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July 2017

In the past decades Australian Higher Education has undergone a stunning development. For one, the sector has become obese and exploded in size. Inevitably, it has declined intellectually, consolidated and streamlined disciplines and subject matters to conform to a homogeneous culture of analytic knowledge and seemingly critical learning. Left with little more than a mere desire to survive and conform, it has become a trading post of qualifications pedaling impressions and praising opportunity, its life marked by political expediency.

This development has been largely driven by political, social and economic forces. Government imposed reforms and funding levers pin Australian Universities into corners where they say they have little choice. Not surprising, as the spectacular change in the culture of Universities themselves has also starkly reduced their ability to remain creative. Styling themselves as corporate players without comparable competence or compliance at management levels, some disciplines face dynamics that may see their disappearance from credibility within anything truly resembling “higher education”.

We are rightly mourning the loss of biological species, polar ice or indigenous languages from our world at a daily rate. The loss of knowledge, skill and excellence in disciplines that have for centuries determined our culture and identity appears to proceed unnoticed. Worse, it seems to be progressed by those who should know better. If we substitute discipline with mere experience the damage will only become apparent when it has become irreversible. Already now, many students and some of their academics can no longer read musical notation competently and would fail simple aural dictation tests.

I am talking in particular of the fate of musical performance in Higher Education. Since the French Revolution musical performance has been at the centre of cultural definition and development of an enlightened society. Like museums, art galleries and universities themselves, symphony orchestras, chamber music societies and opera companies have defined central parts of spiritual life for citizens of modern societies. Musical performers have played crucial roles in defining collective imagination and identity. In times of existential need they formed spiritual life rafts in which societies saved what was most essential to them. The musical performers of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany affirmed spiritual identity and humanity on a daily basis against bestial and oppressive regimes. Their interpretative musical performance reminded society of its true values and communicated strength of spirit and freedom where noisy rhetoric had wreaked abysmal havoc. The capacity to confront and transform despair, a prevalent sentiment of modern man, is characteristic of musical performance and interpretation which seeks meaning. It reveals an ongoing, immediate and powerful creativity at the heart of humanity and builds a path towards a free and authentic self. Combined with a persistently replenishing imagination, the interpretation and performance of artistically created music is unsurpassed in developing human abilities on all levels and achieving a transcendence of limitations in all aspects of life. Its benefits for cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual and cultural development continue to be well documented.

Despite characteristics that should in essence privilege musical interpretation and performance as an activity of formation of self (surely, a core aim of education) Higher Education discourages it in any expert sense and depresses community attitudes in turn. Though they be the last to admit, Australian universities are driving excellence in musical interpretation and performance from their Conservatoria. In its place we find a theoretical thought about music and a relentless advance of an inclusive, superficial curriculum that mirrors the scholastic attitudes of the Middle Ages, albeit spiritually entirely adrift. A general, most basic musical practice, or in fact no musical practice at all is invading curricula and disciplinary structures serving the interest in music as psychological, ethnological, anthropological, educational and social-scientific phenomenon and requiring no significant artistic competence or skill. Institutional narratives and ideological agendas actively demolish artistic perspectives to make way for a curiosity fueled by immature imagination and infantile creativity. The more or less spectacular collapses of major music schools in Australia, the decline of musical performance at major Australian Universities, once centres of artistic performance excellence, are not accidental. They signal how far we have advanced in our thoughtlessness and neglect as caretakers of culture.

The ideological euphemisms that accompany this demolition can do little to appease a significant concern: A society that accepts the decline of rigour in the artistic interpretation and performance of music must not wonder why demagogues thrive who violate human interpretative autonomy and rally their charges around “fake news”. As Plato reminds us, when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state will change with them.