The Ethics of an Education

The Ethics of an Education

An examination of how we educate young composers.

Written By

J. Mark Scearce

J. Mark Scearce

Let me tell you a story of a Big Lie, a House on a Hill, a Boat Lost at Sea, and the Big Business that, like Prospero, crashes its victims on the shore of the almighty dollar. This is the story of the ethics of an education: the education of our young composers.

I’ve been teaching now for twenty years: long enough to know good from bad—the very dichotomy of an ethical dilemma. Good teaching, bad teaching, good and bad students, composers, administrators, even institutions. But no one talks of it. It is assumed that this is the way of the world, nothing to be done. And surely there won’t be anything done about it, as long as it goes prancing about, committing its treasonous acts, wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Perhaps the best way to broach this subject, not to mention the wall of academe, is to venture inside The Ivory Tower to hear the hucksters’ braying of the Big Lie that must be confronted before we may repair any of this. The first thing to know is that The Big Lie is never singular, but has at least two opposing Janus faces.

Out of one mouth it says, “Not everyone can be a composer. We must limit ourselves to X tradition or Y hoop-jumpers. Only the brilliant can survive out there.” Nepotism has never had it so good as it does as a member of this Gated Community. Suddenly it is not so important whether or not there is talent, but Who Shapes that talent. This Lie says, through clenched, patrician teeth, “As long as you study with X, it won’t really matter what you have to say or whether you can say it.” This Lie says, “Not everyone can be a composer. But (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), if you study with X or at Y school, with its reputation, You’ll Make It as a composer. We’ll see that you do.” And they have a point. America has been restricting who sits at the table like this since the upper decks of the Mayflower. In some quarters, it hasn’t ceased since landing.

From the other mouth of this Janus-faced Lie comes, “There is a place for you as a composer in the world. In fact, there is infinite room in the world for as many composers as we can churn out, so give us your tuition, bide your time, and we will place you in a job when you’re through here in this Educational Institution of Employment Incentive Opportunity (EIEIO).” This Lie is the seeming opposite of the Lie above. It says, “X composer and Y institution are elitist snobs. Why not come to Podunk U and we’ll give you a master’s degree that’s just as good as X or Y? Come one, come all!” it shouts like a carnival barker, which every college admissions department must employ these days.

Amazingly, both these voices come from inside the Wall! It isn’t as if one voice is on the inside and the other outside: both come from opposing factions within. In fact, the trouble is, there is no voice on the outside of that wall, no connection between inside and outside at all, though both lies promise a life after education. Both these voices from inside The Tower have historical evolutionary precedents. One voice feeds America’s intellectual and cultural insecurity complex, claiming heritage to that European model that invaded our educational institutions in the 19th century and even before; a cultural superiority that lords over us to this day. The other voice attempts to counter this, to answer the profession’s past exclusive behavior, but does it cloaked in an egalitarian gesture of pure 20th century populism.

Both voices are wrong. Both approaches devastatingly misguided.


Don’t get me wrong. Education is vitally important, but education comes in a variety of guises. Get a tutor, apprentice yourself to a master, learn by doing. All of these are educational experiences far superior to colleges and universities as they presently exist.

No, not everyone can be a composer, not because of the practice of X tradition or Y hoop-jumping. Not everyone has what it takes, plain and simple. There is not room for an infinite number of composers in the world. At Indiana—what was, when I was there two decades ago, The World’s Largest Music School—there were nearly 100 student composers seeking an education. It would be interesting to see a study of how many of my colleagues gave it up, shucked the racket, and moved on to better-paying and less soul-wrenching employments. And I’m sure that number of composers-to-be has grown in the twenty years since, not only at Indiana, but let’s add to the accounting North Texas, Northwestern, Eastman, Juilliard, two fistfuls of other large state and private institutions, not to mention the hundreds of smaller colleges with programs they shouldn’t offer.

What is the ethics of educating more composers than there could possibly be employments for? How many composers will the market bear? How many should be accepted in our graduate schools?

Twenty years ago I put the question to one of the best teachers I had at Indiana: “How many of us really belong here?” His answer, given quicker than the blink of an eye, surprised me: “10 percent!” he said, as if his conscience and that of the institution that employed him, had forced him to think of it every day of his teaching life—10 percent! After teaching for twenty years, I see that he was right. And it’s not just composers. Ten percent of those studying music in colleges and universities have a right to be there. If the World’s Largest Music School deserves ten composers a year, then all other graduate programs should have maybe one or two, certainly no more than a handful!

And what of a bachelor’s degree in composition? In my opinion, it shouldn’t exist in the university at all. Until you know an instrument well, possess a modicum of basic knowledge, and can imagine sound—both your own and others through score study—you have no business creating. On top of it, in this 21st century world we live in, I would require that all bachelor’s degrees in music be as general as possible before undertaking a graduate degree in composition. We need teachers, we need thinkers, we need do-ers in music— and by that I mean community music builders—far before we need specialists.

However, this doesn’t mean an undergraduate can’t benefit from studying composition as an area of concentration, or even that composition can’t be employed to teach theory or fundamentals, to teach teachers how to teach! There’s nothing stopping a precocious young composer from apprenticing him or herself to a mentor-composer practicing in the field to learn all they can. This is how it used to be, and the old models worked for a reason. But for serious formal study, composition is a graduate degree and should become so.


The Big Lie, though, is that they can make you something other than you are. Are you a composer? Then Be One. Make a living being a composer in the community in which you live. No number of recommendations from recognized authorities will make you a composer, just as no amount of education can mold you into something you are simply not.

A few years ago, I was in Canada as one of only two American guests of The World’s Largest New Music Festival. Why the distinction of World’s Largest Music School or World’s Largest New Music Festival is worn as a badge of honor is beyond me. It’s like advertising We’ve Got More of What You’re Not Looking For (So It’s That Much More You’ll Have to Wade Through to Find What You Need).

One of my duties in Canada was to judge a competition of the Best Orchestral Work of the ’90s by a Canadian composer. When it came down to the final two composers, one of them, we were later told, had nearly as much education as I, and the other was self-taught. Even before we were told this I’d discerned as much by the second page of each of their scores. I opened the printed music and heard it in my mind and recognized immediately the weaknesses of the uneducated.

This does not mean one must go to school to be educated. It does, however, mean you must listen to those around you and come to an education that benefits your work, the integrity of that work, and the quality of that work or it will have none. One must leave the lonely work room of the composer and listen to the community in which you live—its music, its values, its other composers—and then one must judge them, and harshly, before they find a place in your work. This is as much of an education as university as long as you were taught to do this.

My Canadian colleagues—who later laughingly told me the motto of their country was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of compromise”—voted to make the competition a tie, saying they wanted to encourage the young, uneducated composer. Hey, at least they support their arts! I responded by saying that losing was at times the best education one can get. If you don’t have an inquiring mind that wants to know, you will never make it anyway, so you might as well apply that inquisitiveness to an education.

I have five degrees in music and philosophy, and I don’t regret a single one of them; in fact, I’m quite grateful for a couple of the early ones. The later ones were a lot of fraternity hazing, but then so are most tenure-track jobs, which you might as well prepare yourself for with an advanced degree. But isn’t that really the problem? The Ivory Tower has become ever more self-perpetuating and disconnected to a career as a working composer. As a university composer, the clubbable Tower is absolutely necessary. So what’s the difference between a working composer and a university composer? The answer lies in the Tower itself.

In the university, inside the wall, the profession has taken refuge from the vagaries of the world beyond the wall. These unpredictabilities include audiences, arts marketers, and the economics of the marketplace. Somewhere along the line, the university became the enemy of the people, rather than the place of enlightenment that was envisioned for these sanctuaries of study.

And to whom do we owe this transformation? The fault is shared, I believe, between, again, two forces. This is no Frankenstein story where the townspeople rebel against a knowledge perpetrated on them by the house on the hill. It is rather a story of a sanctuary harboring a fugitive.

Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.

We have all heard this—and heard it because there is, or has been, some semblance of truth to it. For any number of reasons, economic and social, the university found itself harboring those with specialized skills for which the community had no ready need. Rather than convince the community-at-large of the validity of these skills, the university took in these specialists to preserve their gifts. These specialists taught other specialists without, again, communicating with the community (how close these words once were), nor educating the community as to the validity of these skills being practiced outside the walls of education. It is no wonder a rift was born and perpetuated.

This situation has now existed for well over a hundred years and can’t continue as it has. But this over-specialization is the first fault even if its intent to preserve knowledge was once an altruistic gesture in the face of persecution.

The second and more devastating fault—and this has occurred in the last thirty years—has been the corporate ideology taking over the management of the university, running education like a business. Education is not a business, it shouldn’t be treated as such, and we’re beginning to see why. Business operates on supply and demand, and yet we have seen there is no demand for certain specialists in the community. So, where is this demand for which the educational institution must supply teachers? It is manufactured by the institution itself. It is self-perpetuating and a(nother) rather substantial lie.

What Big Business has done with the university is to create internal markets. Jobs for these specialized “skills” are created only by other universities, and the disillusioned graduates for whom there are no jobs are being forced into an ever-growing, highly-educated, unemployed mass of disenfranchised ready to revolt had they not been so well indoctrinated into the passive resistance of The Lie.

Once you are educated to see all sides, including the one you’ve paid thousands of dollars to see, once you can justify your place in the market, The Lie is no longer a lie, but a very real and personal “truth.”

It is clever, but, even more than that, it is desperate survival. What incentives are there to reform the educational system when the entire “business” has evolved into a life-support system for itself? It is an Iron Lung fitted on the healthy when they enter the door. No wonder the concept of the movie The Matrix took hold in this time when one feels one’s life is simply fuel for a larger more devastating machine committed to no other purpose that to continue the cycle.

Today, not only is there no need for more composers within the institution, there is no need being made for them in the world at large, the world beyond the wall. There is no more communication today between the Ivory Tower and the various communities in which they sit like eight-hundred-pound gorillas than there was a hundred years ago. Far less in fact.

And yet, big business is now running higher education, creating demand where there is none, admitting far more students than any market can bear, and telling entering freshmen that everyone is entitled to an education. Entitlement is a dangerous thing. Everyone should have opportunity, yes; but not everyone can or should succeed at it. History tells us this much and yet we ignore facts and relive history at our peril.

The Ivory Tower was built to enlighten, to admit the few who best could utilize the education. It is by nature elitist and this does not have to be a bad thing. What is bad is reducing what The Ivory Tower once stood for to a vocational school, admitting all comers, and churning out product like so many factories, whether there are jobs for them or not. Vocational schools provide a utilitarian function, but adopting their model for higher education makes the Ivory Tower not more useful, but less.

The more we alter educational content to meet limited comprehension skills, the deeper we dig our own mass graves. Until we build an ethical responsibility into our educational systems we will never come to harbor from being lost at sea for much of the 20th century.

J. Mark Scearce is the director of the Music Department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He is a First Prize winner in four national music competitions, the holder of five advanced degrees in music and philosophy, and has currently six commercial recordings of his work available on the Delos, Capstone, Centaur, Warner Bros, and Equilibrium labels, and on a Sony 4-channel SACD available only on the website