the technical complexities of Mozart’s Lacrimosa? I highly doubt it.
Some have accused me of snobbery by other teachers in the Education Twittersphere. I’m not afraid to admit there may be an element of that. There’s a level of beauty albeit mostly subjective in a Mozart concerto that simply cannot be measured against Stormzy’s, ‘Tell my man shut up.’
Is it elitism though to prefer my pupils to be learning the words, ‘Dies irae, Dies illa, Solvet saeclum en favilla, Teste David cum sybilla,’ rather than, ‘Yeah, fucking repping, init… I get merky, they get worried If you got a G-A-T, bring it out.’ (‘Merky’ being slang for homicidal and G-A-T a colloquialism for Gattling guns.) Rather than elitism, it’s having high standards and expectations for our young people.
Youth Music claim Stormzy is, ‘more relevant and inclusive,’ than Mozart. Isn’t that rather patronising? Why does ‘inclusive’ have to mean dumbing down? Why not raise aspirations of everyone? If the likes of Mozart are seen as too high-brow or posh surely it’s our job as educators to expose all pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to such challenges, to provide them with the cultural capital they need to thrive and compete.
As for Mozart, subject relevance is about how well something can be studied, what can be taught from the content. Relevance is not looking at how many young people already have the songs on their Spotify playlists, it’s about what knowledge and understanding can be gained from it.
In their open letter to parliament, Youth Music said they want young people to have more autonomy over their own learning, and want MPs to, ‘give young people the opportunity to shape their own curriculum.’
As ambitious and progressive as this argument sounds, it’s completely counter-productive. Pupils don’t know what they don’t know. It’s our jobs as trained professionals, heck, as adults, to curate a curriculum of the best works and cram in as much knowledge as possible, with the limited time available. They can listen to Stormzy on their Air Pods all they like but in the classroom young people should have more diversity including access to the great classics to broaden their horizons and develop a wider love of music.
Defenders of this campaign, the progressive educationists who would rather see classrooms turned into playgrounds of, ‘learning through exploration’ than environments of teaching & learning, say ‘pupil voice is paramount…after listening to Mozart for a week they hate it, why force it upon them?’ So, if pupils don’t like Shakespeare after a week, why force it on them? If they don’t like Pythagoras after a week, why force his theorem on them?
As a teacher I do not feel that I’m in the business of forcing anything on young people who are compelled to remain in education, just doing my job of passing on knowledge and understanding. Educationalists not students should dictate the curriculum, otherwise you can forget Mozart, Shakespeare, and Henry VIII, they’d be rapping along to Stormzy with his oh-so-poetic lines; ‘Shut the fuck up, shut your fucking mouth. Oi rudeboy, shut up,’ all day long, a council of despair.
When it comes to re-shaping the curriculum we need to think how to best raise standards for all. Education Minister, Nicky Morgan liked to talk about ‘character education.’ Justine Greening often talked about social mobility, but what do these things mean in a classroom context? The Secretary of State for Education should be looking at ways of building character development and social / cultural capital to give all students a better chance in life. They only get one chance.
What is the result of years of allowing students to dictate what they learn? More young people applying to appear on trashy reality TV show ‘Love Island’ than to read at Oxford or Cambridge. In order to let them know that top universities are an option for them no matter their background, we need to be teaching them that hard work and effort is essential to learning. Instead of adding Stormy to the curriculum let’s consider introducing young people to the most challenging, yes difficult art which has remained in the curriculum because it has stood the test of time.
To quote Baker and Thorndike (1917) authors of Everyday Classics, a book which should still be on everyone’s list for enhancing cultural literacy: ‘We have chosen what is common, what has become indisputably ‘classic,’ what every child in the land ought to know, because it is good and because other people know it. The educational worth of such materials needs no defence. In an age when the need of socialising and unifying our people is keenly felt, the value of a common stock of knowledge, a common set of ideals is obvious.
Calvin Robinson is a former black Conservative candidate who spent 7 years in the technology industry before finding his vocation in teaching. He’s been a classroom teacher, middle leader, assistant principal and subject specialist consultant at some fantastic schools across London.
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