Response to Jonathan Govias’s review

Jonathan Govias knows more about El Sistema than any other commentator writing in English, and his insights are more valuable and original than any others in the field. I was therefore looking forward to his review of my book. I’m a little disappointed, I have to be honest – it’s not quite up to the standard of his recent work. It’s not a review in the academic sense of the word, since many of the main points of the book are not even mentioned, and a lot of focus is placed on rather minor points of disagreement; but then again, it’s a blog review, not a journal review, so a more journalistic approach is perhaps justified. Also, in his defence, Jonathan has had three days to read and digest the book and formulate a response, which is no easy feat. His recent articles doubtlessly went through a much longer gestation. The result, though, is that some of his arguments are not quite as tightly formulated as usual.

To respond to the main points of criticism:

  1. “he fails to identify any positive connection between the program’s international success and its choice of medium and genre.”

Of course choosing the orchestra boosted the program’s international marketability, but (a) this is an example of the ends-justifies-the-means calculations that are so characteristic of El Sistema and require much more critical scrutiny, given the issues they raise in an educational context, and (b) what’s the point in being internationally successful if you fail to offer the best possible education at home? What’s the program’s ultimate aim – educating ordinary Venezuelan kids, or entertaining middle-class audiences in Europe and North America? I maintain my view: the symphony orchestra, in its traditional guise (as in Venezuela), is possibly the least effective musical vehicle for the kinds of social transformation that El Sistema’s supporters seek. Filling the Royal Albert Hall doesn’t change a thing in that regard.

  1. “much copy is given to condemning the repetitive, authoritative nature of the teaching in Venezuela but very little page space is expended on why the instruction has so evolved.”

Has it evolved? Or is just the same old-fashioned European-derived pedagogy that the program started with in the 1970s? And why is it that way? The answer is written all over my book – because El Sistema is Abreu writ large, a “suit made to measure” as one of his former employees described it. Because there is minimal will to change it. Because the program has virtually no interest in music education research and its critiques of such pedagogy (e.g. its absence from the Sistema SIG at ISME in Porto Alegre).

  1. “the root of the problem is not Venezuela’s vision of music education, but that of the Western European pedagogical tradition. As Baker’s citations amply demonstrate, the latter is troubled enough: how dare the Venezuelans do what we’ve been doing for centuries?”

If that’s what El Sistema and its global advocates said it was doing, there would be less to criticize or discuss here. And if it were small, meagerly funded, or even national operation, then again, this would be less remarkable, though I still think that substandard education is substandard education, and that to criticize it in one country but not in another is patronizing. But El Sistema is a program with a stated international agenda. It fully intends to expand internationally and Abreu has signalled his desire to be present in every country in the globe. Also, it has been sold to the world as a revolution in artistic learning. At that point, it’s no longer relevant to say “oh, but it’s no worse than the old-fashioned European tradition.” There’s no place for the view that poor-quality education is OK because it’s only Venezuela. So no, the question is more like: how dare they and their overseas ambassadors try and sell this distinctly low-grade coal back to Newcastle?

  1. “Baker devotes a substantial portion of a chapter to issues of sexual misconduct within Sistema (Chapter 10) and separately to the concept of “peer teaching” (p.141) but again falls short of identifying and investigating a potential connection between the two.”

That’s because I think this is the least problematic manifestation of the issue. I’m much more concerned by examples where the power imbalance is greater, and where the teacher has power over the student’s career. It’s the accounts of núcleo directors having sexual relationships with students that really bother me, not students with each other. It’s the relationship between sex and power that needs most investigation.

  1. “no recognition is given to the fact that responding to allegations of sexual abuse remains an extremely complex, challenging task for even sophisticated western $1.5 Billion (thousand million) USD operations like the University of Virginia. The level of challenge doesn’t obviate the responsibility, but if a major public US institution struggles with this issue beyond claiming “zero tolerance”, a loosely organized Latin-American cultural division probably doesn’t stand a chance at enacting an enforceable policy.”

Struggling with a big challenge is one thing; failing to acknowledge a problem or do anything about it is another. By all but admitting defeat in advance, Jonathan is coming very close to justifying institutional inaction here. El Sistema has the power and funds to institute child protection measures. They might be imperfect, it might be hard, but I see no moral justification whatsoever for not trying “because it’ll never work.”

  1. “Baker might argue that his responsibility was solely to the what but I would strongly disagree: without looking to why, the idea of what becomes simplistic or meaningless.”

What, corruption is meaningless unless we identify a motive?

  1. “his simplification of cause and effect, the incompleteness of reasoning, the unwillingness to explore the complexity”

This, I would argue, is precisely what Jonathan does by taking everything I say at face value and failing to read between the lines. He understands the inner workings of the Venezuelan program today as well as any other non-Venezuelan, and much better than most. However, his review reveals that this understanding is not matched by a deeper knowledge of and feel for the 40-year history of the program and its key players, and he therefore seems unable to join the dots in my book. I do not blame him for this. The only people I know who can join the dots in my book are Venezuelan musicians and cultural observers whose knowledge of El Sistema far exceeds both Jonathan’s and mine, and scholars who have looked long and hard at similar institutions in other countries (people like Ian Pace and Anna Bull, though there are many more). But they can do it – they have read my book and they get it. The answers are there, but not always on the surface.

Jonathan’s final statement about the truth lying somewhere in the middle should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt: Jonathan’s truth may lie there, and someone else’s may lie somewhere else, but the truth of what I say is where I say it is. His reading of balance and counter-balance at the end is broadly correct, but that doesn’t mean that truth is to be found somewhere in the middle; truth is in all these places. What everyone does with all this in forming their own opinion is another matter, and of course, many people’s opinions will end up somewhere in the middle. Even if they only meet me part way, that’s still a big improvement on the current scenario.

I write all this as an admirer of Jonathan and his work. It is a critical response to a critical review, nothing more. But I think there’s a lot more to discuss than either Jonathan’s review or my response manages to convey.

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