The following is an adaptation of the conclusion from my guest lecture originally delivered at the University of Victoria on Monday October 31st.
I’m posting this online with some reluctance, and only after a number of requests from those who were in attendance. It’s not that I’m bashful of my material, but that it might be easy for this to be misinterpreted or misunderstood – or misrepresented, without the context of the full 60 minute speech that preceded it. Music educators have always done tremendously important work: the issue is that their contribution has never been properly recognized – which in itself can be disempowering. The reality is that the baseline advocacy argument of Sistema, its interventionist role, speaks more concretely to policy-makers and politicians than the stacks of excellent research we have into the cognitive, emotional, psychological benefits etc. of music education. That “baseline advocacy argument” (as I’ve dubbed it), whether it empowers or simply emboldens us, may well turn out to be the opening statement in a much richer and deeper conversation about the role of music education in society. One step at a time.
“I’d like to digress for a moment and talk about Wang Yue. You might not know the name, but you probably know her story: she’s the two-year old Chinese girl who, on October 13th, wandered away from her mother, walked into a street, and was struck not once, but twice, by vehicles. Eighteen people then stepped over her body as she bled out into the road, before the nineteenth, a trash scavenger, dragged her to safety.
I’m not going to suggest that if there were an el Sistema China this never would have happened. We don’t know what was going through the minds of the people who saw her dying in the street, and why they chose to do what they did. The point I want to make is, that for all intents and purposes, in the eyes of society…
We are the eighteen.
In an era of great social challenge, music educators and professional musicians have by and large been relegated to the sidelines, lacking not the will but the knowledge of how to help as society has bled out in front of them. In fact, to call ourselves the eighteen actually feels presumptuous. In the case of Wang Yue, the nineteenth was the trash collector. The twentieth was the doctor. And the way the tragedy played out, the twenty-first was the coroner, the twenty-second was the undertaker. If Wang Yue represents a victim of society, we could perhaps claim to be the twenty-third, the music at her funeral.
At the beginning of this talk I mentioned how I don’t like the term “social justice.” As a phrase it’s used far too often in too many contexts, none of which reflect the literal meanings of the words. I think there’s a better way to express what we want to achieve, and in finding it I didn’t have to look any further than a Canadian – a controversial Canadian, but an iconic one. I looked to our 15th Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who once said that “Canada must be a just society.”
I prefer both the phrase and the sentiment. To my ears, Social Justice always sounds like an obligation of the state, the responsibility of government. A Just Society, on the other hand, is the obligation of everyone living within it. And that’s the beauty of el Sistema. It offers musicians a model for a meaningful, concrete role – a role that perhaps we always knew we had, subconsciously or otherwise, but were afraid to claim – to play in building a better society.
We can be relevant, we can be influential.
We can be better than eighteenth, if we choose.”