I heard a new expression for the first time in Ottawa last week, and then again just 48 hours later at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge: “To drink the Kool-aid.” Its meaning, as I inferred in context, was akin to “intellectual intoxication” – to grow so infatuated with an idea as to lose sight of all perspective, to buy into propaganda, to be unreasonably passionate. Both times I heard the phrase it was used in reference to some of the el Sistema advocacy and rhetoric out there, specifically the clichés and glurge that are repeated so often.
I’m actually quite sympathetic to the pedlars of this brand of fanaticism. Sometimes it does seem to substitute for actual thought or insight, but more often, if you know what el Sistema is (and that’s quite a big if), and particularly if you’ve witnessed its impact either in Venezuelan or closer to home, it’s extremely difficult not to believe completely and utterly in the power of the idea on primarily an emotional rather than rational level. This conviction is an outgrowth of an identified psychological phenomenon called moral elevation, the suffusion of warmth and righteousness we feel just by witnessing or even hearing about an act motivated by pure altruism. Unfortunately, just like the power of music itself, this is something best experienced rather than described. If you haven’t witnessed el Sistema in action, if you haven’t “drunk the Kool-Aid,” what it does can be near impossible to comprehend, particularly on the emotional level.
I’ve had plenty of the Kool-Aid, thank you, but I’ve also worked closely with a variety of political stakeholders, policy-makers, and public and private granting agencies, and I can say with confidence that even if they love the idea, their internal and external accountability requires them to examine proposals strictly from a rational perspective. Unduly emotional or passionate language, while communicating sincerity, can actually put their backs up quite quickly. Yes, they’ll agree music is a good thing, but they still won’t write the cheque.
That’s the nature of advocacy: not changing what people say, but what people do. The image of the bureaucrat gleefully snatching violins out of the hands of infants is an absolute myth. Treating public officials, or those who just don’t get it, with scorn and derision for the decisions they make invites a similar degree of disrespect and disregard in return. Good advocacy requires good listening long before good speaking, to identify and understand the concerns or the objections and respond to them in sensitive but concrete ways.
If there were a theme from the conference in Ottawa, it would have been the balancing that essential passion with real pragmatism, and the Friday and Saturday panels reflected that in particular. Richard Hallam’s presentation in particular reinforced the fact that if our arguments for music education in any form are not being heeded, it is not the fault of the ears on which they fall, but rather the mouths from which they come. As Chris Nicholls of Sistema Australia astutely pointed out in his comment on this entry, if Sistema is described as “music education,” policy makers automatically view it in the context of an overtaxed educational budget allocation. If you speak of it only in terms of its cognitive benefits (music makes you smarter) then you invite the risk of some other activity emerging which fulfills that function more cost-effectively. Similarly, if valued only in terms of cash return on investment, the savvy investor, be it an individual or government, will immediately withdraw funding the moment a program with a higher rate of return should materialize. And judging music only by its instrumental value – its practical function or impact – denies it its incredibly rich and entirely unique intrinsic value.
Clearly it’s not an either/or proposition, but both/and, if not all of the above. I’ve said this before, but good advocacy requires different vocabularies for different constituencies. It also needs good listening, to know which vocabulary is required, and any approach that focuses on one avenue at the expense of all others is inviting disaster. Then again, I’m reminded of Dr. Abreu’s “Kool-Aid” approach to advocacy: putting the children front and centre, serving up a metaphorical pitcher and inviting all to drink. Moral elevation is a powerful force: the politician on the panel in Ottawa placed his unwavering support for OrKidstra in the context of a visit to Colombia where the children played the Canadian national anthem for him. Kool-Aid, breaking down mental walls too…
Have a drink.