The Why of Sistema

The Jefferson Memorial

As of last Thursday, I’m an American. Well, permanent resident, at least, which means that my Creator has apparently altered the unalienable rights with which I was endowed. I have exchanged my Canadian claim to Peace, Order and Good Government for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Jefferson definitely had a way with words, and how he chose to express the aspirations of the fledgling nation is worth consideration. The right is to the Pursuit of Happiness, rather than a right to happiness itself. It’s a phrase –and objective- that seems reasonable, realistic, and even motivating. It places the onus for achieving said happiness squarely on the citizen (or in my case, the permanent resident), rather than upon the state, and as such seems to have become the basis in largest part for the American philosophy that good government (not one of my rights anymore, alas) should in the very least ensure minimal interference with this process beyond the reasonable norms of social contract.

That’s the theory, at any rate, and although in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is.

The problem lies in the assumptions implicit within Jefferson’s noble idea – that there is equal access to the opportunity to avail oneself of that right. Government role and responsibility in this regard is formally acknowledged through provision of a public education system. “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty,” as it says in stone on the exterior corbel of the Boston Public Library, with “order and liberty” being the base Lockean requirement for the effective pursuit of happiness.

The face of anomie in 2011

But when that education is grossly unequal or variable in quality and comprehensiveness, as we recognize it is in the United States, then access to the opportunity to pursue happiness is severely curtailed. Large numbers of young people enter the workforce not just ill-equipped for, but incapable of navigating the social and economic environment in order to advance themselves. The American Dream becomes an unobtainable fantasy. Social capital is restricted (Dr. Ruth Wright of UWO articulated this wonderfully in Montreal on Nov 17), class stratification deepens, wealth disparity grows and a Durkheimian anomie ensues as the disempowered, disconnected, disenfranchised group reacts in self-destructive, destabilizing ways.

Canada ranks 5th internationally in PISA for educational quality, but 40th overall in youth per-capita murders. Those numbers for the US are 14th and 11th respectively. Venezuela does not participate in PISA but ranks 7th internationally for youth-committed homicides.

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics,” Plutarch wrote 2000 years ago – a point proven by a simple comparison of the most recent OECD survey on wealth disparity (full version available here) with international crime statistics, with the grim addendum that the wealth gap is worsening worldwide. Compare the same OECD survey to international rankings for quality of education and there’s an inverse correlation as well.

Which is why the OECD survey also points out that the answer isn’t a Marxian redistribution of wealth, but improving and leveling educational quality. Not achieving equalization of educational outcomes, the unobtainable and highly socialist fantasy of No Child Left Behind, but ensuring equalization of educational opportunity – a process that demands equal access to music education.

I used to think the major deficiency of Sistema was that in its social benefits it only addressed effect, and not cause, and that at best its ability to influence society would be deferred by at least one generation, subject to establishment of a critical mass. The latter might still be true, but a genuinely universal approach to music education does address cause at the most fundamental level. And regrettably, for music education, quality is right now secondary to accessibility: not enough children have it in any form, be it good or bad.

Music education has to be an integral part of the process of restabilizing society. Reducing funding or access to it under the guise of reprioritizing other social issues is akin to attempting to bail out the sinking ship rather than plugging the holes in the hull. As one of the newest Americans I’m ready and willing to bail, just not forever.





6 thoughts on “The Why of Sistema

  1. I am so glad a roundabout search led me to this post. I have never been particularly paranoid, but it seems certain to me that the continuous decline of the education system in the U.S. has been deliberately, if covertly, engineered by politicians of a certain party who know that poorly educated people are less able to think complex issues out for themselves and therefore more likely to vote as the result of emotional and psychological manipulation (read: the most expensive and effectively designed election campaigns) than as the end product of an educated and considered process of deliberation. In this way, for instance, you can get a majority of Americans to believe that Climate Change is a sinister plot rather than a fact derived from decades of complex, redundant and conclusive (as conclusive as the method allows) scientific evidence.

  2. “As one of the newest Americans I’m ready and willing to bail, just not forever”

    So well put- we’re glad you’ve come to join us. Let’s figure out how to plug the holes.


  3. Jefferson’s ideas on public education in detail:

    Interesting to note no reference to music education or equal access. Those were very different days. It appears there was no thought of Federal assitance.

    Venezuela’s public schools are void of music education according to the new book on El Sistema. The System exists quite outside of the basic public school, though also funded by the government, not run by educators whose energies are divided. Is this true Jonathan?

    Can and should the El Sistem movement partner with American Public Schools, whose leadership has taken us to where we are today? This could be a very unholy alliance, and lead us right back to where we began.

    I dream about the synergy between business and music education- if we can offer something they value, the relationship becomes perpetual, based on mutual gain, not subject to political fancy or filtered through a scarcity mentality.

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