J-S Bach
John Zorn
John Cage


Education: From Modernism to Postmodernism

[1] In Postmodernism and Education, Robin Usher and Richard Edwards write that 'education is perhaps the most important way we relate to the world, to the way we experience, understand and attempt to change the world and to the ways in which we understand ourselves and our relations with others' (Usher and Edwards, p.4). A few pages later, they resume their basic assumption by stating that education is assigned a key role in the forming and shaping of subjectivity and identity so that subjects become fully autonomous and capable of exercising their individual and intentional agency, bringing out the inherent potential to become self-motivated and self-directing (cf. Usher and Edwards, p.24-5, my italics). ('Bringing out' is a well-chosen description considering the etymology of the word 'education': Latin e-ducere, meaning to lead someone or something out of something. One could say that a teacher leads a student out of the dark into the light, the light of knowledge. The truth in teaching, (also) the main title of this section of the site, could be understood as bringing the world into unconcealedness, a lighting.)
These phrases are suffused with a spirit of modernity and modernism. 'Education can be seen as the vehicle by which modernity's 'grand narratives', the Enlightenment ideals of critical reason, individual freedom, progress and benevolent change, are substantiated and realised. The very rationale of the educational process and the role of the educator is founded on modernity's self-motivated, self-directing, rational subject' (Usher and Edwards, p.2). People become free human beings precisely through education; they become free from, for example, animal-like tendencies. To a great extent, education is considered in terms of autonomy and rationality. At the very heart of the project of modernity is the notion of the necessity to educate, of education's historical role to enlighten and emancipate.
However, besides (being at the same time) an instrument for emancipation and enlightenment, education is also an instrument of power, control, and legitimization. '[The] dictum about the necessity to educate is a clear assertion of the legitimacy of those who possess 'true, valid knowledge' not only to pass this on to others who do not possess it but tell others 'what to do, how to behave, what ends to pursue and by what means'. In other words, what is being established here is not only the necessity to educate, but also that the purpose of this education is to shape the very conduct of life. Education, then, is expressed through a 'legislative discourse which confers the power to fix the limits and boundaries that define what is to be included and what excluded in the service of creating the 'rational' man to live in a rational society' (Usher and Edwards, p.126). What Usher and Edwards are pointing at here is that education is not just a neutral instrument to impart knowledge. Education is a device of power and control whose chief purpose is to reproduce the dominant values of society and to legitimize its authority. Educational narratives not only tell us where we belong, they put us where we belong. (As related to music education, one could say that the teaching in music schools and conservatories does not simply pass along information on music. Implicitly, the existing stylistic hierarchies are legitimated, as is the myth that most people are not really very musical in comparison with a tiny minority who is.)

[2] It can be said that Western pedagogy culminates in Hegel's philosophical didacticism. According to Shoshana Felman, the Hegelian concept of 'absolute knowledge' - which, for Hegel, simultaneously defines the potential aim and the actual end of dialectics, of philosophy - is 'what pedagogy has always aimed at as its ideal: the exhaustion - through methodical investigation - of all there is to know; the absolute completion - termination - of apprenticeship. Complete and totally appropriated knowledge will become, in all senses of the word, a mastery' (Felman, p.77). She quotes Jacques Lacan who writes that from the Hegelian perspective, the completed discourse is an instrument of power, the scepter and the property of those who know. What is at stake in absolute knowledge is the fact that discourse closes back upon itself, that it is entirely in agreement with itself (cf. Felman, p.77).
Captivated by the 'grand narrative' of truth and progress through truth, modernist education provides a means of mastery and control. (French philosopher Gilles Deleuze speaks of transition from a disciplinary society to a control society.) Certainty is valued above doubt. The resolution of problems is given priority over the desire to question. Concepts tend to be examined in terms of a search for definitions, as though they can be strictly determined. And the teacher's role is that of model and authority, a concrete embodiment of the ideal self with which the student must identify: the teacher - the one who is supposed to know - versus the student - the one who doesn't know and who thinks (s)he is supposed to learn what the teacher knows. Derrida writes that the scientific discourse is organized by a relation 'oriented from the unknown to the known or knowable, to the always already known or to anticipated knowledge' (Writing and Difference, p.270-1). Universities, conservatories, and (music) schools are there to tell the truth, to judge, to discern and decide between the true and the false, between the beautiful and the ugly, between music and noise, etc.

[3] Can we escape from the model or the project described above? Are we caught in this model as soon as we enter the pedagogical space? Or, to formulate it more precisely, is this view on education true, i.e., is it complete or is there more to say?
The effect, the result, the consequence of the described pedagogical pose of mastery is (ex)closure. The desire to overcome ambiguity leads to assertions of certainty that exclude and oppress. According to Usher and Edwards, education is the means of eliminating otherness. It is a manifestation of violence insofar as it attempts to reduce difference, contingency, provisionality and play to one in the same. Education is a site where meanings are reduced to a single, determinate meaning, where otherness is brought under the control of reason and difference is reduced to sameness (cf. Usher and Edwards, p.139). (One could add that education first constitutes otherness and difference as the other of the same. Both difference and otherness are effects of education. Education produces itself (the same) by producing its other.) But this is only one side of the picture. Usher and Edwards show, too, that education is in fact ambiguous. It both seeks and rejects closure. It is both closed and open. 'Education is also a site where the play of meanings escapes the violence of logocentric closure. The educational process is incarcerating, yet hermeneutical and critical. It always contains within itself the potential to question dominant forms of knowledge and totalizing explanations, and to tear away the veils within which these are enshrouded. It has the potential to question the status of the definitive, the certain and the 'proven'. It is a site where the play of difference can escape the 'fundamental immobility' and 'reassuring certitude' of logocentric closure, a site of endless dissemination' (Usher and Edwards, p.139). This means that the attempt to make education into a controlled and controlling project is never total. That which eludes the totalizing grasp always makes education ultimately uncontrollable. Every pedagogical exposition is open and therefore uncontrollable because it always adds something to what it transmits. Change instead of reproduction. Between change and reproduction. The principal working of iterability. The questioning of the logocentric closure opens the possibility of a multiplicity of perspectives, of infinite encounters or engagements. (This does not mean that we are in the hands of nihilism and relativism. But we can no longer rely on an appeal to a transcendent and invariant set of values. Norms are not to be found in foundations. We need to question the idea that there must be a center to our thinking, a stabilizing element in the structure. The consequence of this for postmodern education is that it provides no new definitive perspective from which a new set of prescriptions and techniques for organizing teaching and learning can be generated. It is about particular, singular responsibilities.) For Usher and Edwards, perhaps this most characterizes a postmodern perspective (cf. Usher and Edwards, p.26).

[4] If we accept this view, education can neither be thought of as inherently transformative, nor inherently oppressive. Rather, it has both a transformative and an oppressive potential, and these are always in contention with each other. (Education will always provide some kind of closure, some anchoring of meaning, if only in the sense that all thinking necessitates making distinctions, inclusions and exclusions, and setting up hierarchies. But this is always bound to be temporary.) Rethinking education and pedagogy must expose the ambiguous and contradictory processes of the possibility for an open encounter and an excluding oppression. So, if we can escape from the pedagogic model based on rationalism and autonomy, I neither want to answer in the affirmative, nor in the negative. It is a matter of shifting accents whereby new perspectives, new engagements, can be shown. It is certainly not a rejection of all education and pedagical practices, but a critical and continual questioning of their premises, structures, articulations and consequences. Nevertheless, the pedagogical approach, which makes no claim to total knowledge, is of course quite different from the still very dominant pedagogical pose of mastery. This posture, however, is deconstructed (disrupted, transformed) from the inside instead of criticized from outside the pedagogical space.

[5] How to rethink education? How to think and approach education otherwise? What could a shift from a traditional, modernist pedagogy to what Gregory Ulmer calls a 'new pedagogy' look like? What is the space opened by this new pedagogy, informed by post-structuralism and deconstruction?
For Usher and Edwards, the postmodern can be defined as the attention to the repressed of modernity. And to them, the excluded other is precisely the continual questioning. 'The work of change is always in 'process', inherently incompletable and constantly open to question. This questioning, in which education can play a potentially significant part, involves opening oneself to the call of different, marginal and transgressive 'voices' and engaging in sustained critique of logocentric regimes' (Usher and Edwards, p.135). 'Rather than tight definitions therefore, we find a constant struggle without end or resolution to deconstruct, construct and reconstruct meanings ... Concepts can more usefully be thought of as terrains which can be occupied by a number of shifting and conflicting points of view' (Usher and Edwards, p.201). This means that education can no longer be dedicated to the achievement of universally applicable goals - truth, emancipation, democracy, enlightenment, empowerment - pre-defined by the grand narratives. Education should be more diverse in terms of goals and processes: 'Instead of reducing everything to the 'same', it would instead become the vehicle for the celebration of diversity, a space for different voices against the one authorative voice' (Usher and Edwards, p.211).
Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux support the views and recommendations of Usher and Edwards. They too criticize the intellectual standardization and exclusive preoccupation with the high-cultural canon in modernist education. They argue in favor of postmodernist claims of 'intellectual validity of marginal discourses in the sciences and social sciences, especially those that refuse, on philosophical or ideological grounds, to observe accepted algorithms of inquiry' (Aronowitz and Giroux, p.17). Like Usher and Edwards, they plead for forms of pedagogy that open a space for plurality and that develop a 'radical ethics that rejects finality and certainty for the voice of difference and dialogue': 'Listen to the voices of others', they proclaim (Aronowitz and Giroux, p.188). (Postmodernist refusal of reverence for traditional intellectual forms is even related to hypertextuality. According to both authors, hypertextuality escapes the 'straightjacket of linear text, to make of thought, a collage of insight'.) What Ulmer calls 'new pedagogy', is called 'border pedagogy' by Aronowitz and Giroux. In border pedagogy, cultural and social practices are no longer mapped or referenced solely on the basis of the dominant models of Western culture. It shifts 'the emphasis of the knowledge/power relationship away from the limited emphasis on the mapping of domination and toward the politically strategic issue of engaging the ways in which knowledge can be remapped, reterritorialized, and decentered in the wider interests of rewriting the borders and coordinates of an oppositional cultural politics' (Aronowitz and Giroux, p.119).

[6] Gregory Ulmer starts from a slightly different position and motivation. He paraphrases Derrida's point that the ideal of an educated person that is held by a given era is always predicated on the basis of a theory of truth. But if Derrida is right, what might be the ideal of an educated person proposed by post-structuralism that puts into question the very notion of truth in which the claims of truth to objectivity and neutrality are exposed as effects of an apparatus of power, Ulmer wonders (cf. Ulmer, p.168). Ulmer tries to find a way out of the dominant paradigm by seeking a 'new pedagogy' that does not accept that teaching and learning involve just the transmission of a fixed content. He tries to rethink the space in which the discourse of ideas takes place. Ulmer's new pedagogy involves a 'displacement of educational transmissions from the domain of truth to that of invention'. To invent. A shift of emphasis from reproduction to that of translation or transformation. (What is the problem of reproduction in a (jazz) improvisation? In attempting to repeat in an improvisation what has already been repeated by others, the student knows that he cannot fully master the prior repetitions and that his improvisation will finally be exposed as incompetent. The more a student tries to make an improvisation repeat exactly others that should precede and enable it, the more his improvisation is haunted by the infinitely differing play between the example and his substitute. In part, this explains his desire to be told what to do, so that he can do it and avoid having to improvise (cf. Neel, p.169).) For the student, this is not necessarily a matter of 'genius' or originality, but of 'searching through the places or topoi to find materials for one's own text' (Ulmer, p.179). The teacher can no longer act as the faithful transmitter of a tradition. (S)he should become a worker in a process of transformation. In that way, the classroom can become a place of invention, rather than of reproduction (cf. Ulmer, p.163-4).

[7] The classroom as a place of invention. The teacher as a transformer. The student as a kind of bricoleur, a handy-man. What does this mean? What does this mean for music education? (Afterall, as an academic and a music teacher, I want to say something about giving a music lesson.) Students take up the thoughts (speech, writing, music) of others and make them their own. They take possession of this plurality of voices and are possessed by them at their own pace, in their own place, thereby soliciting new thoughts, new meanings, new music. Working on language, working on music opens up possibilities for a different kind of language and music. Neglecting this working, both teachers and students would have nothing to say that has not already been said; they would merely reproduce the thoughts, truths, musics of others. Working on language, working on music, to make it one's own, to remake it as one's own, means to reject finality and to render account of the play of différance. To invent means to interrupt, to disrupt already existing languages, already existing musics, to underwrite the possibility of an other language, an other music (cf. Finn, 1995, p.5-9).
Could this be meant by invention and plurality? In any case, that is how I like to think about teaching and learning (music). I pursue it and I am haunted by it. Do I have a new method, a new theory? No. Yes. Maybe. Probably not. No new 'grand narrative' on (music) education. No covering theory to transform pedagogy. I can only stammer a proposal, a proposal that is local, temporary, particular, singular. A proposal to make music, to make music-making possible, to make the possibility of music possible.

[8] I teach music. 'Jazz'. Besides teaching piano and music theory, I offer combo lessons. I prefer working with teaching material developed by myself, Intermezzo, for example, which is at the same time a composition and not a composition. (There is a special page on Intermezzo, on which I elaborate on this (non) composition. Here I just summarize.) The framework or outline of Intermezzo consists of eight different musical motifs. It is not immediately clear which member of the combo should play which motif. It is also not immediately clear if motif 1 is a bassline or a vocal part. Nor is it clear beforehand where, for example, motif 4 should be played, if at all. All motifs can both be principal themes and accompaniment. And in fact, the motifs only appear as an occasion, pretext, or indicator for (collective) improvisations. No transparency, no finality, no fixed content. With every performance Intermezzo is (re-)invented, transformed. Intermezzo is a way of opening up to (through) the play of différance. This means that the students are not only performers or interpreters; they are composers, as well. Instant composers. Of course, the musical result is grafted onto the music and the play of other composers and musicians, but it is something of their own as well, something new, transforming a certain kind of silence into music. It is an excess, i.e., it exceeds what already has been played and composed. The emphasis shifts from imitation and reproduction to invention. The students are on a journey, but they don't know where they are going until they get there. And the teacher? (An elaboration on this subject can be found in The Role of the Teacher.) What about me? Am I, in the words of Ulmer, a 'faithful transmitter of a tradition'? I will not deny that I am part of a tradition, a musical tradition, a pedagogical tradition, a cultural tradition, an intellectual tradition, etc. But teaching Intermezzo means putting myself as a teacher, and my knowledge at stake. I don't know what is going to happen in and with the music or the motifs. Learning takes place on the basis of what the students come out with, what they decide on. So, it is even difficult to say what it means to teach Intermezzo. Maybe it is nothing more than creating a (safe) space where people can engage with music in a creative, less traditional, but also unstable way. Maybe it is creating a (safe) place to put aside mastery and control, a (safe) place for a continual questioning. Perhaps the meaning of 'e-ducere' should be transformed, as well: instead of leading someone from the dark into the light, from one place to the other, I opt for showing someone that there is light in the darkness (and perhaps that there is some darkness in what (s)he regards as light).