Don’t judge me for this, but disco has a special place in my heart. Not necessarily the “Disco Duck” variety. (I have taste, after all.) I’m talking about the legendary songs to which we would “Freak Out” under a glittering disco ball.
Nile Rodgers was co-creator with Bernard Edwards of the epic band Chic, founded 40 years ago, the source of a lot of the disco we still hear today. He’ll be inducted this April into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for creating “inimitable guitar riffs fundamental to hip-hop, rock and electronic dance music.”
And he gives the credit to his public-school education. “I learned to read music in regular old public school,” Rodgers said in a recent NPR interview.
He revealed that his parents—who had him as teenagers—were heroin addicts and moved “from place to place to place to place.” Whatever public school he wound up attending, he “could always fit in.” Private music lessons were not possible. But that was OK, because he tried out every instrument his schools offered, finally settling on guitar because he loved the Beatles.
This exposure sparked Rodgers’ curiosity and desire to learn more about music, ultimately leading to a prolific career. The schools that served as his sanctuary, the one dependable force in an unstable young life, nurtured his artistry and gave him the tools to be a force in the music industry for four decades.
A producer and composer as well as a guitarist, Rodgers has been part of other musical artists’ success as well: from Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Madonna (“Material Girl”), Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”), Duran Duran (“The Reflex”), to Sam Smith (“Give me Your Love”), Keith Urban (“Sun Don’t Let me Down”) and Pharrell and Daft Punk (“Get Lucky”).
He said in the NPR interview that when he performs these days, young people often ask, “Hey mister, do you really know how to play that thing?” They’ve become so accustomed to artists who don’t actually play instruments that they can’t tell. And unfortunately, many of them probably attend schools without the resources to fund music programs.
Rodgers’ early experience shows the value of a well-rounded public-school education that includes arts, PE, and music. Whether a student is destined to become an icon in the music industry or not, music education, the National Association for Music Education says, helps children “bond emotionally and intellectually with others through creative expression” and assists in developing heir critical thinking skills.
I’m fond of saying that if you take me to the best public schools, I can show you what makes them stand out: teachers who are certified to teach physics and calculus; counselors to help students make life-altering choices; caring and supportive staff who welcome families into the school; theater class; girls’ volley ball; a chemistry lab; classes that offer college credit; debate; robotics; foreign languages; a band that’s part of a robust music program.
With the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act—or ESSA, for short—we can make our voices heard to ensure that schools offer the support, tools, and time our students deserve. We have a seat at the table to determine what makes a great public school, and to figure out how to fill in the gaps to achieve those public schools together. In some places, that could mean more advanced classes; in others, it might mean more focus on the arts.
The new law emphasizes flexibility, so there are no references to “core academic subjects”; instead, it calls for a “well-rounded education” and names everything from science and government to music education. In fact, the National Association for Music Education says it’s the first time music has been included in a federal education law.
All of this is good for students, including the budding artists whose music one day will make us “Dance, Dance, Dance.” And by the way: 2017 isn’t only Chic’s 40th anniversary year, it’s Studio 54’s 40th, too. Now, where did I put my platforms?