An elementary school in Derby, England recently launched a disciplinary program entitled “Bach to Basics” in which unruly students are “subjected” (the school’s term) to listening to one hour of classical music in “special detentions.”
My initial response was: best detention ever! Of course, I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life so the idea of listening to Mozart for a couple hours does not traumatize me in the least (quite the opposite). The program has apparently been highly successful for the school. Since the program began, there has been a 50% drop in the number of students who need to be disciplined. The school’s standardized testing scores have also gone up, one of only two schools in the city to experience an increase in scores. On principle, the idea of replacing destructive energy with creative inspiration seems ideal. In practice, that is far from what the program has yielded.
Principal David Walker describes the special detentions: “I can hear the groans as it starts but I always ensure the volume is high. Hopefully, I open their ears to an experience they don’t normally have and it seems many of them don’t want to have it again, so it’s both educational and acts as a deterrent.”
This account showcases the more troubling aspects of this program. By using the geniuses of musical history as a form punishment, it enforces the idea that classical music is elitist, stuffy, and painful. Music is no longer an outpouring of creative expression and beauty, but a form of establishment control. Blogger Brendan O’Neill of Reason.Com compares “Bach to Basics” to the dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. In Anthony Burgess’s novel, protagonist Alex is conditioned to hate Beethoven by being forced to watch graphic violence while nausea-induced while listening to classical music. O’Neill claims:
“Burgess’s nightmare vision of an elite using high culture as a “punitive slap on the chops” for low youth has come true. The weaponization of classical music speaks volumes about the British elite’s authoritarianism and cultural backwardness… They have so little faith in young people’s intellectual abilities, in their capacity and their willingness to engage with humanity’s highest forms of art, that they imagine Beethoven and Mozart and others will be repugnant to young ears. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It can be very difficult to engage young people in the arts. I admit that as a child I only went willingly to classical concerts because a cheap goody bag of candy was given as a reward afterward. But I am very grateful to the distributor of those bags; it was just the small push I needed to get me into the concert hall. It laid a foundation for music, and all arts, to be a prominent part of my life. To my young mind, pretty music+candy=awesome. If the motivator for listening to music, though, was detention instead of candy, I feel like that equation would have been very different.
By making music a punishment, authority figures are categorizing the arts as something to be feared. I think the real fear ought to be a generation of kids who can’t appreciate the beauty of Bach.
Darcy Zacharias, CC ’10