Beauty, Reason, and Power

Music Education in a Pluralist Society

by William M. Perrine (Author)
©2023 Textbook XVIII, 354 Pages


Music, when approached as a part of a classical liberal arts education, is a profoundly humanizing endeavor which can facilitate individual musical and moral growth within communities of practice. A classical approach to music education contrasts with common progressive and critical curriculum frameworks through a philosophically realist analysis. From this perspective, a classical education serves as an induction into the liberal arts as a living tradition of cultural memory rooted in the transcendentals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Further, because a classical liberal arts education is an education in virtue, it equips students to contribute to the common good as a member of their broader communities. Music education, as part of a classical education, can cultivate shared loves across political, religious, or cultural lines in a pluralist society. Studying music allows practitioners to expand the circle of internal goods of a musical tradition while respecting existing individual and community moral commitments. Students learn music classically through ethical apprenticeship, a foundational method of induction into existing musical traditions which draws its pedagogical authority from both the internal standards of the craft and the practice’s hierarchical relation to an external moral order. Music education ultimately contributes to the life well lived when it reflects a narrative unity encompassing myth and reason, lived virtuously through the mastery of desire as measured by normative standards that are intrinsically meaningful beyond the limitations of the self.

“Every serious person in music education needs this book. William Perrine, impressively well read and deeply thoughtful, makes the convincing case for a classic liberal, aesthetic music education, and does so in the even-handed way of the true scholar. Perrine’s book points the way for the needed renaissance in music education, a rebirth which would revive the importance of art and contemplation in human experience.”—Charles Peltz, Director of Wind Ensemble Activities, New England Conservatory

"At long last, a major work that forwards a traditionalist approach to music education, firmly rooted in the core tenets of Classical education and foundational thinkers. Although written primarily with the Western context in mind, its insightful analyses and comprehensive coverage of timeless and transcultural themes like beauty, goodness, and music education as a humanizing enterprise appeals and speaks to a broad array of international readers."—Leonard Tan, Associate Professor of Music at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Advance Praise
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Pluralism, Music Education, and Philosophical Tradition
  • Part One: Traditions in Development
  • Chapter One: Foundations of the Western Tradition
  • Western Civilization and its Traditions
  • The Greek World in Context
  • Plato and the Idea of Education
  • Aristotle and Virtue in Community
  • The Impact of Hellenization and Early Christianity
  • Chapter Two: Realism and the Quest for Beauty
  • The World of Christendom
  • The Continuity of Tradition
  • Music and the Meaningful Cosmos
  • The Developing Liberal Arts
  • The Humanities and their Renaissances
  • Chapter Three: Reason and Inquiries for Truth
  • The European Enlightenment
  • Responses within the Liberal Tradition
  • The Aesthetic Experience of Music
  • Mechanical and Organic Pedagogy
  • Music Education as Aesthetic Education
  • Chapter Four: Transformation and the Will to Power
  • Contours of the Critical Framework
  • Critical Pedagogy
  • Critical Anti-Aesthetics
  • Praxial Music Education
  • Liquid and Immutable Identities
  • Part Two: Traditions in Operation
  • Chapter Five: The Classical Tradition and Music
  • The Nature of Musical Activity
  • The Meaning of the Musical Work
  • The Nature of Musical Listening
  • Chapter Six: The Classical Tradition and Education
  • The Purposes of Classical Education
  • The Content of Classical Education
  • Classical Education and the Common Good
  • Chapter Seven: The Classical Tradition and Music Education
  • The Materials of Music Education
  • Methods of Music Education
  • Music Education and Narrative Identity
  • Conclusion: Traditions in Conflict and Dialogue
  • Some Objections Considered
  • Diverging Paths Forward
  • Toward Dialogue and Resistance
  • Index

←viii | ix→


This book is, unreservedly, a grand narrative grounded in a transcendent view of truth. Conventional wisdom states that such projects are either hopelessly naive, or lack the academic sophistication to be taken seriously. I have never cared much for this type of conventional wisdom, however, and am thus unapologetic in stating my intentions directly. Further, what follows is an apology in the classical sense of the term: a rational defense and justification of a particular philosophical perspective that is generally absent from contemporary academic discourse. I am specifically arguing for a general stance of moderate realism and against contemporary philosophies of various stripes, whether postmodernism, poststructuralism, or critical social theories.

The topic I will address in the pages that follow is the relationship between music and education. What is the nature of education, and how does it encourage growth toward maturity so that children might contribute to the common good of their communities? Why should we value musical activity, and how does music as a social practice foster the cultural memory necessary for the sustenance of a civil culture in a pluralist society? While at first these questions may appear unrelated, for practicing music teachers the intersection of these issues cut to the heart of what it means to be a conscientious educator and musician. For those outside the profession of music education, concerns regarding education and artistic culture are central rather than peripheral to current social controversies. ←ix | x→Even if you as a reader have never spent a great deal of time thinking about what music teachers do on a daily basis, or why they do it, the philosophical framework I will explore has broad ramifications beyond what might or might not occur in a particular music classroom. On a related note, my intention here is not to provide practicing music educators particular recommendations for improving their professional practice, either in terms of teaching methodology or curriculum materials. Those expecting practical suggestions for teaching and learning music are bound to be disappointed. I certainly do not mean to imply that the philosophy I present in this volume does not have practical implications. The exact opposite is the case. However, practical wisdom for right action (what the Greeks called phronesis) proceeds from a correct anthropology of what it means to be human in relation to the cosmos properly understood. On this point, our educational system has embraced pragmatism so deeply that it takes a tremendous amount of work to even rationally conceive an alternative. A preliminary study of how we might understand the world we live in, and what role music and education might play in it, will thus provide more than sufficient material for the current study.

A forward to a volume such as this provides a more informal forum to set the stage for what follows. In this case, a few thoughts on why I am taking this approach, and what I might hope to accomplish, are perhaps in order. My overarching purpose in undertaking this endeavor has been to present an alternative to conventional thinking in the field of music education. Whether progressive, pragmatic, postmodern, poststructural, or guided by critical social theory, I have never been satisfied with the various academic approaches to curriculum theory current in the academy. Yet as a student I was never exposed in my classes to any substantive traditionalist alternatives—either at the elite liberal arts school I attended as an undergraduate, or at the reputable graduate institutions I attended. My search for alternate voices was thus, by necessity, a process of self-education. I was fortunate, however, to have truly liberal professors who valued free speech and free inquiry. So while at times I felt the academic hostility common to traditionalist thought in higher education, for the most part I had just enough freedom to get into trouble.

As I have progressed in my career, I have concluded that the exclusion of contrarian perspectives from the curriculum is not some sort of sinister conspiracy to move the Overton Window to the left. Certainly, there are various philosophical trends at play that tend to favor omitting certain “conservative” perspectives from academic discourse. These trends often operate, however, at the unconscious level of confirmation bias—something we are all susceptible to, regardless of our own ideological commitments. In terms of overlooking particular viewpoints from ←x | xi→serious consideration, there are certainly important philosophical lines that by their own premises exclude the potential legitimacy of opposing points of view. One of my hopes is that the reasons for this will gradually emerge from the current study. I have also found that when the occasional substantive account challenging the status quo emerges from the academy, it is often ignored, unnoticed, or dismissed as reactionary. Such are the lacunae of our field: no need to debate what we fail to notice, or what we already know to be wrong. By and large, though, when discussing the philosophy of music education with professional colleagues I have found a willingness to at least consider divergent perspectives. At the same time, this is coupled with the factual observation that such perspectives are in short supply.

One of the aims of this book, then, is to present a traditionalist approach to music education in a field where similar writings are hard to find. The academic field of the philosophy of music education—admittedly a narrow specialization within an already socially marginalized discipline—has tended to be dominated by ideas emanating from our sister discipline of curriculum theory, particularly in terms of Critical Pedagogy, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. In my own career I have found resistance to these approaches to be an ethical imperative, both in theory and practice. Explaining why requires turning to areas of philosophy outside the periphery of curriculum theory. I thus have examined a diverse group of writers—not all of whom would agree with my premises, methods, or conclusions—in hopes of calling attention to alternate approaches to framing our discipline, particularly in relation to the basic anthropological question of what it means to be human. For example, there has been occasional mention of the work of Charles Taylor in music education research, specifically in relationship to questions of religion in contemporary society. His broader claims regarding the nature of human identity and the expressive individual “self,” however, have not been investigated in detail. Similarly, the moral philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre, or the sociology of Philip Rieff are extraordinarily significant in understanding the historically contingent and philosophically contestable assumptions undergirding significant swaths of modern academic discourse. Other authors lesser known in education circles can also provide significant insight: the anti-fascist writings of Augusto Del Noce, or the insights of survivors of eastern European communism such as Ryszard Legutko, Leszek Kołakowski, or Czesław Miłosz. These writers and many others will make an occasional appearance over the course of this book. My hope is that bringing more voices to the table will enrich the conversation as a whole, regardless of whether one agrees either with any of the authors I draw from, or with my own conclusions more broadly.

←xi | xii→A secondary, but equally important, motivation behind this volume is to provide encouragement to my fellow traditionalists. This could include those interested in music, in education, or simply in important questions undergirding a flourishing pluralist culture. As I have noted, the academy can be an inhospitable place for those who dissent from the progressive consensus. Whether this is intentional on the part of particular professors or not is less relevant than the observation that it is a real phenomenon. The assurances of the token conservative on the university faculty to the contrary should not be taken as dispositive in this matter; after all, they might have a vested interest in staying within the good graces of the ideological majority. Traditionalist students—particularly those uninterested in demagoguing the issue—might tell a different story, at least to those they trust. I have yet to meet a conservative who went through the university without at least one harrowing story to tell of a lack of academic professionalism in this area that they are willing to share once they realize I am a fellow traveler. Most of these folks are not firebrands, attention seekers, or ideological polemicists, and would certainly not be willing to share these anecdotes with anyone doing academic research on the matter. This is not something that should be dismissed as paranoia, but rather a blunt recognition of the dynamics of cultural power. Tolerance of opposing viewpoints must be more than contingent magnanimity on the part of those in charge. We all know that such tolerance often only goes so far, and that there are lines that should not be crossed for one’s professional health and economic security. Self-preservation often drives students—or even faculty members—to engage in what Miłosz describes as ketman: hiding one’s true beliefs under a façade of compliance simply to get by and get through. The academic ideal of free and robust debate is poorly served by such a state of affairs. Instead, let us debate openly, with the courage of our convictions, and let the chips fall where they may. As Martin Luther declared, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Cultural renaissance is built on courage and sacrifice. I would consider the current volume ultimately successful if it can help some future scholar build a better and more compelling argument grounded in tradition than I, in my own limitations, am able to express.

Before commencing, a few acknowledgments are in order. First, I am grateful for the semester-long sabbatical leave granted by the administration at Concordia University Ann Arbor, during which a substantial portion of this book was written. This sabbatical, during Spring 2020, happened to coincide with the first COVID-19 lockdown. As was the case with just about everyone during that stressful time, I did not accomplish all that I had hoped. Yet the time I had to dedicate to research and writing was pivotal in making progress on the book. Second, thanks to the various academic mentors I have had over the years are in order. In particular, Estelle Jorgensen at Indiana University was a wise guide in learning the ←xii | xiii→craft of writing philosophy, particularly in terms modeling asking good questions, examining all perspectives, and formulating clear responses. Carolyn Barber at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln similarly modeled the necessity of deep, critical thinking as a practicing musician and the importance of reexamining the conventional wisdom of our profession. Ben Hawkins, my collegiate band director at Transylvania University, has not only been an incredible teacher and model of humane concern for his students, but has been a lifelong friend and advocate throughout the ups and downs of my career. All these mentors, and more, have been truly liberal in their consistent encouragement to develop my own voice and philosophical perspective. As such, none of them should be held responsible for anything I advocate in this volume, much of which I suspect they would disagree with! This, however, is the mark of a true teacher: the confidence that our students can, and will, disagree with us amicably without straining the bonds of pedagogical fellowship.

As with most academic books, I have immense gratitude for the many eyes and ears that have provided valuable input at significant points in the writing process. Several chapters in this volume began their life as conference presentations, and the feedback I received from various colleagues on these talks was extremely helpful in honing my thoughts. The anonymous peer review I received through the publication process was similarly helpful, even—or perhaps especially—when sharply critical. I owe special thanks to my colleague Stephen Parrish, professor of philosophy (now emeritus) at Concordia University whose office was immediately adjacent to my own for the last three years. One of the beautiful things about working at a liberal arts institution is the relationships with colleagues outside our department; Stephen was willing to read my manuscript in its entirety to make sure I was not making any embarrassing factual errors on the philosophical front and providing helpful feedback along the way. I am similarly grateful to Fiona Evison, a doctoral student at Western University in Ontario. Following a gracious invitation to present the first three chapters of this book in a doctoral seminar led by Paul Woodford, Fiona pointed me in the direction of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Art Rethought. This in turn helped me resolve several significant roadblocks in the second half of the book, without which my ultimate conclusions would have been much weaker. I am also deeply grateful and indebted to Dani Green, Acquisitions Editor in Education at Peter Lang Publishing, for supporting the publication of this book, and for the entire team at Peter Lang for guiding the manuscript through the final stages of preparation and publication.

Finally, my most profound thanks must go to my wife, Karyn. A perennialist educator through and through, I do not think that I would have ever written a ←xiii | xiv→volume centered on classical education apart from her influence. She has been tenacious in the pursuit of excellence, both in developing a humane history curriculum for her public classical charter school and, more recently since COVID-19, for our son to use at home. Our countless hours of discussing not only theory, but the practical implementation of classical curriculum, have sharpened my own thinking on what education could and should be.

←xiv | xv→


Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to reproduce the following:

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis © 1952 CS Lewis Pte Ltd. Extracts reprinted with permission.

The Music of Silence by John Tavener © 1999. Used by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.

“The Idea of a Christian Society” by T.S. Eliot. Copyright © 1940 by T.S. Eliot. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Christianity and Culture by T.S. Eliot. Copyright © 1940 by T.S. Eliot. Extract reprinted with permission from Faber and Faber Ltd. as the publishers.

“Mythopoeia” from Tree and Leaf by J.R.R. Tolkien. Copyright © 1965 by J.R.R. Tolkien. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

←xvi | 1→

Introduction: Pluralism, Music Education, and Philosophical Tradition

“There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and almost incredulously real.”

— G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer1

Learning music is a profoundly humanizing endeavor. Particularly within the context of a classical liberal arts education, participating in music can facilitate individual growth toward maturity within one’s own community of reason and justice while respecting those with whom we might disagree. Musical activity further holds the potential build real community across philosophical and political divisions, transcending otherwise intractable partisan differences that characterize a pluralist society. In the following pages, I will examine the nature of music education from a traditional standpoint underrepresented in contemporary discussions of our field. The relationship between the social practice of music and the role of education within society can be clarified, I suggest, through a return to a very old set of philosophical ideas. A liberal arts education in which music is a central component, geared toward human flourishing (what Aristotle described as eudaimonia), is best achieved through the pursuit of what the medievals considered the transcendental properties of being: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Such properties are ←1 | 2→transcendental because they exist independently of our subjective perception. They are instead foundational aspects of reality itself. Learning music can be a narrative path to understanding our lives in relation not just to our society and culture, but to an external cosmos that makes moral demands on us we cannot ignore.

Consideration of the traditional transcendental properties of being is immediately suspect, if not unintelligible, in those discourses that currently dominate curriculum theory—a branch of academic inquiry into the content and purposes of formal pedagogy of which the philosophy of music education is one offshoot. Educational theorists tend to begin with the contestable assumption that knowledge is socially constructed and work outwards from there. This presupposition can be found in a wide array of perspectives, from followers of John Dewey’s educational pragmatism to disciples of Paulo Freire’s Marxist humanism. It is similarly a mainstay of a disparate range of contemporary philosophies, whether postmodernism, poststructuralism, or critical social theories. My analysis in this volume—grounded in a moderate realism following thinkers such as Aristotle and Aquinas—categorically rejects any form of constructivism as terms of debate. Instead, I will discuss the relationship between music and education in a manner sensitive to traditional social and cultural concerns on their own terms. Consequently, my approach is both historical and philosophical: first in my attempt to understand how we have arrived at the particular cultural moment in which we find ourselves, and then how a better understanding of the past might inform our present and future musical practice. Returning to the transcendentals, I argue that it is to our spiritual and social impoverishment that these properties of being have been reduced to mere social phenomena through their detachment from an externally meaningful cosmos. To the extent that we discuss such properties of being at all, we often find academics placing them in scare quotes as if to emphasize their purported social construction. “Truth”—to the degree it can be said to exist—is in the best case a contingent artifact of the application of Reason. “Goodness” is merely a mask for Power. And Beauty, which once embodied the delight we should find in Truth and Goodness, is now simply Experience itself … neither Good nor Evil, True nor False. This, I will suggest in fairly strong terms, is not a positive development.

Rather than being an esoteric academic exercise, the tension between constructivist and realist perspectives can illuminate problematic aspects of music education practice that might otherwise remain invisible. Take, for example, two statements often viewed as self-evident in curriculum theory: As music educators, we live and work in a pluralist society. All education is a political endeavor. When these ideas are juxtaposed, tension results, confronting us with a series of significant questions. Whose political values should we favor in the implementation of ←2 | 3→any program of education? What does it mean for education to be political when there are multiple visions of the public good to which such politics aim? Add music into the mix and the complexities multiply. Whose music should we include in an education, and why should we do so? Whose politics are supported by such decisions? Such questions cut to the heart of what it means to be a conscientious and humane music educator. The variety of paths available necessitate both curiosity and patient inquiry, particularly given that current theoretical approaches tend to obscure traditional or conservative perspectives. It would seem in any event that the answer to any such series of questions would depend tremendously on how we define such terms as pluralism, education, politics, or music.

Pluralism in the context of this volume refers to a sociological reality in which multiple visions of the common good find expression in diverse communities sharing the same political space. Inherent in this definition is the fact that differing factions within a given society will fundamentally disagree, not just on particular political or economic issues, but on the most basic questions that define human existence. Pluralism is neither a good in and of itself, nor is it intrinsically destructive. It simply is. It is a fundamental ground of our shared humanity that every generation must find a means to navigate. Celebrating a cosmopolitan understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion tends to paper over these very real divides, particularly when “diversity” is used to catalog particular characteristics of various identity groups on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality. Visions of the common good often cut across such divisions, reflecting deeper concerns that transcend our particular social identities. Such visions often include what sociologist Charles Taylor calls “strong evaluations” grounded in pre-existing religious or metaphysical commitments: determinations of right and wrong by which our choices can be evaluated superseding personal preference or desire.2 In the case of our current culture, the explosion of information generated by the internet—combined with the pressures of globalization (both cultural and economic)—have made our shared political space feel more cramped and claustrophobic rather than open and humane. On a macro level, the tensions of pluralism manifest as a growing polarization and lack of civility toward divergent viewpoints. It is often a shock to realize that, wait: those people not only really do not agree with me on the issues I care most deeply about. They actually want society to reflect their values, not mine.


XVIII, 354
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (February)
music education philosophy of music history of music education classical liberal arts education transcendental properties of being critiques of progressive education critiques of Critical Pedagogy musical apprenticeship music as a social practice excellence and virtue in music curriculum theory Beauty, Reason, and Power Music Education in a Pluralist Society William M. Perrine
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. XVIII, 354 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

William M. Perrine (Author)

William M. Perrine serves as Associate Professor of Music and Director of Instrumental Activities at Concordia University Ann Arbor where he directs the Wind Ensemble and Orchestra. He holds a PhD in music education from Indiana University, with a specialization in the philosophy of music education.


Title: Beauty, Reason, and Power