Gary Graffman: US lags behind the world in arts education

Gary Graffman: US lags behind the world in arts education


norman lebrecht

April 19, 2015

The pianist and former president of the Curtis Institute has joined our debate on music education with some trenchant, painful observations.


Further to Robert Fitzpatrick’s observations regarding the unhappy state of arts education in the USA and his comments that events of the last 45 or 50 years in our country “have led to a decline in the quality of education in general, and an abandoning of the arts and arts education in particular”.

I couldn’t agree more. (Full disclosure: Bob was Dean at The Curtis Institute during my 20 years as head of that school, so we have griped about this subject on several occasions.) However, I’d like to add that this diminishment of ALL education in the USA over two generations might help to explain – and perhaps even partially excuse – the uninformed utterances emanating from the mouths of too many of our elected representatives, as well as their complete lack of knowledge or interest in anything to do with the arts. In fact, it would not be at all surprising if many of those representatives who received our typical public education during the last four or five decades have hardly ever, if at all, chosen to visit an art museum or to attend an opera, the ballet or a symphony concert.

According to all the global education ratings and indexes that I have seen, the USA lags behind many nations. But as these charts are almost exclusively based on math, reading and science, this is just the tip of the iceberg. For if the arts were included in such ratings, the standing of the USA would plummet even further.  (Of course, there are a significant number of outstanding American schools – public as well as private – that teach and produce students on the highest level. But the number of young people who are fortunate to receive such an education is a very small percentage of the total, resulting in the formation of a sort of cultural oligarchy.)

Given this pervasive decline of general knowledge in the USA, it becomes quite understandable that some of our elected leaders have become today’s equivalent of those 17th-century individuals who, decades after Galileo, still insisted that the sun circled the earth.

Obviously, I agree with Bob Fitzpatrick that the NASM should re-examine its current mission and should lobby relentlessly to see that American public education– including arts education – should be funded satisfactorily. But I fear that until such time as some of our important American public figures make this issue a major, life-or-death matter (which it is), the dumbing-down of the USA will continue unabated. This, of course, would be tragic. But it would also be stupid, because a fine, well-rounded education for all is one of the few issues that could re-unite United States, since it would clearly benefit everyone.


  • Christy says:

    This is already happening on just about every level. The Chicago Education Plan is the best example of an attempt to get arts education to every public school child. Turnaround Arts, the federal initiative, has produced spectacular results and the Obama Administration has announced that one of its final goals is to reform No Child Left Behind to include an arts education requirement.

    These initiatives, and MANY others, need to be supported by all classical fans and practitioners.

    But in addition, classical practitioners need to also embrace attempts to move more into the mainstream, getting classical singers on talk shows, in the news. There’s a play about opera on Broadway that is being ignored or shunned by significant number of opera fans and especially opera-focused media. There are efforts to try to get classical musicians included on the television talent shows that are mocked. There are initiatives to embrace musical theater that are mocked. None of this helps get classical music into the conversation in order to push for things like arts education – which will help sustain it in the future.

    This is a complex issue, but it has to start with the classical community reaching out across boundaries, or we’ll be left behind… again.

    And incidentally, one of the candidates for president is a huge supporter of the arts, and in particular classical music.

  • Sandra says:

    I agree completely with both Mr. Fitzpatrick’s previous entry and with Mr. Graffman’s comments above. It is an extremely sad state of affairs in the United States nowadays. Apart from a total decline in music and arts education, there is a total decline in all education and, as an educator myself, and not an American, nor living there, I am absolutely shocked by the level of general ignorance of the average person that you meet on a daily and recurring basis there. The general conclusion I get on every visit is of a nation completely oblivious to the world around them, unaware of arts in general, with little or no curiosity about anything particular. It is that, the lack of any form of intellectual curiosity, that astounds me the most. There seems to be a near obsessive preoccupation with making lots of money and their work. They take little or no vacation, and rarely travel outside of their borders, so their world view is parochial and almost that of a small child in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway…and so many other places, in other words, extremely limited, bordering on deficient. How can they be major world players and be respected and admired without the most basic knowledge and understanding of the world and of the arts?

    Sure, there are many wonderful exceptions and I find that when people in the U.S. are on the other end of the scale, they are extraordinary and exceptional, but alas the vast majority are on such a low level that it is easy to understand why the overall situation there is as it is. Yes, they may have fantastic schools, like Curtis, but these are like oases in the desert and sadly often have a majority of Asian students. The concern should not just be about music and arts education, which is only a symptom of the deep underlying problem, but rather about an entire nation that soon will not be able to compete globally, due to dire general educational deficiencies. Yet, their government and their voters don’t seem to put education, of any kind, as a priority for their country’s long-term well-being. In studies, the average person there puts a strong military and being feared and admired for its weaponry way ahead of being a leading nation for education and producing the best and brightest young people in the world. Without strong education policies they will quickly descend to the level of a third world nation, something that appears to sadly be happening before our eyes.

  • Olaugh Turchev says:

    Sadly the same can be said over education in many western countries… Such coordinated effort cannot be the result of incompetence alone.

  • william osborne says:

    Regarding education and “cultural oligarchy” in the USA, 96 to the top 100 feeder schools for Harvard are private and have very high tuitions average people cannot afford. Even with scholarships and efforts to be diverse, the class system that orients children toward these schools remains intact. The schools thus help perpetuate a class oriented, educational and cultural oligarchy.

    In continental Europe, private schools are almost universally forbidden by law since they are seen as perpetuating class systems and other social problems. This concept is foreign in the USA and is seen in our social fabric. Philadelphia, for example, has 186,000 people in deep poverty (defined as less than $10,000/year for a family of three,) which includes 60,000 children. And yet Philadelphia has the 9th largest metro GDP in the world, and the “Mainline” suburbs contain one of the largest concentrations of wealth on the planet. There is nothing like it in any other developed country. The income and educational divisions in the USA are found only in Third World countries.

    Private institutions such as Curtis, Penn, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford might be part of the problem with education in America. They define a system educational and cultural oligarchy that no other developed country in the world accepts. This corresponds directly with the classism in the high arts created by our private funding system, which is also unique and isolated in the world.

    • william osborne says:

      Here is a list of the top 100 feeder schools for Harvard, of which 96 are private – a classist, spoon-fed prepping for the cultural oligarchy:

      • Christy says:

        Your analysis seems to depend on the idea that every student at these feeder schools is rich and coming from privilege. In fact, significant percentages receive full tuition aid. In fact, these private high schools can be gateways from poverty or disadvantaged environments to places like Harvard.

        Browne & Nichols, for example, provides full tuition to a quarter of students. Curtis also provides full tuition to an even higher percentage. They allow kids with work ethics and desire to succeed, despite the fact that they can’t afford to pay what others can. These schools bring together classes, in many cases. They’re bridges.

        Judgments based only on partial information provide on partial understanding.

        It may be in vogue to mock everything America does, but that doesn’t make all of the accusations correct.

        • william osborne says:

          Sadly, America’s educational and cultural oligarchy hides behind a façade of tokenism. See the article below from the NYT which begins with this:

          “As the shaded quadrangles of the nation’s elite campuses stir to life for the start of the academic year, they remain bastions of privilege. Amid promises to admit more poor students, top colleges educate roughly the same percentage of them as they did a generation ago. This is despite the fact that there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.”

          And this is to say nothing of the appalling social conditions and public schools that make it very difficult for poor children to become top students in the first place.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      How is Curtis part of the problem? At least it offers free tuition, not unlike many European counterparts.

      • william osborne says:

        A number of elite schools, including Princeton, have become so wealthy that they no longer charge tuition. This concentration of wealth in elite institutions that are oriented toward the higher classes reinforces the classism of our schools – and worse, a racially informed classism. Students from the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution comprise just 14 percent of the undergraduate population at the United States’ most competitive universities. Poorer top students are less likely to apply to America’s best universities for a variety of reasons. Tuition is only one.

        How many of those 60,000 children suffering deep poverty in Philadelphia are going to go to Phillips Academy or the Horace Mann School where they will be channeled into an elite college? How many will have high quality music lessons starting from Jr. High onward and be funneled into Curtis? With rare exception, those are the privileges of rich white kids. And when you get to Harvard, the rich white kids let you know it.

        This racially informed classism also strongly affects the high arts. Just like our best schools, they are funded by and for the wealthy. We thus have an educational and cultural oligarchy that is inherently plutocratic. To change these social conditions would require cutting to the core of America’s social and economic concepts. And it would be much more difficult than in Europe because our society, especially with its recent history of human slavery, is far less uniform.

  • william osborne says:

    I’m afraid you are the one not looking at the facts. See the NYT article linke below, which begins with this:

    “As the shaded quadrangles of the nation’s elite campuses stir to life for the start of the academic year, they remain bastions of privilege. Amid promises to admit more poor students, top colleges educate roughly the same percentage of them as they did a generation ago. This is despite the fact that there are many high school seniors from low-income homes with top grades and scores: twice the percentage in the general population as at elite colleges.”

    There are many other articles on the web pointing to the same thing. Tokenism has become the big, carefully constructed lie that hides or educational and cultural oligarchy. These criticisms have nothing to do with fashion, and everything to do with creating important, meaningful change.

  • william osborne says:

    Here’s another useful article, this time from Forbes. It notes that at Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 — in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.

  • NYMike says:

    Since from its inception Curtis was set up as an all-scholarship institution with talent being the only criterion, I don’t think it should be part of this discussion.

    • william osborne says:

      Continental Europeans would disagree. They hold that in most circumstances all of a country’s schools should have a similar quality, that all share equally in funding, talent, resources, and the best teachers. It’s basically a concept of equal opportunity quite alien to Americans. Perhaps this is because American society is so stratified from the outset that such educational egalitarianism would be impossible, if not disastrous. What is a privileged school like Curtis in a city where 60,000 children face basic problems with hunger? What are artists that live in a bubble that numbs them to the immorality of their society? We see that the problems go far deeper than educational systems.

  • Ken J. says:

    The original postings are correct that USA education is much bigger than an arts issue.

    I view the education collapse through the lens of Colin Woodard’s book “American Nations.” For most of the 20th century up to 1980, the dominant cultural and political power in the US was “Yankeeland,” whose ideology stresses the capabilities of human beings for improvement, and this ideology powers a lot of education.

    But starting in the 1970s, and coming to power in the 1980s, the USA dominant cultural and political power shifts to an alliance between Appalachia, whose ideology could best be described as “Leave Me Alone” — particularly on taxation — and the “Deep South,” which is committed to a cheap-labor economy — no point in educating cheap labor, it might just give people ideas.

    Until this biggest of big-picture issues can be addressed, there is simply no hope for the survival of classical music in the USA, beyond the level of string quartets travelling from gig to gig in a beat-up van. The dominant cultural and political power in the USA, as represented in its legislatures, has no use for expensive institutions like orchestras and opera companies, so these institutions will fade out with the demise of the current elderly audiences.

  • Christy says:

    WOW, what a bunch of pessimistic people who truly dislike America. Some people need to get out more to see what’s really happening on the ground in classical music and arts education. It encompasses so much more than the biggest, most expensive institutions.

    Oh well.

    • Walter says:

      No, the people commenting here, including myself, first of all don’t “dislike America”, we dislike poor education and stupidity on such an enormous scale. If that to you means that we “dislike” the entire nation, then so be it. America can no longer fool the world, as information, statistical comparisons are easily accessible and there for all to see. If you don’t mind living in a country where the lowest common denominator rules the show, then I admire your fortitude. I am appalled, as are others here, at the ignorance of the people there and their total lack of any awareness as to what makes them so collectively awful.

    • James of Thames says:

      I have to agree with Christy here. For all the USA’s problems in the arts and education (which are not inconsiderable), there are many success stories too. The good and the bad exist simultaneously, but only the bad is considered newsworthy.

    • william osborne says:

      My wife and I have presented our work in about 150 American universities. What we see is an enormous amount of excellent musical training for a society that provides little support for the arts. I hope Mr. Graffman and Mr. Fitzgerald will continue their efforts to improve the situation, such as working with the NASM.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Bankrupt aristocrats in the crumbling, unheated manors still sneer at those they perceive as their inferiors.

  • Eric Koenig says:

    Mr. Graffman nails it. It’s better worded than anything I could have said or added.