Still Steamed about STEM (Part 2)


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.)

He might have been God's anointed, but his feet still got wet.
He might have been God’s anointed, but his feet still got wet.

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.”

“Princeton too?”









“No. Think West Coast.”

“Oh! Stanford!”



“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.








8 thoughts on “Still Steamed about STEM (Part 2)

  1. As you suggest, this touches the ancient question – what is the purpose of education? For developing and enriching the mind and soul, or for creating employable citizenry? Both? How to balance? Educational policy has to be made to benefit most of the people most of the time. And non-linearity in career path is a bit of a luxury.

    Stifling and monotony, not so sure, especially with the neurological links between music and scientific and math aptitude.

    I don’t think it’s realistic, or good, to expect the current focus on STEM to tone down. Realistically, it DOES keep a country and its people financially flourishing and puts food on the table for many. Music does not produce anything sellable. Plus, STEM IS inherently awesome. But at the same, keep up the good fight maintaining the arts! As we all know, just because it it doesn’t make money doesn’t mean it doesn’t have great value! The complete world needs it all!!

  2. I would disagree with your suggestion that non-linearity is a luxury. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s oft-repeated that the average person will have three different careers before retirement. I’m already on my third, as the story above demonstrates. That’s certainly not linear. Nor is a STEM education a pre-requisite for any kind of career. What matters is our individual capacities and how they are cultivated.

    1. Even in the best practices of STEM, do not go looking for straight lines. In the Natures best of formulas, in Spiral might be more applicable. And even that is based on a Musical pattern.

  3. A social counter-statement? You’ve got to be joking. It’s hard to think of a more conservative figure than Abreu, with his ties to right-wing politicians and the most reactionary elements of the Catholic Church, and his belief that discipline is more important than music (his words). Abreu is a developmentalist trained in business management; El Sistema is the corporatized new world applied to the sphere of music education.

    Julian Lloyd Webber? He comes across as a nice chap, but he is firmly part of the establishment. Why was the expensive and unproven In Harmony scheme funded by the UK government, and a cheap, proven music education program like Musical Futures, closely linked to leading-edge research, left out? Because Sistema forms part of the long European tradition of trying to inculcate the tastes of the elite into the working class. Because Sistema’s aspirations, values, and vision, far from being different, are absolutely in line with those of the succession of neoliberal governments that we have had in the UK. If Sistema were truly a social counter-statement, it wouldn’t get a penny in public funding or a column inch in the press.

    Could Sistema become a social counter-statement? Maybe, with a lot of thought and effort. But by stating that it already is one, you make that future less likely. Just look at Venezuela’s Sistema: being told that you’re radical and revolutionary induces stasis and retards positive change. If you want to do something positive for Sistema, shake it up, Jonathan, don’t induce groundless complacency.

  4. Geoff, I appreciate your blunt language, and I will be equally blunt with you. Your return to your oft-repeated arguments seems both myopic and deaf – unwilling to see, hear, or acknowledge the intrusion of pragmatic realities in your ivory tower vision of educational perfection. It seems you’re too busy shouting other people down to listen to what they have to say: why don’t you start with a rebuttal of the arguments that I presented in London at the conference, starting with my acknowledgement of the gulf between what might be educationally right and what is fundable? Or the connection between the international success of the program in Venezuela and its choice of genre and medium? Or the role of practice, rather than the mere cosmetic trappings of practice, dazzled as you are by the clothesless emperor of the new “Facilitated group improvisation” fad? There’s a level of complexity here that you seem unwilling to explore at all in your absolutism.

    As I’m frequently reminded by in-flight magazines, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate for. Your all-or-nothing approach to change will ensure you end up with nothing. Not everyone shares your objectives or your opinions, and all the angry rebuttals in the world won’t change that.

  5. Jonathan, your bluntness is welcome, but you have spectacularly dodged the issue here. Your post is not about any of the questions you’ve just asked – it’s about the idea that Sistema is a social counter-statement. My comment was focused entirely on that point. Your riposte makes no mention of my arguments but simply moves the goalposts. If I keep repeating myself, it’s because hardly anyone is willing to respond to what I say – your last comment being a case in point. I would love to have a good debate about the idea behind your post. So rather than giving me a salvo of “everything that annoys me about Geoff Baker,” why don’t you address the point at hand?

  6. antediluvian – Pertaining or belonging to the time period prior to a great or destructive flood or deluge.

    diluvial – Henry David Thoreau’s book Cape Cod, Ch. 2, paragraph 2, in reference to a geologist’s description of Cape Cod. “it is composed almost entirely of sand, even to the depth of three hundred feet in some places, though there is probably a concealed core of rock a little beneath the surface, and it is of diluvian origin, excepting a small portion at the extremity and elsewhere along the shores, which is alluvial.” An entry which tells me just how much baggage that word drags behind it.

    I so delight in your choice of well-placed words. Isn’t it mysterious how our brains happen upon these expressions. Currently, the worshipers of STEM are finding more ways to engineer every drop of water we have left in California. The West Coast is as dry as the surface of a coconut while every industry spawned of STEM mindlessly sucks from the core with yet another straw. All the scientist in the world, yet no vision for what the future holds.

    As refugees leave Syria in droves, the site of Biblical deluge, and the cradle of civilization now crackles with an ominous echo. How could things have started off so well and . . . . .lost their way?

    Our brains don’t work very well without it and nor will our planet survive as a life form without the big A, as in Agua. Metaphorically, STEM is just a pile of sharp edges without the Arts. A box of bones with no flesh on them. Ground 0, where everything has been reduced to its smallest bits of rubble. Nothing to connect one molecule to another. Not even two related thoughts.

    The direct operating system of our brains runs on music. As one neural-engineer put it this morning, its the temporal-spacial stuff of life that he analyzes for codes. We are already decoding language with it at birth. Listening through our first ear, the epidermis, we are bathed in it from conception.

    Who knew our ability to think lies somewhere between the rhythm of our brain cells and semantics. All the pretty words, perfect formulas and beautiful inventions in the world will not save us or our precious planet if we can’t sing together.

    Give me Agua! Give me Art! Drown my ears in music!

  7. It isn’t that the Arts need STEM. It is that STEM has no value without ART. They can not stand up on their own without our imagination. It is the Arts that will drag them all kicking and screaming into the future. SI [yes] STEM A!

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