Soapbox: The Anti-Educational Ideology of ‘Talent’

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I have written several times over the years about how ‘talent’ is a socially constructed narrative, and about the obsessive, dedicated work that goes into creating the skills that get labelled as ‘talent’. What I have been hitherto somewhat muted about is the damage that the mythology of talent does to our culture, and to individuals within it. This has come into focus for me in recent months as I have been writing about the phenomenon of the ‘non-singer’ as part of a book chapter for Oxford University Press.

The ‘non-singer’ is the inevitable by-product of our cultural construction of talent. We approach talent with a kind of magical thinking that sees the capacity for music (or indeed for all kinds of other specialist activities) as somehow both genetic and supernaturally bestowed upon particular, ‘gifted’ people, who are thereby set apart from normal mortals.

The consequence of this is that we attribute any signs of nascent skill in a child as evidence of this magical quality, and focus all our efforts of training and encouragement on those children, leaving those we didn’t notice doing well (either because we didn’t look at the right moment, or because when we looked they were struggling) behind.

‘You’re rather out of tune, dear,’ the less-skilled child is told, ‘Better just mime the words.’ And at that moment, they discover that they ‘can’t sing’.

So tell me, in what universe is it valid to correctly diagnose a skill deficit, and deal with it by saying, ‘Just don’t ever do that thing again’? Can you imagine in a literacy class:

‘You seem to be having a bit of trouble with your writing, dear. Your b’s and d’s are the wrong way round. Better have this stick instead of that pencil; we don’t want any more visible mistakes’

Or with general life skills:
‘Have you had an accident? Well, it’s a life-time of nappies for you, my lad. Clearly not a natural at bladder control.’

See what I mean? In normal circumstances, the appropriate response to observing a child has an incomplete grasp of a skill is to help them improve. The mythology of talent distorts this response, and invites us to select for development only those who by luck or parental support have got up to the starting line.

‘But surely genetics makes a difference?’ you may reply. (Usually somebody does say this when I have this conversation in real life.) And it may well do, for all we can tell. The emergence of complex human behaviours is a tangled mix of nature and nurture which nobody is anywhere near sorting out yet. It’s not like Downs’ Syndrome or certain forms of breast cancer, where you can predict a specific outcome by identifying specific genes.

There are two reasons, though, why this point does not give us an excuse to cling to our misleading myths:

  1. What evidence we have about the emergence of musical skill suggests that there is little that might be attributed to nature that could not also be attributed to nurture. The work of John Sloboda and the scholars he has worked with are the authors to read up on this. Kindliness in initial teachers, backed up with long-term parental support (whether or not the parents identify as ‘musical’) predict eventual musical expertise more reliably than family history. As Sloboda writes: ‘People mistakenly assume that intuitive behaviour must be innate. This is a major fallacy. Any well-practised habit eventually becomes automatic.’
  2. Whether or not some people have exceptional ‘natural’ or ‘in-born’ capacities for musical expertise, the decision to discourage those not so endowed from musical participation remains an ideological one. Just because Alan Turing was stupendous at maths doesn’t mean that everybody else wouldn’t find it valuable to learn the fundamentals too. The division of the world into the ‘talented’ and the ‘untalented’ takes a continuum of capacity and/or developmental progress and marks an arbitrary point on the scale to split those worth helping from those to be found wanting. John Sloboda again: ‘It seems that our society - particularly our system of formal education - is set up to produce a large number of musical “walking wounded”’.

The discourse of talent, that is, is not ‘elitist’ because it recognises different levels of expertise, it is elitist because it acts as a filter to prevent potentially able people from accessing the resources and encouragement that would foster that ability. The belief in ‘natural’, untaught capacity in only a minority of special individuals lets you off the hook for educating everyone. The ideology of talent, that is, is a form of economic elitism masquerading as an egalitarian meritocracy. (Once again I find myself developing critiques that are significantly more Marxist than I expected when I started out!)

For example, back in the 80s, a friend who moved into the area told me about how at her previous school, the whole class had to take an aural test from a record. The top scoring students were offered instrumental tuition. The pupils hadn’t been trained in aural skills beforehand, though - it was clearly understood that these worked as a viable proxy for ‘innate’ musicianship as a way to identify where limited resources should be focused. I don’t know how widespread this practice was, but the existence of the record implies it was an established method.

So if you ever wonder why so many classical musicians are from middle-class backgrounds, this kind of thing is why: it’s the children whose parents had the resources to access training in their primary years who are thereby able to qualify as ‘talented’ enough to get state support and scholarships as they grow older. (I am suddenly rather embarrassed by the county music scholarship that paid for my piano lessons from the ages of 11-18.)

If you contrast this with something like the Sing Up programme, which invested heavily in making singing a universal activity in primary schools, with the result that many children got better at singing, you can see the resource issue quite clearly. Indeed, if we learned nothing else from Gareth Malone, it’s that you can achieve quite dramatic transformations if you throw enough money and attention at a problem like reluctant teenagers.

The capacity for musicianship is not rare. Indeed, both studies of infant responses to music and the whole discipline of ethnomusicology suggest that it is the incapacity for musicianship which is genuinely exceptional. Excellence is unusual, for sure, but that is merely because the opportunity and the will to invest the 10,000 hours of focused practice required to achieve mastery is unusual.

But to call that ‘talent’ seems as profoundly disrespectful to the efforts the truly dedicated have put in to achieve expertise as to call those excluded from musical opportunities ‘unmusical’. And for those with moderate skill, it’s not that you weren’t ‘talented’ enough, it’s that you didn’t put the hours in. (And it’s okay to be moderately skilled; there is a lot of musical pleasure to be given and received with moderate skill. Just stop making excuses about it.)

Hi Liz,

I find this a particularly interesting comment considering the big drive in primary and secondary education at the moment to encourage a "growth mindset" as opposed to a "fixed mindset" - i.e. the idea that there's no such thing as talent or intelligence: only what you have managed to achieve SO FAR, and that intelligence or competence is like a muscle that needs to be stretched and worked in order to grow.

My new school (from what little I've heard from the music department) are trying to get all of Year 7 playing brass instruments, which sounds rather fun to me! I shall be looking with interest to see whether they're this inclusive and encouraging in all aspects of music education! (And yes, I'm already plotting how to incorporate singing tags into Physics lessons....)

I find this cheering to hear, Boo!

One of the things the chapter I've been working on touches on is the importance of integrating music into a school's culture for normalising it and thus making it accessible. So tags in physics sounds like an excellent plan.

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