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.
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.