MENC from 1957 to 1982: Music Education against the Backdrop of the Cold War, the Struggle for Civil Rights, and Emerging Technology

By Mark, Michael L. | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2007 | Go to article overview

MENC from 1957 to 1982: Music Education against the Backdrop of the Cold War, the Struggle for Civil Rights, and Emerging Technology


Mark, Michael L., Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


A Time of Change for Education and Music Education

The twenty-five-year period from 1957 to 1982 was a time of dynamic change for American society and for music education. Our profession matured during that quarter-century to meet the needs of American society. The story of American education in general, though, is not so bright. It is considered to be a period of education reform, but realistically, not much reform actually occurred. The word reform suggests that a problem has been addressed and solved, and that did not happen. Many of the problems that plagued education in 1957 still have not been solved to this day. I prefer to call this a period of change, rather than reform, because it was a time when we kept trying new things--fads that lasted for a year or three years--and then we tried something else, almost always with no significant lasting consequences. But on the bright side for music education, it was an interesting and fruitful period, a time of many new developments when our profession began to give serious thought to how we should and could serve society's needs.

It is not possible to describe this period without going back a few years earlier to identify what set the stage for so much change. During this quarter-century three strands of American history stand out for their effect on music education: the Cold War, technology, and the struggle for civil rights.

PART I

The First Strand: The Cold War

At about the halfway point of the twentieth century, following two world wars, the United States found itself engaged in a new conflict, this time against the only other world superpower, the Soviet Union. Until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1992, the Cold War continually threatened to heat up into a real war that conceivably could have destroyed both countries. Fear of war was a major factor in shaping American society during the second half of the century. (1) It was also largely responsible for the United States coming to terms with the inadequacies of its public schools. The country had to maintain constant readiness for actual war in an emerging technological age, but schools were not preparing students to function effectively in a technological society. The public became increasingly alarmed as the shortcomings of the schools became more evident. In fact, government officials made it clear that national security could be at stake if public education did not improve. And so, for the first time, the federal government stepped in and became involved, not only in what was taught in the schools, but also how it was taught. This was the beginning of an extended period of school reform, a period that still has not ended.

It was also a time of discomfort for music educators. In the 1950s music education leaders became uncomfortable with the rationales that had historically supported their discipline because they no longer provided adequate justification for music in schools. Spokespersons for other subjects--reading, writing, mathematics, science, and languages--could easily justify their places in the curriculum because those subjects related directly to national security. Although music remained a core subject, it was not generally perceived by the public as a necessary discipline.

The Federal Government Becomes Involved

The federal government became directly involved in the schools when it created the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), a cabinet-level agency, in 1953. The first secretary of HEW was Oveta Culp Hobby, formerly commander of the Women's Army Corps. Previously the federal government had treated education issues so peripherally that they were channeled through the National Security Council. As the government became more deeply involved in education, HEW eventually evolved into several agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education became a separate cabinet-level agency in 1980. Even though education authority is a state, rather than federal, responsibility, the federal government provides money for schools that the states cannot afford to lose. …

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