Discourses in Music: Volume 5 Number 2 (Fall 2004)

Insights and Outlooks: Musical Scholarship and the Business of Education - An emphatic re-statement of the known circumstances

By Jamie Younkin

It was not long ago that I listened, horrified, to the suggestion that some local universities should include more graduate exams in academic fields (i.e. theory and musicology). The reason was not that there was a concern that students were not meeting standards in scholarly performance, but only that most American state universities do it, so we should too. Having spent a good deal of time in American schools with high course load requirements and, yes, every kind of exam imaginable, I found the very thought of introducing such a thing where it was not necessary repugnant. During my time as a coursework drone I believe I was a sincerely interested scholar, one who really prided herself on thorough, meticulous, and insightful research—and on ideas, not just the skillful uncovering of facts. But the requirements put in place by the state university system weighed down upon me, and in the end it was difficult to be proud of my achievements. It seemed that no matter how hard I worked there was simply not enough time and not enough energy to perform in the ways that I knew I was capable of performing, and this was not just a feature of the Master’s programme. The Ph.D. involved essentially the same curriculum with more of the same exams, adding only more teaching requirements and changing the title of the final project from “thesis” to “dissertation.”

The most important task for university students in this environment is, unfortunately, not scholarship. Instead, the central task and final arbiter of academic quality and achievement is the coursework itself, and to prove the worth of the coursework there are exams…lots of them, each concluded by a formal defense before a jury. And every student becomes very good at reciting the canon of facts—names and dates and places and musical styles—and arranging them into neat little essays. The new ideas, well, those might just have to wait until after university. This is not to say that the faculty members do not encourage engaged thinking, because they do and they are generally brilliant people themselves, but there is simply no room in the larger university plan for much of it. The situation, in a nutshell, is that the state does not concern itself with ideas or with art or with any other such lofty concepts. To justify its investments, or to justify cuts, the state must simply see numbers, and that means course enrollment and grade-point averages. These are the new measures of academic and scholarly success for students, as for universities.

I do not think we can fail to recognize that this is an unhealthy environment. Artistic departments that require one-on-one instructorships (which are incidentally very inefficient as far as “numbers” are concerned) are engaged in a constant uphill battle to maintain funding for their part-time teachers and the few full-time faculty positions they still have. Indhu Rajagopal recently noted in a study published by the University of Toronto Press, Hidden Academics: Contract faculty in Canadian universities, “This is the university of the future; it seems more administration, more technology, fewer teachers. Many administrators hoped that universities could cut costs by replacing faculty members with technology or by turning universities into business enterprises.”1 Arts departments above all understand the error of this type of system all too well. Yet it is now the standard-setter. Some large-scale interdepartmental backbone is needed here, and fast.

“Why fast?” we might ask. Why not continue in the way we always have and do our jobs in same way we have been doing them, secure in the knowledge that the longevity of our field within the academy to date in some way makes us an indispensable part of the establishment? “The more monographs I can, myself, get published,” we say, ”the more likely it is that I will get a university appointment, and then, with a few more such publications, I will get tenure. Then I will be immune because I will be efficient and indispensable.” Publish or perish, it is that simple. But in a funding system that perceives education as a business enterprise or as a career factory, we are not secure at all, not departmentally and not individually.

The time will soon come when the validity, or rather the efficiency, of such departments and fields of study as musicology will be called into question, and they will most certainly be the first academic fields to be expunged before the more immediately lucrative research fields in the sciences. In fact, we have already seen it happen in the very birthplace of musicology itself, Germany. As recently as last year, the city of Berlin has seen the amputation of several musicology faculty members, some quite revered in the field, and even entire departments.2 What will we say before our executioners? How will we justify our continued existence before them? Remember that the very persons behind the dreaded axe have probably been subjected to a few music history or popular music courses in their time. They obviously did not find the music sector of the university factory very productive or inspiring. At the moment of their decision will there be a sufficiently healthy, productive, and inspired learning, teaching, and researching atmosphere for them to observe as the key witness for our defense? Not if we continue to accept the business standards imposed upon us. Not if we, the students and teachers in our universities, and our department administrators fail to remember and uphold our own value as scholars, thinkers, and artists.


1. Indhu Rajagopal, Hidden Academics: Contract faculty in Canadian universities (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2002), 4. In the same study Rajagopal also illuminates the detrimental cost-cutting initiatives behind the hiring of part-time employees with low pay, no benefits, and no security rather than the creation of full-time positions. Her study is full of historical background on the issues and convincing statistics.

2. See for example Thorkit Treichel’s article in the November 26, 2003 edition of the Berliner Zeitung, “Zum Kampf entschlossen,” available from BerlinOnline at