Trumpism and music education

[13/11/2016] More than a week after I reported the big Sistema meeting with Cestari in Caracas (see my previous post), a short video of a key part of the minister’s speech appeared on YouTube and the Venezuelan online and social media started to pick up on the story. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles reported it on his Instagram page, and the famous cuatro player Jorge Glem initiated an interesting debate on his Facebook page. Gustavo Dudamel must be getting a little uncomfortable, as the holes in his “apolitical” line become increasingly apparent and El Sistema’s other leaders take flak for applauding rather than resisting the minister’s demands.

So far, though, there has still been no word from Abreu or Dudamel, and no organized, critical response from their underlings, meaning that instead of proper public debate, there’s the usual Sistema swirl of rumours and private accusations. A couple of attempts by teachers to organize protests appear to be in the air, but it remains to be seen if they materialize in the face of considerable resistance from the institution and fear on the part of many employees.

I incorporated this recent turn of events into an international webinar that I gave on Wednesday, which was essentially a potted version of my chapter in this recently published book. The Cestari meeting was a perfect example of the argument I’ve been making about El Sistema constraining rather than fostering citizenship, producing loyal subjects rather than good citizens, who are trained to obey authority rather than educated to participate in democratic processes. The Cestari meeting provides incontrovertible evidence that El Sistema has become an anti-citizenship program, one in which the exercising of citizens’ most important right and duty – independent political participation – is not only discouraged but actually prohibited. It is very striking that a project that embodies the opposite of current thinking on citizenship education – that is non-democratic, non-reflective, and non-creative – has been held up as an exemplary music-and-citizenship program by development banks, arts organizations, and the media around the world. We are easily fooled, it seems, when it comes to the power of music.

Wednesday was of course a tough day, in the wake of the US election result. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and I’m sure many in the audience were too. Could we even think about music education on such a day? However, before I began, I suggested that this was perhaps a good moment to be discussing issues of citizenship, democracy, and education, because their importance could hardly have been clearer.

Beyond that opening, I made no direct links between the topic of my talk and the day’s political developments in the US. However, one of my respondents, a well-known professor of music education, did make that link, and I could only agree. I’ve since thought about it more, and been struck by certain parallels between Trumpism and attitudes to Venezuela at the “cultish” end of the Sistema spectrum, such as:

• Enchantment by a charismatic, authoritarian leader

• A willingness to overlook that leader’s distinctly chequered past

• A willingness to overlook patriarchy and take a soft line on misogyny, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment

• Magical thinking

• Repeating simplistic slogans

• Lack of interest in facts, counter-evidence, and complexity (aka “post-truth”)

• Lack of interest in experts, expertise, and research

A question that I’ve often asked myself is: why did the Sistema boom occur in Europe and North America over the last decade? As I’ve argued repeatedly, its philosophy dates back hundreds of years, and can be found in 16th-century Peru, 18th-century Naples, and 19th-century Britain and Germany, as well as 20th-century Venezuela. Such ideas came under increasing pressure within music education in the global North from roughly the 1970s onwards. El Sistema represents a conservative backlash against such liberal moves, though one that has been so successful because it is clothed in progressive discursive garb. I think it makes sense to see this educational counter-reformation as connected to the wider political zeitgeist, and to other conservative educational currents such as charter/free schools, providing one answer to the question of why Sistema now.

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