I can understand why so many arts educators of all disciplines are pessimistic about the future of our profession. The nationwide attrition of programs can make advocates feel like King Cnut, watching the tide come in relentlessly, inexorably washing away the curricular sand castles that are barely a few decades old, despite best efforts to the contrary. Some would argue it might be best to command the tide to come in, rather than to cease, so that there’s some hope of being remembered more favourably by history. (Although Cnut wasn’t vain, he was making a point to his flatterers.)
In advocacy that’s called alignment, the practice of seeking policy change through addition or evolution, rather than revolution. Alignment is the rationale behind the new Quintrivium of STEAM proposed by the Arts proponents about to be left behind in the new world of wholly utilitarian education. At first glance it makes sense – go along, get along, get Arts back in the curriculum – but the approach is fundamentally flawed. The great fiction that politicians like Nicky Morgan, policy-makers, and an increasing number of parents now embrace as fact is that education must be purely vocational, that it must be connected to narrowly-defined jobs to be valuable, that career progressions are strictly linear, and that we are defined by what we study and then by where we work and how much money we make, not who we are or aspire to be. The very philosophical premise of STEM is the devaluation and exclusion of all else. STEAM, despite being obvious and convenient, still buys into the antediluvian thinking, in the guise of modern pragmatism, that concocted STEM to begin with. STEAM accepts and validates the false premise behind STEM, and in so doing, defeats its own cause.
In my position at UNC Charlotte I meet many young musicians wanting a life in music but fearful of the challenges, warned off by well-meaning but ill-informed parents and friends alike. In response I tell them a story of my time spent working as a corporate consultant for one of the largest media multinationals in the world. It goes like this, and for the naïve and prudish I should mention that there is an F-bomb at the end of it.
Back in 2005 I was making a good living in the business sector. Nice hotels, first class airline tickets, big paycheques. I had been seconded from HQ in Germany to corporate development in China, and in our Shanghai office we hosted an intern from the B.Com program at Princeton University. As charming as she was, she had the distressing habit of dropping the name “Princeton” into almost every sentence she uttered. “When I was at Princeton…” or “At Princeton, we would handle this situation like this…” or “This one time at Princeton…” This went on for some time until a staff meeting, at which some banal corporate topic was being discussed. Inevitably, a voice piped up from the corner and the word “Princeton” was heard. At this the senior director paused the meeting for a moment and looked over to her. “_____,” he said, “Do you know where Jonathan (pointing at me) studied?” She looked over at me and replied “I thought he was a Harvard MBA, like most of you.” “No, you’re wrong. Guess.”
“No. Think West Coast.”
“No. Jonathan, would you please tell ______ where you studied and what your highest level of educational attainment is?”
Me: “I have a Bachelor of Music – with Distinction – from the University of Victoria, British Columbia.”
Senior Director, pointing a finger at _____: “So shut the FUCK up about Princeton!”
True story, bro.
Education in America is already a two-tier system, divided between those who can afford to pay and those who can’t, and the state in which I reside is a leader in the Union in widening that divide as quickly as possible through legislative means. There are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future of schools, as the nation moves to a model that guarantees inequality, and offers positive outcomes for only one entity: the publishers of testing materials.
But there is a reason to be hopeful. Sistema, whatever its detractors may say about it, whatever form it manifests in locally, is by its very existence a social counter-statement. It is a declaration of different aspirations, of different values, of a different vision for society. It stands in opposition to the corporatized new world in which function is prized over form, in which price is not distinguished from value. For every Nicky Morgan, there’s a Darren Henley, a Julian Lloyd Webber and a Richard Hallam. Certainly, Sistema plays the great game of utilitarian valuation but music education will never be pursued for monetary profit.
What is the measure of Sistema? For that matter, what is the measure of any idea? Is it solely the financial profit it generates? Is it simply a function of as-yet unsubstantiated social impact? I wrote once that in the case of Sistema, there was only one number that was meaningful. Not the thousands of Venezuelans who are alumni of the program, or the dubious statistics attempting to show social progress, but the count of the multitudes across the globe who have been inspired to devote their lives to changing their communities through music. It’s difficult to think of another example of social activism, of social rebellion, that has proliferated so widely and so quickly. And so I’m hopeful. I wish the STEAM advocates well in their efforts, but should their attempt at evolution fail, the revolution has already begun.