ANU, Can You Be Elite Without Being Elitist?

Like most aspiring musicians, I spent my early university years prostituting myself in schools. I taught keyboard, conducted ensembles and accompanied choirs. At one primary school I taught at, another music teacher founded an auditioned choir to much objection. Many of the parents believed it unfairly provided opportunities to some students and not others. I asked around if the school formed sporting teams for inter-school competitions. The answer was no: for the same reasons.

A similar argument is present in the debate over the ANU School of Music. Implicit in the new course guide is the stench of anti-elitism. Music courses will no longer be designed to teach the best specialist musicians entering tertiary study, but instead be designed for those wanting a broad – and shallow – understanding of the field. According to the Vice-Chancellor, the courses will provide opportunities for students that would not be able to study at a conservatory.

In online discussions, radio talk-back and letters to the editor many people defending the new courses have accused their opponents of a form of elitism: “you and I know that anyone can sing the Messiah or Mozart’s Requiem”. While this is true, these are not performances that I would pay to attend.

If people wish to participate in music as an amateur, there is no reason for them to study it in detail at a university. There are many amateur ensembles and community institutions that offer such instruction. In Canberra, many of these organisations are staffed or assisted by staff, students and graduates of the School of Music.

What has been forgotten in this debate is that the ANU is the place of the elite. People attending courses at the ANU have to pass entrance requirements that prove they did better at high school than their peers. The ANU is “one of the world’s leading centres of research and teaching”. I ask if it is the place of such a world-class institution to teach courses to those that are not the best.

When I studied at the School of Music, my goal was not to leave with a broad understanding of all aspects of musical practice and research. Instead, I wanted to have an excellent knowledge of a particular area – as did my peers. If I had wanted a degree that led directly to a career, I would have studied accountancy, law or dentistry. It may be an extreme argument, but I believe it would be a great loss to Australia if the ANU removed every course that did not directly teach skills necessary for employment. The purpose of study at the ANU should be to gain advanced specialist knowledge and this is what will separate graduates in the marketplace.

There is nothing wrong with providing opportunities for high-achievers in particular fields, and we should celebrate their successes. It is okay to tell people that they are more capable than others in particular areas. And most importantly, it is okay for the government to assist these people in becoming leaders in their fields through education. There is anything wrong with having a children’s sporting team or choir that chooses the best – as long as the other students are not denied the opportunity to play or sing elsewhere.