Constructivism vs. Bildungsroman

John Dewey is widely credited as the philosophical founder of what has since been termed constructivism, famously advocating that educators base instruction upon students’ interests, cultures, and lived experiences rather than merely imposing externally conceived curricula. By 1938, when Dewey’s Experience and Education was published, the tradition of competitive, performance-oriented music ensembles in secondary and collegiate school settings was in full swing and showed no signs of flagging; both band and choral groups across the United States strove to imitate the successful touring ensembles of the day. This performative tradition remains at the core of many, if not most, school music programs.

When Randall Allsup published his 2002 dissertation[1], he sought to bridge the gap between music studied in schools and music enjoyed at home, created in “garage bands,” or consumed in other “hidden” communities by suggesting that leaders of large school ensembles make curricular space for overlooked, non-performative activities such as experimentation and improvisation. By challenging teachers to facilitate creative music projects that promote collaboration, mutual learning, and student-driven artistic choices and objectives, Allsup made a significant case for disrupting the traditional, director-centered ensemble model. Although that director model has by no means been abandoned since 2002, there has nonetheless emerged an acknowledgement of the value of incorporating constructivist teaching across the field of music education.

While the goals of constructivist music teaching—chiefly to encourage creativity, self-expression, and cultural relevance, particularly in new spaces where they have not previously been accessible—are laudable, such teaching ironically strives to provide lessons that are characterized by the ways they occur outside of school settings, mostly (if not entirely) dictated by the individual without the aid of a teacher-facilitator. In this way, the constructivist teacher tries to emulate what students might learn as they seek out experiences in their own, extra-curricular lives. The ideal constructivist teacher, then, would appear to more closely align with characters such as Jarno or the Abbé in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, who, from the shadows of the secretive Society of the Tower, fashion opportunities for the maturing Wilhelm to struggle, fail, and eventually improve himself. One respect in which the constructivist classroom teacher is unable to emulate the outside world, however, is in the controlled, intentional invitation of failure and its concomitant suffering, as she is instead charged with preparing students to succeed through the use of a variety of sequential theoretical learning frameworks[2]. By Nussbaum’s admission, circumventing suffering denies learners the instrument “most powerful, most appropriate for grasping the truth” (Love’s Knowledge, p. 285). Therefore, in an idealized version constructivist teaching as arbitrated by Jarno and the Abbé in Wilhelm’s case, lessons are conducive to a wide span of positive and negative emotions, with curricula and assessment embedded in activities and revealed only afterward, if at all. The Bildungsroman, then, seems in many ways the ultimate constructivist learning sequence.

The comparison with music (and arts) education is messy but navigable: as Wilhelm himself exclaims before departing, “Happy he who realizes early enough that desire is no indication of ability[!]” (WMA, p. 44), a sentiment that returns in the later acknowledgement of Wilhelm’s lack of acting talent despite his love of theater. Theater, however, proves a crucial means by which Wilhelm encounters his most educative relationships. Jarno comments to Wilhelm that he is “predestined everywhere to find a theatre and actors” (WMA, p. 262) acknowledging and even seeming to support Wilhelm’s dramatic interests until a later life juncture, where he suggests that Wilhelm “abandon [his] association with the theater” (WMA, p. 287).

The first part of Jarno’s approach aligns with classic constructivist values of honoring the student’s prior experiences and interests as a baseline for following what which he or she feels to be meaningful. Where Jarno oversteps his bounds by today’s standards is by recommending Wilhelm discard his most impassioned hobby when he finally arrives at the threshold of mature personhood. This approach begs a question of teachers in the arts: is it in the best interest of students to dissuade them from (artistic) careers for which they show no immediate or unique aptitude? Would Wilhelm have benefitted had the industrious Werner more ardently (or successfully) dissuaded him from acting? Jarno might support withholding praise from an eternal amateur, but had he not been able to manipulate Wilhelm’s interest in theater to lead him to other educative experiences, he likely would have required another, similar vehicle to achieve the same ends. Theater, in the case of Jarno and Wilhelm, becomes instrumentalized for the sake of fostering Wilhelm’s moral growth.

The dramatic arts appear to directly offer Wilhelm little with regard to whole-making or synthesizing meaning in the world around him. Even his sporadic commentary on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which culminates in his depiction of The Great Dane with whom he so strongly identifies, ultimately serves as another stepping stone in Wilhelm’s many encounters with “otherness” on his journey. To Wilhelm, however, his perception of Hamlet is deeply felt, such that he might be inclined to lean on Nussbaum in personalizing the play’s artistic merit: “Life is never simply presented by a text; it is always represented as something” (Love’s Knowledge, p. 5). In comparing the Dane to a precious vase in which an oak tree is planted and becomes overwrought, Wilhelm finds his own life reflected in Hamlet’s strife and melancholy.

One caveat to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the assumption that the arts (as Wilhelm interacts with them) have no educative value beyond the limits Jarno and the Abbé prescribe. The music educator, shouldering the cause of “music-for-all” and “lifelong music-making” and transposing this sentiment to Wilhelm’s circumstances, would contend that Wilhelm still stands to benefit from continued involvement with theater despite having reached the conclusion of his apprenticeship, and might balk at the implicit conflation of Wilhelm’s acting with naïveté to be discarded upon reaching a certain level of maturity. Where the Bildungsroman appears to construct a finite developmental finish line marked by the protagonist’s arrival at selfhood and awareness of his place in society, arts educators might more readily contend that it is through constant and varied participation in the arts that one continues to expand his consciousness and understanding, in both personal and social respects.

Perhaps, as the lead character by the end of a Bildungsroman, a certain piece of art may come into being and sufficiently “make special” to be considered complete, requiring no further shaping. Most works of music, however, are fluid and constantly changing with every new interpretation, such that one’s involvement with a score may be considered unending (and unendingly educative). This may illustrate a more fruitful and realistic connection between art, life, and education, especially in the case of constructivist learning and the dedicated amateur (“lover”!): one’s chosen medium of artistic expression and consumption can become the means through which one most sensitively seeks and perceives formative lessons. By helping learners construct their own meaning in the context of their preferred media, they are afforded intimate, potentially more salient learning opportunities than what might be experienced through traditional curricula.

While constructivist philosophers of music education tend to look to contemporary pop, rock, and folk musicians as living examples of self-motivated musical growth, a different musician model might contend for exemplifying both a constructivist learner and protagonist in a musical iteration of the Bildungsroman: the troubadour (f. trobairitz), as in 11th-13th-century Occitania, Italy, and Spain.[3] Troubadours and trobairises tended to be of noble lineage (or enjoyed noble patronage), travelled extensively in order to perform at various courts, crafted or improvised lyric poetry espousing themes such as chivalry and courtly love, and often accompanied themselves on instruments such as the lute or cittern while they sang. Elevating extant minstrel performance styles, troubadours exhibited more craft and purpose than wandering entertainers, and arguably changed the course of Western music by introducing dozens of secular song genres and the first known non-sacred women composers. By drawing attention to social issues or parodying court politics, the troubadour’s art invites a description from Murdoch: “informative and entertaining, condens[ing] and clarify[ying] the world, directing attention upon particular things” (Murdoch, MGM, p. 8).

The Provençal root trobar, thought to carry multiple meanings including “to find” and “to compose,” implies a charming fusion of journeying and art-making as interconnected processes. To leave one’s home on an indefinite adventure to interact with and perform for assorted nobility, observe the world and various social classes, eschew formal education, and learn from and share songs with other troubadours seems to lay the foundation for both a classic Bildungsroman narrative and a constructivist musical trajectory wherein self-directed composing, improvising, and performing are the primary vehicles for expanding one’s understanding of the world.

The Bildungsroman offers an extended fable that romanticizes scenes of learning with which we can sympathize but rarely experience ourselves. The constructivist teacher meets the Bildungsroman halfway by both challenging yet operating within the traditional limits of the classroom in simulating learning conditions inspired by those that emerge organically in one’s self-determined life journey. In both circumstances, the arts (such as music) can easily become tools for education in matters of life and society, providing a specialized medium through which learners can derive their own awareness and selfhood.

(1559 words)

[1] *“Crossing Over: Mutual Learning and Democratic Action in Instrumental Music Education”

[2] Scaffolding, zone of proximal development, etc.

[3] Abraham, M. (2010). The rhetoric of the troubadours. Musical Offerings, 1(1).