This is the first post in a series from IU Press Journals that will take a closer look at the scholarship in the articles and issues of IU Press journals. Posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article and will primarily be written by journal editors and contributors.
It was an honor to have been asked to contribute to this special issue of the PMER commemorating Bennett Reimer’s life and contributions to music education nationally and internationally. As I wrote in my own essay, I had been introduced to Bennett’s philosophy in the mid-1970s by David Elliott, who was then a young lecturer at the University of Toronto and working on his doctorate with Bennett. Both men had a profound impact on the direction of my career. Elliott was a wonderful teacher who challenged his students to think critically about the profession and its problems, and Bennett’s first edition of his book provided much of the intellectual grounding for the course. There I learned that music education was essentially about ideas that could be contested. Who knew? David’s courses were the only ones in my undergraduate career in which I was permitted, indeed encouraged, to research and to write papers on ideas or topics of my own choosing, and I discovered that I could write. After teaching for several years in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, I enrolled in a masters program at the University of Western Ontario from 1981 to 1983, where Bennett’s book was again a requisite.
After completing my masters studies at the University of Western Ontario, I later stumbled into Northwestern University’s Ph. D. in Music Education—that’s a story for another time—without realizing that Reimer was the mainstay of the program. While in residence in Evanston during 1990–1992, I served as his teaching assistant and was for a third time exposed to his philosophy, albeit this time using the 1989 edition of A Philosophy of Music Education. This allowed me a greater appreciation of the changes in his thinking since the 1970 edition, but, once again, there was little or no talk about the politics of music education, except with reference to the importance of finalizing the national music education standards to which Bennett had been a contributor, and later, a defender. It was only a year or two after completing my dissertation based on Dewey’s How We Think (with Bennett as my primary advisor), that I began to realize that I (and much of the music teaching profession) had overlooked, glossed over, or deliberately ignored Dewey’s politics, of which How We Think (1910), Art As Experience (1934), and The Public and Its Problems (1927/1946), to name only a few of his books, were expressions. Ontario had just elected a rabidly neoconservative government whose neoliberal economic and educational policies were traumatizing teachers at all levels (Ontario had the biggest teachers strike in the history of North America in 1997), and in my continued reading I learned not only that Dewey had been confronted by many of the same problems in his own day, but that he had been a champion of the arts in education. For him, all education, and including art education, had political purpose!
I grew increasingly disturbed that none of this had been made known to me when a student at any point in my university experience, and the events of 9/11 galvanized me to do something about the great schisms in our world between the political left and right, and ‘west and the rest’ (see Ferguson’s 2011 book Civilization: The West and the Rest) which were as much cultural as economic. Music education could and should contribute to social amelioration, which of course was Dewey’s project. Hence my motivation for the present critique of his philosophy, that it relegated music teachers to the margins of American and Canadian education by reducing music education to decoration or distraction when the truth of the matter is that music has always been implicated in many of our most troubling and implacable problems—and occasionally their resolution.
To conclude this story, Reimer later made some links between music education and democracy in the third edition of A Philosophy of Music Education (2002). His definition of democracy, however, was vague, and probably deliberately so to avoid controversy. Despite his long avoidance of politics, however, I have nevertheless always held him in high regard because he provided much needed professional leadership at a time when it was sorely needed, because he was willing to listen and change in response to professional criticism, and because he was a kind and compassionate man and teacher who, like us all, was fallible and shaped in ways that he probably didn’t fully realize because so much of education reform since the 1950s has had the imprimatur of science and economics and therefore been regarded by government and business as unassailable, as matters of fact rather than ideas.