Bonfire of the Inanities – International censorship in Sistema

Book Burning

Geoff Baker just hosted a Sistema conference in London in late April, and I went. In fact, I didn’t just go, I presented.

I’m taking a lot of heat for this. Many of my colleagues in the Sistema sector view my participation as a betrayal of my loyalties and values, and as an outright endorsement of his book and his ongoing research. It’s no such thing. My mixed feelings towards his book are public record and published here, as is his rather low opinion of my opinion.

I went not to praise Baker, nor to bury him. I went to learn something. I went to hear and consider different voices in the academic and scientific community – not just different, but dissenting voices, dissonant voices, complementary voices, and alternative voices. Hearing and including them in the discourse is an integral part of the dialectic and democratic processes, especially if they are minority voices. They may be uncomfortable to entertain, but I’ve always believed that you can’t grow without leaving your comfort zone, a sentiment that applies to both individuals and institutions equally.

Sistema seems to foster a bizarre absolutism: apparently either you’re for it or against it, and there can be no middle ground. I’m in the curious position of being perceived as belonging to both camps, both Abreuan apostle and apostate, for an early evangelism that has since been paired with a greater insistence on rigour in thinking and practice. I don’t view my inclusion within the conference program as a political or personal sop: I imagine it was a result of having offered a perspective that complemented the theme of the event, Sistema and the Alternatives. (My presentation focused on potential futures for the program in Venezuela in light of emerging trends in music education.) Invitations were not issued by Baker alone, but after consultation with a triumvirate of conveners. This process of peer review is standard practice for academic publications and conferences, and represents an important check or balance in the process of hearing and evaluating the merits of voices, be they of the minority or majority.

Two Sistema Fellows and one Abreu Fellow in attendance. From L to R: Eriel Huang, Elaine Chang Sandoval, and me. (photo credit: E. Huang)
Two Sistema Fellows and one Abreu Fellow in attendance. From L to R: Eriel Huang, Elaine Chang Sandoval, and me. (photo credit: E. Huang)

I didn’t say assigning equal value to all voices, I said hearing and evaluating the merits of voices. There’s an important difference. The opposite of evaluating the merits of voices is the suppression of voices, and what I find unacceptable is the movement afoot to suppress Baker’s book. If Sistema is an “inquiry,” as I’ve heard claimed, then on whose terms? Suppressing a voice isn’t just undemocratic, and contrary to the purported values of all good education, the act of suppression has an extremely uncomfortable implication. Behind all efforts to suppress any book, or any media, is the belief that the potential audience lacks the capacity to evaluate it critically and draw informed conclusions. In short, the message is that it’s best that someone else do the public’s thinking for it. As logic goes, this is deeply flawed on both propositional and practical levels. It is insulting, but it’s also unworkable. “Ideas are bulletproof,” as Alan Moore once wrote, not in reference to their infallibility but in relation to our inability to kill them physically.

Ultimately we do have to be careful what ideas – what myths, positive or negative (both are dangerous) – we speak into existence either through uninformed advocacy or destructive criticism, because there’s a bigger picture to keep in mind. I’m neither for Sistema nor against it. I’m for universally accessible, socially constructive, high quality music education. And I think everyone at that conference – or in this sector – wants the same thing. But we have to want it and achieve it in a way consistent with the values we profess. Anything else is hypocrisy.

One final note: it was recently brought to my attention that in the attempt to dissuade the Sistema community from engaging with Baker’s book, my blog was cited as alternative reading. I’m delighted anyone recommends spending time on my site, but this particular referral bordered on the unethical. The suggested article, my defense of the orchestra as a medium, was not a rebuttal, but written before I read Baker’s book and was presented as an oblique response to some of his arguments published online. In other online postings I have also strongly encouraged everyone in the Sistema community to read his book and make their own decisions about the merits of his arguments, while expressing my own – and therefore clearly editorial – opinions about it. You don’t have to buy it (a point that Baker himself has made), but that doesn’t mean you can’t read it. Request it from your local library if you object to the idea of paying for it. Then read it, think about it, and draw your own conclusions. You might be surprised.

Next time – more about Day 1 of the conference.







5 thoughts on “Bonfire of the Inanities – International censorship in Sistema

  1. “I’m neither for Sistema nor against it.”

    That could have passed as an alternative title to this blog. It’s a bold statement from an Abreu Fellow.

    What is ‘Sistema’? Depends where you go. You said a month or so ago that “El Sistema”, is the public instrumental and choral music education network of Venezuela. Essentially, under a social mandate of accessibility, El Sistema uses conventional pedagogical techniques to offer program participants the established benefits of a rich music education”. A definition I thought was just too pale to describe such a program. And now in concept for you it’s “a universally accessible, socially constructive, high quality music education.” That’s even paler – and even further from the value it offers.

    It’s so much more than that. My thoughts are more that it’s a “universally accessible, high quality music education program whose purpose is to deliver positive social change and development in children and their communities, through the process of guided social learning and social cohesion. Perhaps that’s more a definition of what I want to build…

    And regarding Geoff Baker, I think his work has accidentally forced people like you and me to face ‘reality’ and cut the bullshit – although I think we were already well along that road, before being bludgeoned into it by Baker. The more I read of him and his writings the more I find myself understanding his point of view. I really don’t agree with lots of what he says, and I still don’t like the aggressive road he took, but I appreciate the shakeup in my own thoughts and ideas about such programs that he caused. It’s certainly made me question my own ‘ideological’ framework and research much more into the process of social action and social change programs. I’ve had an awful lot of discussions and arguments with people including with Baker. Not all of them pleasant. But collectively they’ve made me decide that whatever I am building and working with in this area, it’s going to be real, it’s going to be open to scrutiny, it’s going to be researched, it’s not going to be a master/subordinate process, and ego is not going to be the driver.

    I have a great deal of respect for all of the Sistema-based programs everywhere – especially the Venezuelan El Sistema. I don’t believe that any of them are evil, malicious or corrupting, nor that they deserve the contempt and disrespect that Baker and his followers are showing.

    I will however, never kowtow to a loud diatribe no matter how full of conviction it is, and no matter how highly qualified the issuer. And neither should you.

  2. On another note, and in reference to the following statement: “One final note: it was recently brought to my attention that in the attempt to dissuade the Sistema community from engaging with Baker’s book, my blog was cited as alternative reading. ” I certainly have been putting forward your name – not as “alternate” reading, nor to dissuade anyone from “engaging” with Baker’s book, but as more objective reading – to gain a more balanced perspective. And I didn’t reference any specific essay of yours – your body of work actually. Just to clear up any misconception that may have occurred with my referrals to your and your essays. I just happen to agree with you more than Baker. If that’s okay with you…

  3. Good post. Good response too, the disagreements notwithstanding. I hope you don’t get in trouble for me saying this.

    No, but seriously… anyone who is giving you a hard time for attending an academic conference and presenting your views, or suggesting that suppressing a book is a suitable response to the evidence and arguments that it presents, needs to have a long hard look at themselves. This is the way of fascists and fundamentalists, not social justice educators and critical thinkers. Anyone from outside the Sistema sphere reading this would be appalled.

  4. Its my position, that when something generates as much commentary and affection as El Sistema has over the years,commentary builds up in the other direction.

    Frankly, I Always thought too much time went by with very little commentary rising against the tidal wave of positive reception Sistema has surfed over the last 15 years or so.

    Why are we constantly comfortable with miracle, magic and inspiring as appropriate adjectives (they work marvels with weight loss, cleaning products and other infommercial types…)? more so, why are so many surprised when opposing arguments are risen?

    This debate that’s ensuing needs to be fed and supported, as we can only grow stronger as a movement, eventually, the language and tone will reach the middle ground that’s necessary for proper growth to be had, however, this will NOT happen if we take the ostrich’s “hide-your-head-in-the-sand” stance, or the “I-soar-above-all-criticism” of and eagle, condor, or any other high flying bird you might pick for the image to work.

    To Sistema supporters out there, bolster your positions by efficiently gathering data, look for ways of serving your communities through your work, create a solid infrastructure to support your claims.

    To detractors, encourage proper research and challenge the information that is presented publicly with it, interact with the communities that are served by these programs to find out if the value given to them collates with with what we are told.

    I for once rejoice every time I think of the number of children, parents and communities that now have to think of this argument (in either direction) as a part of their lives. isn’t that the true purpose of all our cultural posturing?

    p.s: Alan Moore is being quoted on a very serious discussion, interesting times indeed… Thanks for that J.

  5. When we break a relationship or abandon discourse over painful or difficult issues, we commit intellectual extortion. In some parts of the world that is quite acceptable. Not in mine. Let’s not justify or encourage censorship behind a shield of moral superiority. Dig in, make your case, take a risk and teach our kids to do the same. At the same time, let’s stop judging motives which cannot be known and speculating publicly on matters which cannot be proven. We don’t have time for games. If you don’t care about this cause, please don’t maliciously distract and discourage those who do.

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