There has been quite a turmoil in recent days in Reykjavík over planned cutbacks to music education and over proposals to introduce age limitations to the musical education system. Iceland, in spite of a crisis that shattered its economy, managed to this moment not to fall into the dangerous temptation of destroying everything by butchering its education system as it has happened in too many other countries. I honestly hope things are going to stay like this for as long as it will be possible. We read every day that everywhere else significant reductions to the fundings destined to culture and education are being applied, thus the cuts that caused so much unrest here may appear minor and not worth protesting, especially seen from a pragmatic foreigner’s perspective. But let’s not forget that whatever the limitation or cut to projects in favor of cultural promotion — no matter how severe actually — is a wound in the formation of the future generations. It is only right that people decided to take the matter in their hands, although it is not fair that in cases like this educators and families are often left to fend for themselves.
I’m not the best person to talk about music education in general, let alone music education in Iceland. I come from a country where music education is a joke. If you want to learn music, you can go to a specialized school like a conservatory, but from the regular course of your studies music is almost totally absent. Literature and even visual arts, although the latter in moderation, have a space of their own in the course of formative studies; why shouldn’t it be the same with music? Because music, to this day, is still seen as a leisurely activity, not important at all to prepare to life and its mechanics. I am the first to regret the poor level of my personal musical education. Together with reading and writing, being able to listen to and understand a piece of music or being able to play an instrument at least at a very basic level would only be sensible, if not necessary, for any fully developed personality. Instead, we disregard the importance of music; we let people lacking complete and organic culture run the world; we then wonder why there is so much disequilibrium in our societies. Dysfunctional people are often those who didn’t get to mature harmoniously; as humans, we are complex beings and we should care about all the fundamental aspects of our nature. Educating our sense of hearing accordingly should be a priority. And yet, we regard this priority as totally unessential to our own well-being.
It’s evident that communities in which better music education is provided — which is also index perhaps that a better overall education is provided — have lower rates of social maladjustment. One could object that these lower rates are only found in richer countries; is it not, rather, that some countries rightly guessed that investing on cultural development is on the long run a further means to a betterment in quality of life?
Iceland is one of those countries, although it appears it has not always been so. Poetry has always been a relevant side to the spirit of Icelanders, but music? According to what Halldór Laxness says in The Fish Can Sing, music hasn’t always played an important role in the country’s culture. In his book, Laxness clearly states that, differently from poetry, music wasn’t really highly regarded in older times. The book was written in the 50’s, but it is set during the first years of the XX century. Which means in Iceland, a country with a relatively uneventful history compared to that of other nations, the acquisition of music as a fundamental part of the national identity is quite novel. In The Fish Can Sing, the narrating voice of Alfgrimur plainly states more than once that by norm average folks didn’t consider at all music like a necessary element in the acquisition of a proper education. It was on the contrary almost seen as a dishonorable pastime for common people, something only fit for xenophiles or for those connected in a way or in another to the Church — but the connection with the Church is another peculiarity of the Icelandic mentality. Exemplification of this mindset is the enigmatic relation in the book singer Gardar Holm has with his fellow countrymen: ironically, Holm had to gain recognition abroad before he could be accepted as an honorable artist at home. So, if we take Laxness’ words for granted, up to a little more than a century ago the country’s disposition towards music was completely different from what it is now. Do we realize to what extent the impact of this change in mentality affected the country?
Despite the novelty, music has become one of Iceland’s most recognizable trademarks. If you ask at random to people abroad what do they mostly identify the country with, they will very likely mention at least the name of a music artist or two. It’s true that some of the old idiosyncrasies are still noticeable in Icelanders nowadays. For instance, musicians still have to gain recognition abroad before they can get properly noticed and acclaimed by their own people. But Icelandic musicians demonstrated that music is not, like the industry led us to believe, a servant in the pursuit of fame or a weapon to earn public approval, and it is not the divertissement of a chosen caste; besides being vessel for individual expressive needs, it can also be source of pleasure and personal growth open to anybody, first of all for the musician himself. This, I reckon, is the result of a thoroughly acquired education.
I don’t think even in highly developed countries we can find a similar crucial change in outlook towards a single art. Music in most countries is to this day seen as a trifling hobby for youngsters who still have to find out what life is really about, a deviant fixation for social outcasts or a diversion for the intellectual elite. Not that differently from what it used to be in Gardar Holm’s times — but we are well beyond the XX century, in case we haven’t noticed yet.
It’s easy to be cynical towards education when you are an educated person, but it is not that easy if in the first place you are deprived of the proper tools to educate yourself. These tools don’t include only schooling — good schooling, that is — but also access to libraries and museums — another sore point was the recent decision in the Reykjavík municipality to introduce an entrance fee to museums that were previously accessible for free — and so on. We like a lot to be fooled by those in charge that always find slashing culture and education the most convenient thing to do when things are going downhill. Culture after all is one of the few actual means of protection people are still given; it’s not surprising then that from the limitation of this freedom there is all to gain for those holding the power.
Without culture and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. — A. Camus