Critical openings

[20/03/2015] The Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten recently published a sizeable article on El Sistema. While this hardly seems like a noteworthy occurrence in itself – the quantity of journalistic outpourings on El Sistema is enormous – there were aspects of this particular article that caught my attention.

(This post comes with a big caveat: I don’t read Swedish. It’s hard to assess the article fully via Google Translate, but the points that struck me do not depend on nuances of language).

In general terms, this article shows more balance than the gushing reports that have been the norm. Of particular interest to me, and apparently the reason behind this balance, is the fact that the journalist read my book and used it to put critical questions to key Sistema spokespeople. Her report also confirms various points I make in the book. We read that discipline and quantity of hours are the program’s key features rather than pedagogical innovation. Sistema spokespeople are vague about its social makeup, with one of them stating: “We do not ask anyone about their background.” In other words, there is no targeting of the most deprived in society. The vision of social inclusion is narrow, since there is little interest in those who do not actively choose to join the program or who decide to drop out (as Google Translate elegantly puts it, “We have no comments on if you do not want to be involved and we have no comment on whether you want to stop playing with us.”) There are question marks over whether this somewhat passive approach – the núcleo opens its doors, and the rest is up to the children and their families – is effective in reaching the most disadvantaged sectors of society.

Most noteworthy, though, is the sense that a space for critical thinking is starting to open up. The journalist asks critical questions, and quotes a key passage of my introduction: “Skepticism, critique, and the raising of uncomfortable issues should not then be confused with a desire to weaken El Sistema— quite the opposite. It is a lack of scrutiny, criticism, and public debate that puts the program at risk.” Camilla Sarner, the director of Sistema Sweden, chimes in: “I think it’s fine with the criticism now coming to the surface. I hope it leads to a more open discussion, also in Sweden. We want to have an informed debate.” This is a long way from the denial and conspiracy theories that are unfortunately rather prevalent among leading advocates in the US.

Even Eduardo Méndez, El Sistema’s executive director, threw the following admission into his defence of the program: “In an organization with 7,000 teachers, you can obviously find a number that are bad, and students who feel mistreated. If we become aware of it, we will deal with it.” This is a small but significant shift in tone. Keen Sistema observers may remember a passage from a 2011 article about El Sistema by the German journalist Marco Frei: “If you ask the creative director and founder Abreu to talk about problems in El Sistema, he looks irritated. ‘Problems?’ he asked with a questioning glance through thick glasses. ‘We grow, grow, grow.’”

The opening up of more space for critical discussion is exactly the kind of result that I hoped to see from publishing my book. Of course, this is just one article, the critique is still very limited, and words need to be translated into action; but it reads like a positive step and is hopefully a sign of things to come. I did not expect many fans of the program to embrace my position unreservedly. (Those who have been most positive about the book have generally been people who were somewhat closer to the middle ground to start with, either because they are used to thinking critically about music and education, or because they are Venezuelan musicians who know El Sistema firsthand and are therefore somewhat skeptical of the rose-tinted visions of inexperienced foreign visitors.) But even if they only meet me part way, then the possibilities for serious and meaningful discussion increase; and that has been the aim of everything I’ve been doing for the last few years. Above all, if journalists and other visitors start asking more probing questions, and take a rather more rational look at what they find, then the foreign adulation may start to fade a little, which may in turn act as a spur to positive change. Ironically, the reverence of foreign fans and journalists in recent years has actually been quite damaging to El Sistema’s participants, since it has provided a justification for stasis and diminished the incentive to reform the program. Hopefully the Göteborgs-Posten article is a sign that things are starting to change in the media sphere.