Imagine you were to discover that the favored reading material of the majority of students at a prestigious university were limited entirely to teen magazines. These hypothetical students like reading and many of them consider it one of their favorite activities. It is not poetry or novels that these students like to read, however, but newsstand magazines. Perhaps they are vaguely aware of the existence of Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Orwell, but their familiarity with these authors is purely nominal and sparse when compared to their familiarity with Sports Illustrated or Teen Vogue. When prompted to discuss some great literary classics, they are hardly able to recollect anything beyond “To be or not to be” These students are intelligent, academically accomplished and generally from middle or upper class families. They have access to the best education available, and yet, somehow their reading habits have been stunted at an embarrassingly adolescent level.

This hypothetical scenario sounds amusing and improbable, and yet an analogous situation with regards to music is very much the reality at American universities. Walk into any college dorm and you’re likely to hear the pounding of the same dance pop you would hear at a high school prom. If you actually ask students what their favorite music is (or browse the music sections of their Facebook pages), you’re likely to get an answer that involves little or nothing more than their preferred brand of thumping dance tracks. This music is easy to move to at high volumes and fades conveniently into the background at low volumes. It is therefore ideal musical wallpaper for parties — but it is by no means great music.

Many students are only familiar with the popular music of the moment, which the music industry has pushed on them. If their familiarity extends beyond club playlist fare it is likely only to extend to rock, rap or country. It is much more uncommon to encounter a student who likes classical music, or jazz — America’s more artful music. Most students do not seem to realize that their tastes in music are comparatively unsophisticated, and those who do tend to alleviate the embarrassment not by listening to more mature music but by convincing themselves that they like pop music, but only ironically.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pop music (or teen magazines for that matter). Rihanna and Lady Gaga ignite the dance floor in a way that Beethoven and John Coltrane probably wouldn’t. The problem is not that students listen to popular music; the problem is that they only listen to it. Students wishing to become educated people ought to at least be acquainted with the great canon of Western art music. A familiarity with not only literary classics but with classical music is a prerequisite of cultural literacy, and it is a prerequisite that most young, educated people fail to meet. Anyone needing to be convinced of this need only attend a classical music concert and observe the overwhelming majority of gray heads in the audience.

But why is it that so many intelligent, academically accomplished young people are musically illiterate? While blaming education may seem like a simplistic response, there is good reason to think that our education system has something to do with it. While the average college student may not eagerly jump to her feet at the chance to see a Shakespeare play, she is probably at least aware of Shakespeare’s most prominent works and is able to discuss and make sense of them. The same cannot be said of the works of Bach. The reason for this is likely that students are required to learn English literature in high school and college, while music education isalmost always optional. If even a fraction of the attention given to literature by our high schools and universities were given to music, it is likely that students’ musical knowledge and appreciation would noticeably expand.

In a society where funding for education is limited and in which music educators are often reduced to justifying the value of musical education in terms of its benefits on math performance, it is not likely that this change will be implemented easily. But if increased attention to music education in high schools and universities would refine students’ tastes and enhance their appreciation of music, then the benefits would be well worth the costs. We do not accept literary illiteracy as a satisfactory outcome of education and we should not accept musical illiteracy either.

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