The Daughters (and Sons) of Regimentation

Exciting times.

Ahh, that uncompromising aspect of depression, boredom, and unyielding, absolute intellectual and creative suppression. It must be a schoolroom.

That’s a pretty grim assessment, I’ll admit, but even with the clarity of hindsight I’m inclined to remember my schooling and my secondary socialization in that manner. “Secondary socialization” is almost laughable in my case, since the experience to which I was socialized was that of a group of children unified by age alone, in an incredibly restrictive environment. Learning how to interact within that context was very simple: you could be corporeally strong, thus dominating your peers physically; socially strong, exploiting the liberties and power concomitant with popularity; emotionally strong, allowing you to withstand the inevitable targeting and persecution that came from expressing a truly non-conformist individuality; or you could be emotionally weak, and thus a simple sycophant of one of the first two types.

School favours the weak.

As  you might guess, I’ve spent some time in recent days reading about the education system, from John Taylor Gatto’s rather one-sided Against School to Sir Ken Robinson’s remarkably lucid and entertaining speeches, to radically new and interesting ideas from a researcher, Dr. Sugata Mitra, working in India and Britain (thank you Shirley and Lea for the tip.) Sir Robinson’s lectures are gems of persuasive narrative as he lays out the flaws, illogicalities  and abhorrent practices perpetuated by the most warped of philosophies: the expectation of equalization of outcome, rather than equalization of opportunity. (More on that in this previous blog posting.)The former is the idea that no matter what the student’s circumstance, upon completion of 12 years of schooling the individual should have exactly the same level of competence in all subjects as the next person. Sir Robinson likens this to the “assembly line” approach. Expectations have to be met. Institutions must be held accountable.

And they must, of course. Student have a right to expect quality education, and bodies receiving public funds have a duty to demonstrate their efficacy to the taxpayer.

What has all this to do with el Sistema? It occurred to me, after going through the above media, that the beauty of the program and its broad design is that it liberates children entirely from the exigencies of this antiquated, barbaric system. It places them in an environment where learning happens because it’s FUN, ostensibly free of curricula or standardized testing (beyond the formidable but also well-concealed metrics  inherent in repertoire choices and performing).  The socialization process, parameters much more clearly defined by orchestral section and part,  is intrinsically linked to the ability of a participant to contribute, and La Red means there’s always a place where students can do that optimally. (The strong help the weak by default in an ensemble.) Better still,  El Sistema is a meritocracy, with advancement in the hands of the pupils, not bureaucrats. Even Mitra’s research into Self Organized Learning Environments resonates with the idea of true peer instruction. (What if he left a violin in a slum, instead of a computer?)

Yet as the movement advances in the Northern hemisphere, it seems these essential values might be the first casualties of the inevitable culture clash. There’s a drive towards regimentation, to impose the same boundaries and restrictions on the music programs as regular schooling. Grouping by age. Highly specific expectations of attainment. “More frequency, more intensity!” as a manager of one of the more prominent programs proudly wrote to me. The programs are going to become just like school, and the whole point is, they are not. They should never be. All that passion people wrongly think should be a Fundamental – it’s an effect, not a cause. Passion comes from creating the right environment, an environment generated through understanding the Five Fundamentals and all their implications, not mindless exhortations to play louder and faster or move the body more.

Accountability is essential, no question, but I’m starting to understand that one of the greatest challenges we face is maintaining that  while retaining the heart of el Sistema.  The problem of finding that equilibrium is particularly acute in countries with centrally funded initiatives, where receiving government monies is contingent upon conforming to very strict operational and reporting criteria. The fact that there are governments offering centralized funding is wonderful, but as I look at the worldwide drive towards regulation and standardization, I have to ask:  is the philosophical price of this money too high?

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