The Butcher, The Baker?


Para mis lectores en español: por favor, no utilice un servicio de traducción de páginas web con mi blog. Frequentamente, el resultado es exactamente al contrario al sentido en inglés – los servicios no tienen la capacidad de comprender los matices del idioma.

Geoff Baker has written a book on Venezuela’s el Sistema, and if his op-ed preview in the Guardian is an indication, it’s going to be a controversial work.

Full disclosure: I’ve met Geoff. He and I shared a very convivial lunch in Porto Alegre that was supposed to last an hour and ended up extending more than two and half times as much. I’ve promised to review his book in this space when I get a copy, and I intend to do so as objectively as I am able. That is a conditional promise: I’ve been forewarned that I’ve not been treated too kindly in the volume. While I may ultimately recant in a fit of pique, I also think that if I’ve been quoted accurately and in a manner that preserves the context, then I cannot in fairness complain.

But in the interim, my inbox has already been flooded by colleagues asking me how the larger Sistema community should respond to the newspaper piece. I have some suggestions:

  1. Stop talking about his profit motive

    Of course Geoff Baker wants to sell books. Others have made quite a living peddling a non-existent Eutopian version of Sistema so it seems churlish to begrudge him the same opportunity even if his perspective, if it remains consistent with his blog, sits at the other end of the critical spectrum.

  2. Read the book

    The op-ed is just an op-ed, a fragment of a much larger work. Responding to that is like writing a review based on the back cover blurb of the Sparks/Coles Notes edition. Denigrating the piece for its lack of journalistic rigor or citations misses the point. Read the book. Or don’t read the book, but then refrain from commenting on it.

  3. Consider his arguments

    A much distorted quote, ostensibly from Aristotle, suggests that the sign of an educated mind is the ability to entertain an idea without accepting it. If the international Sistema movement is genuinely committed to scientific inquiry, as it claims, it should be able to evaluate Geoff’s assertions impartially and emerge better for it.

  4. If you’ve read Geoff’s other books, particularly Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco you’ll know that his writing is impeccably, meticulously researched. This is a requirement of the profession that he and I share: a researcher’s professional standing depends on the accuracy of the information he or she relates. In his position, selling books is actually secondary to getting the facts right. That said…

  5. Keep it in perspective

    I’ve said before that any comment whatsoever made about el Sistema is probably true somewhere in Venezuela, but is false when applied nationally as a generalization. That statement applies equally to the ideas we might like or dislike. On the assumption that the information he presents in his book is entirely accurate, we should keep in mind that it may not necessarily be representative. This is always highly context sensitive, so I refer again to 2.: read the book.

    Humans have a tendency to embrace information that reinforces previously determined viewpoints. This is called confirmation bias and it is a mental defense against the cognitive dissonance that ensues every time we’re confronted with any evidence that might suggest our cherished beliefs are wrong. This afflicts both researchers and readers. Researchers tend to gravitate to and privilege perspectives that affirm their hypotheses, just as readers are inclined to reject ideas that make them uncomfortable. In the case of the international Sistema community and Geoff, this may manifest as the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

  6. Respond, but keep it ad rem

    Pitying, belittling personal comments are the purview of the internet trolls. If you don’t like an idea Geoff expresses, respond to the idea without resorting to ad hominem attacks. Some of the comments left on his blog cast the Sistema community in a very poor light. Focus on the substance of his arguments – but also ask yourself first whether your rebuttal is any more substantive. I tell my students they do not have the right to state their opinion: they have only the right to state what they can substantiate.

I like Geoff and respect his scholarship. I don’t like the negative manner in which he presents his ideas, and I have said as much to his face. He recently expressed the hope on his blog that the world was ready for a critique of el Sistema, but there was an implied conflation therein between the concept of a critique and that of a criticism. A critique is a careful, systematic evaluation, and is not necessarily or exclusively negative. Conversely, a criticism is solely negative. Everyone involved in music, no matter what their role, shares a collective responsibility to safeguard and support what little music education remains to us while working to improve it. This is often a challenging path to walk, to respect what has been achieved while acknowledging what more might or should be accomplished. Geoff made the point to me that in his line of work it’s more important to get the critique correct – but I would counter that his line of work itself is a product of a healthy music education sector. In this case, getting the critique right means making it constructive, not destructive.

If el Sistema were a total fraud, then the worst of all outcomes is that several hundred thousand children (at a conservative estimate) received some music education when they would otherwise have had none. If that’s the downside, imagine the upside.

Can’t wait to read the book.







3 thoughts on “The Butcher, The Baker?

  1. Thanks Jonathan, you’re a voice of reason. Just a couple of minor points:

    – it’s more accurate to say “of course Geoff Baker wants people to read his book.” I don’t care about the financial side, I don’t even know what the financial side is (I never read my contract with OUP), I’ve never made a penny in royalties before, and if I make more than enough for a couple of pints of beer I’ll think seriously about donating it to a good musical cause. If I could have published a free digital copy under a Creative Commons license with the same production values, peer review, etc as OUP, I would have done, though then doubters would have dismissed it as being “not proper research.”

    – you’re right about confirmation bias, of course, and it would be foolish for me to suggest that I’m immune to it. But it’s worth pointing out that I went to Venezuela believing in the “Venezuelan musical miracle” (TM), so the evidence I found had to be strong enough to overcome my confirmation bias towards believing the hype.

    Thanks again for a valuable contribution.

  2. Well, this is a relief to read considering the present inquisition. Noone ever subjected Tricia Tunstall to the kind of criticism Mr. Baker’s receiving, and I’d argue that “Changing Lives” has much less rigor in the research and a limited cultural perspective compared to what Mr. Baker brings to the table.

    As for “commitment to scientific inquiry,” well, I’m still waiting to hear the words “p-value” to emerge in any Sistema discussion not relating to bathroom breaks.

    1. I don’t think anyone in the Sistema community has acknowledged the possibility of a null hypothesis other than some rather mathematically challenged Japanese researchers I met in Porto Alegre, unfortunately…

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