A Rebuttal Against NPR: Ethnomusicology Edition

A recent article posted by NPR has disquieted ethnomusicologists across the country on social networking sites, message boards, and mailing lists. The following was stated in an article that discusses college student debt:

“So what are the most worthless degrees or, at least, the hardest to monetize later on in life? Kantrowitz says he often hears from religious studies and theater majors who have a hard time paying back their loans… Ethnomusicology is another example. Kantrowitz describes one student who was thinking of borrowing more than $100,000 to pay for that degree. “There are only two main occupations for a degree in ethnomusicology,” he says. “One is being a music librarian, which doesn’t pay very well. The other is being [on the] university faculty, teaching other students about ethnomusicology.” -NPR Staff

There are several things wrong with this statement, and perhaps Kantrowitz should check his sources before publishing such nonsense. Ethnomusicology doesn’t get nearly enough media as it is, and we certainly don’t need anything negative, nevermind when it’s blatantly incorrect. There certainly are far more than the two above occupations for those with a degree in ethnomusicology. Additionally the last time I checked, a degree in library science is necessary to be a librarian. Many ethnomusicologists do choose to pursue a career in academia as faculty. However, do they only “teach ethnomusicology?” Of course not – they are researchers and performers. They teach music classes that many other faculty are simply not qualified to do – including several genres of popular and roots music. In addition to world music survey courses, these courses tend to fill up with hundreds of students each semester, adding thousands of tuition dollars to the university pocketbook.

What else do ethnomusicologists do? They work at publication firms such as National Geographic, at iTunes, at Pandora Radio and other major music ventures, at Billboard venues and other “top music lists”, at museums, at art institutes, at festivals as directors and coordinators, at the Smithsonian, at record companies including the Recording Academy, at archives, for governments as cultural consultants, as humanitarians, as arts consultants, as primary and secondary teachers, as arts administrators, in applied fields, as healers, as anthropologists and musical historians, as musical archaeologists, as performers, as publication editors, as authors, in studios,as independent researchers, in media studies, as a program director, grant writer, tour publisher/manager, festival publicist, a consultant to film score composers or video game developers, radio DJ, as travel journalists and photographers, or a military consultant… what about working for TV stations like PBS, NG, or Discovery? Eat that, NPR.

At the end of the day, a lot of ethnomusicologists choose a less-than lucrative (usually) career in academia as university faculty, however the possibilities are endless. I don’t know any ethnomusicologists who are “in it for the money”. Ethnomusicologists are a rare breed, and have skills that the rest of the world needs whether they know it or not – we have the skills to discuss increased globalization and acculturation, cultural/spiritual sensitivity, and human diversity. I’m disappointed in NPR, a supposedly conscious public media outlet “on the side of the arts”. Where’s the love?


  1. I don’t care what the discipline is, anyone headed into University in the twenty first century with illusions of getting into a lucrative career is either at military college, on a multinational energy or insurance company scolarship, or just plain missing the point entirely. I might argue that the first group also miss the point but that’s a different rant.

    I know you can get a job as a cashier in a grocery store with a masters in anthropology, as I discovered one day when I remarked about something on a magazine cover. I know you can turn graduate field work in Mezo-American cultures into a lucrative career as a homeopath, which is to say the leap from A to B is a non sequiteur. One studies to gain understanding, to learn the tools of discovery and as a means of self-discipline, and those are qualities that anyone can turn from any field into any vocation, and there is no crime or shame whatsoever in being a certified zoologist but deciding later that being of service as the community plumber is just far more, overall, satisfying, for whatever reasons.

    so their thesis was not only flawed in its exposition, it was flawed from the start.

  2. “One studies to gain understanding, to learn the tools of discovery and as a means of self-discipline, and those are qualities that anyone can turn from any field into any vocation, and there is no crime or shame whatsoever in being a certified zoologist but deciding later that being of service as the community plumber is just far more, overall, satisfying, for whatever reasons.”

    I have sympathy with this view, that education is a civilising tool, not necessarily a means of fitting people to employment. Education raises the collective experience. Sometimes it is a game of chance, because you never know what the good research student is going to turn up that will be of benefit to humankind.

    Good, honest work in fields like History, Ethnology, Ethnomusicology, Sociology, and so on can provide an invaluable knowledge-base with which to to counter social myths, jingoism, and other such unhealthy phenomena. Good, honest work in fields like Psychology and Philosophy can give us insights into how human consciousness functions. This is much greater than any supposed commercial benefit of ready jobs in such fields – which are indeed few.

    Here in the UK, in the decades since Margaret Thatcher ascended the political throne, big business has dominated, or has attempted to dominate, our national thinking. Emphasis was put on vocational education – put it another way, capitalism wanted apprentices ‘on the cheap’, it wanted the country, the taxpayer, to pay for them rather than having to invest its own capital, before stealing their labour (do I have to explain that Marxist concept?). The whole of the reason for education was subverted.

    Anyone who reads my handful of blog entries on the subject of ethnology/ethnomusicology/history that nestle amongst my attempts at humour and my anarchist rants will be able to see that having been exposed to ethnomusicology by the writer of ‘Sociosound’ has stimulated thought and enquiry in me. This knock-on effect of someone else’s education is beyond commercial value.

    Rant over.

  3. Thank you for writing this. You’re absolutely right, that this sort of press gives negative attention to a field that struggles enough to be understood (and pronounced) as it is. Especially on NPR, a place where, I’m certain, ethnomusicologists have been called on as advisors for past projects.

    I have to say, though, as an ethnomusicologist (or, at least, as someone with a degree in ethnomusicology), I wish he had given me this advice, personally, about four years ago. Do not take loans to get the degree. Two years out of graduate school, in a perpetual state of wavering (PhD or bust?), I’ve found myself struggling to pay off my loans with money from a job that is completely unrelated to my degree. I loved what I studied, got angry at the disconnect between ethnomusicological academia and the general public, and am constantly asking myself, how do I integrate those years of study into my current life? All at the expense of hundreds of dollars per month in loan payments.

  4. This is extremely sad and a little disheartening. When I was approached to be apart of the budding ehtnomusicology program at my school I was so excited, as an undergrad music ed. major I knew this was something I wanted to do. I do work with a high school band program, and all of the directors I run into or talk to are always just telling me “why are you doing that? you’re like gold down here with your qualifications, just teach!”, but continuing my education in this subject is really for me.

    I think as a society we’ve really lost the idea of going to school and learning just to improve yourself. Everyone is so focused on getting a degree so they can make money, and I’m not going to deny that being able to support yourself is important, I think being happy in what you’re doing is also just as important.

    I know I’ll be in debt for a long time doing this, but I do believe there is MORE than just getting your PhD and teaching it. I think when you sit people down and explain what this is they understand a little more of how important this could be for several careers you mentioned and more.

  5. Interesting collection of perspectives here in the comments on an important issue. I don’t sweat Kantrowitz so much, as I don’t think he’s as influential or important as he thinks he is. What I strongly object to is entities like NPR paying credence to people who devalue arts and humanities. It’s counterproductive for them and maddening for the rest of us.

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