Social justice in music education is an important issue that is widely discussed in the current society. Horsley (2015) explores how negative rights and positive rights are reflected in the field of music education in today’s neoliberal world. She explains that negative rights, on the one hand, are “tied to the right of parents to make educational decisions about what they consider best for their children” (p. 3). On the other hand, positive rights “guarantee that certain provisions and standards of living will be provided to all individuals within a state” (p. 3). In the process of today’s individuals’ pursuit of negative rights, as well as the educational policies that are made and implemented to ensure citizens’ educational positive rights, banking education is something that can hardly be avoided because educational oppression occurs within, as Freire (1970) defines.

Banking Education

Negative rights and music learning

Parents’ pursuit of negative rights has been a kind of considerably common behavior throughout my music learning and teaching. This educational phenomenon also indicates that how individuals are making effort on gaining personal interests, as well as how music is embodied as a part of cultural capital (Moore, 2008) and be exchanged to other capitals.

When I worked as a piano teacher in a studio in Beijing, a mother brought her 6-year-old son to us and said that she wanted him to learn the piano. When I was talking to that child, I found that he had little interest in music. Instead, he was concentrated on reading an astronomy magazine on the shelf of the studio. His mother told me, “He loves astronomy. He knows a lot of astronomy knowledge that I do not know. But I love music. I just want him to learn to play the piano. That’s my dream in my childhood.” “But he prefers exploring astronomy,” I said, “why not providing him with more educational resources on his own interest?” “But I worry that he is going to become a nerd then.” She insisted.

Educational oppression

Such cases are pretty usual during my music career. Generally, Chinese students are not empowered to decide what to learn. In terms of learning music, students’ interest is not the main concern of their parents. Instead, gaining a diploma, a decent job, and higher social status motivate them to oppress their children. In Gaokao, the fierce competition of University Entrance Exams in China, a student only needs to have nearly 60% of the scores than others if he/she is going to major in arts major, which is considered as a “shortcut” by those who believe they cannot get a relative high score through Gaokao. In addition, because of the high tuition fees of music instrument learning, many Chinese parents believe that learning music is an approach for their children to have a better life when they grow up. Thus, parents’ banking education happens. In this situation, music education is considered as “a form of economic investment” (Spring, 1998, p. 159) of achieving educational excellence in the neoliberal society (Horsley, 2015).

Positive rights and cultural pluralism

While school music education was often neglected during my childhood, after I grew up and became a music teacher, the situation seemed to be changed. When I taught as a music teacher in a middle school, the students’ music class time was strictly ensured (two classes every week). This was because the local Bureau of Education inspected the outcomes of students’ music learning every year. However, in this context, banking education also existed. For example, neither music teachers nor students were empowered to decide what they could learn. Instead, the students were rigorously required to learn a song from their textbooks every week, including singing it without reading the score or lyrics, as well as knowing the meaning of the song, which were the content of inspection. Unlike how Silverman (2009) explores to “teach for multicultural awareness, social justice, and critical pedagogy” (p. 4) in her music appreciation class, the way I was asked to teach in my school music class was more like educational oppression: putting music knowledge into students’ brains.

The standardized assessment system in school curriculum

In terms of the course content of school music curriculum, the policy maker has considered the culture pluralism to a great extent. Various music genres from different cultures are compiled into the school music textbooks (Ho & Law, 2015), such as western music, Chinese ethnic minorities’ music, Chinese revolutionary music, and popular music, etc. One day, when I taught my Grade-7 students to sing Schubert’s The Trout, I found something interesting on the students’ understanding of the music they learned. They all laughed after I told them that Schubert was a composer in the Romantic Era, because the term “romantic era” reminded them of Li Bai (701-762), a Chinese poet who was considered as the representative of the Romantic scholars in ancient China. As Chinese students, they were more familiar with Li Bai rather than Schubert when they were talking about the word “romantic”. This connection of two different term “romantic” the students made indicates that there exists ambiguity in learning cultural pluralism in different contexts. While students’ positive rights are ensured in school music education, the culture and contexts behind what they are learning are something that educators and policy makers should be aware of.

li bai
A picture of Li Bai


As two parts of social justice, the educational democracy in music education and family education, along with teaching music in the multicultural discourse concern the promotion of our societies and cultures. Either the negative rights we pursue to achieve individual excellence, or the positive rights which are implemented to guarantee the quality of education both have their limitations, but reproduce the society economically and educationally. Thus, social justice issues in music education are not only about developing cultural diversity, but also about making effort on respecting of every single human being and his/her culture through music engagement (Horsley, 2015).


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Horsley, S. (2015). Facing the music: Pursuing social justice through music education in a neoliberal world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ho,W., & Law, W. (2015). The promotion of multiple citizenships in China’s music education. In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, & P. Woodford (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of social justice in music education, p. 91-106. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, R. (2008). Capital. In M. Grenfell, Pierre Bourdieu: Key concepts (pp. 101-117). Stocksfield: Acumen.

Music and such… (2009, December 12). “Schubert – Die Forelle “The Trout”” [YouTube]. Project: Music. Retrieved from

Silverman, M. (2009). Rethinking music “appreciation.” Visions of Research in Music Education, 13. Retrieved from

Spring, J. (1998). Education and the rise of the global economy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2011, December). Li Bai, Chinese poet. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from

Wong, T. (2015, June). China’s gaokao: High stakes for national exam. BBC News. Retrieved from


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