The moon is blue, so I shall defend a socialist prestige cultural project. East Germany had its shotputters, the USSR its grand masters of chess, Venezuela has “El Sistema” – a much lauded system of musical education. Now, however, there is a discordant note:
Author exposes ‘tyranny’ behind musical miracle for poor children
Over 40 years, El Sistema, Venezuela’s music education system, has given a million children the opportunity to play in an orchestra, enriching, they say, the lives of youngsters from the barrios.
Its methods have been emulated in 60 countries, notably Scotland, where a Sistema-style operation was pioneered on a tough housing estate in Stirling with support from the classical violinist Nicola Benedetti.
The mood music has changed, however, with the publication of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, by Geoffrey Baker.
Aghast at the book’s claims of corruption, mismanagement and nepotism within Venezuela, a Conservative politician has questioned whether El Sistema should extend its reach any further. Yesterday, Alex Johnstone, MSP for North East Scotland, said that plans for a Sistema orchestra in Dundee must be halted while the claims are investigated.
“This book gives the impression that the system is much more authoritarian and intolerant than some were letting on,” said Mr Johnstone. “Not so much a new idea, as back to the Victorian habits of teaching piano by rapping them across the knuckles.”
Corruption, mismanagement and nepotism in a socialist show project would astound me only by their absence. But authoritarianism is the norm when teaching children to play musical instruments the world over, and has been since forever. The exception is the namby-pamby modern Western middle classes, and not all of them. The common opinion of that portion of mankind that gives music lessons or pays for them is that you won’t be going anywhere until you have done your quota of scales, sweetums, and if your name is Wei or Xiuying, these days that quota is likely to be big.
Do not misunderstand me. I like namby pamby. I’ve been uncomfortable with compulsion in education for decades now, and if not convinced that it can be dispensed with altogether for the very youngest children, am certainly convinced that it can be phased out at a far younger age than most people think. In most contexts I am convinced that education without force is immeasurably better education.
But how do you get them to practise – or don’t you? Given that it takes unfailing hours of daily practice to make a great player, and that for most instruments the great players invariably start young, would the price of freeing children from the slavery of music practice be no more great classical musicians? If so, would it be worth it?
Funny. I read the SQOTD from today, and suddenly recalled a long-forgotten e-mail I sent in the wee hours of the morning six or so months ago. The fact I had sent the e-mail in the first place was unusual for me, as I was moved to compose and send it to Bloomberg columnist and Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter after reading the good professor’s column, and I cannot recall another occasion when I have got in touch with a journalist over something of theirs that I’d read. Professor Carter’s article must have made a big impact on me.
It did. Here it is, if you would like to have a read for yourself. Basically, the professor is making the same perfectly valid point as Brendan O’Neill regarding the hive mind mentality of a significant number of today’s university students, and chucking in a good intergenerational sneer for luck. It is the latter that particularly shat me off when I read Carter’s column, and prompted me to send the following to Professor Carter six months ago and late at night when I should have been working on something else:
Dear Professor Carter
I agree with your observations regarding the (in)abilities of the current crop of graduates, but seeing as though you decided to target that generation so explicitly, I thought maybe you might consider how the conditions that characterised your own generation’s formative years came to be.
When recounting “your day”, you wrote of an intellectual culture which “celebrated a diversity of ideas”; where “pure argument” trumped all, and a contrarian point of view was celebrated and even utilised to orient one’s own perspectives. This is the academic process at its very best, and you were most fortunate to benefit from it.Unfortunately, to channel your President, you didn’t build that. You didn’t build that. And not only did you not build it – you subsequently tore it down. And you replaced it with the appparatus that has created the mindless, chanting drones you decried in your Bloomberg piece.
Am I being unfair to target you? Well, about as unfair as you were being to the current crop of graduates. Your generation unquestionably ripped apart that which you claim to revere, and the Class of 2014 is simply a manifestation of the values your generation cherishes. So why are you training your guns on those kids when the true vandals are at still at large – and are in fact running the show?
I don’t mind catty articles – I really don’t. They’re often the most entertaining. However, I don’t understand why you’re thrashing a bunch of 20 year olds who are the product of an education system that your generation dominates – and that system has equipped them so poorly to deal with rational discourse that you could probably expect little more than an effete ‘whatever’ in response to your criticisms of them. Surely you know this. Attacking them smacks of cowardice to me. You’re aiming at the easiest targets.
If you really want to castigate a group of people for allowing academia to degenerate from what it was in your undergraduate years to what we see today, go and seek out faculty and policymakers who look about your age.
I received no response. Not that this surprised me.
I agree with Carter in that much of the student body – and most of those who consider themselves “activists” – are intellectually incurious ideologues primarily concerned with feeling that they are Good People, and indicating this to other Good People. But who moulded them? The answer is implicit in Carter’s article, when he reflects on how things were different back when he was at university. It is a pity he lacked the even-handedness to consider what changed between then and now, and decided to instead chastise those responsible for the mindlessness of the modern student activist. I’m talking about the Boomers, of course, and the muses that inspired them. They really did screw up an awful lot, and like Professor Carter in this instance, I suspect they will never admit to what they have destroyed.
So Oxford student Niamh McIntyre writes in the Independent. She says,
The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups. Debating abortion as if its a topic to be mulled over and hypothesised on ignores the fact that this is not an abstract, academic issue. It may seem harmless for men like Stanley and O’Neil to debate how and if abortion hurts them; it’s clearly harder for people to see that their words and views might hurt women . . . In organizing against this event, I did not stifle free speech. As a student, I asserted that it would make me feel threatened in my own university; as a woman, I objected to men telling me what I should be allowed to do with my own body.
Oxford Students For Life (OSFL) originally planned to hold the debate in Christ Church college. The Oxford magazine Cherwell quotes the Christ Church JCR Treasurer, Will Neaverson, as saying:
“I’m relieved the Censors* have made this decision. It clearly makes the most sense for the safety – both physical and mental – of the students who live and work in Christ Church.
A blog post by OSFL (see link above) indicates that Niamh McIntyre’s pleasure and Tim Neaverson’s relief that debate had been shut down were not spoilt by anyone finding an alternative venue. You can, however, read what Tim Stanley had planned to say had the debate taken place in an article in the Telegraph.
Hat tip: Instapundit and Eugene Volokh.
*The two Christ Church Censors are the equivalent of college deans and only occasionally censors in the other sense.
Wildly overblown claims about an epidemic of sexual assaults on American campuses are obscuring the true danger to young women, too often distracted by cellphones or iPods in public places: the ancient sex crime of abduction and murder. Despite hysterical propaganda about our “rape culture,” the majority of campus incidents being carelessly described as sexual assault are not felonious rape (involving force or drugs) but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides. Colleges should stick to academics and stop their infantilizing supervision of students’ dating lives, an authoritarian intrusion that borders on violation of civil liberties. Real crimes should be reported to the police, not to haphazard and ill-trained campus grievance committees.
– Camille Paglia (h/t Glenn Reynolds).
Universities these days are not just toxic because of what Reynolds has referred to as the higher education bubble (a problem to some extent mirrored here in the UK, though smaller in relative terms). This sort of issue that Paglia writes about is creating a breeding ground for paranoia and fear among the sexes. And who benefits from this?
“Boarding schools: Is it wise to send your young child away from home?” asks the Observer, as the Sunday version of the Guardian is still quaintly calling itself. The answer, it says, is no.
An astonishing number of British parents still send pre-teen children away to boarding school – about 4,000 of them are 10 years old or younger. Numbers have not declined in 15 years. Even if we do get the necessary safeguards of mandatory reporting and a new law on emotional abuse, parents should be questioning the need to risk their child’s happy development by sending them away. If they are unhappy, are you sure you would know? As a reader commented: “When you give your child to a stranger who does not love them, you take a gamble. If your child is miserable, then you are neglecting them. Can you live with that?”
No pressure or anything! Seriously, I have no personal experiences as either parent or child to recount and no general opinion on whether boarding schools are in general good or bad. I have known both those who hated and those who loved their time as boarders. The question that leapt to my mind on reading that paragraph was something a little different:
How come giving your ten year old child to “a stranger who does not love them” is to place their happiness and your very soul as a parent at hazard but giving your three month old child to a stranger who does not love them is practically obligatory on grounds of gender equity?
I have only slightly more of a personal stake in this one. I never went to any sort of nursery or playgroup as a child; my own children had paid pre-school childcare some of the time and have turned out no loopier than their parents. Once again, I have known others with both good and bad experiences. It is the discrepancy between the Guardian-reading classes’ opinions about subcontracting your childcare for a baby and for an older child that interests me. The usual feminist opinion is that anyone who makes the suggestion that mothers ought to so much as look back over their shoulders as they stride out from the nursery gate on their way to the 9am meeting can only be motivated by a desire to keep women chained to the sink. Taking an example at random, “At last, working mothers can ditch the guilt – their children do not suffer,” writes the regular columnist Polly Toynbee. Maybe she is right and they do not suffer. The playgroup leaders always said they stopped crying once I was out of sight. But is the parent’s confidence in that merciful amnesia for a baby or toddler dependent on adults for its survival hour by hour really so much more justified than it is for a child entering boarding school years later?
UPDATE: A very good point, made in the comments below and also in discussion over at Tim Worstall’s blog, is that boarding school is 24/7 whereas daycare is not. However I think that makes less difference than it seems at first sight, because for a child of 0 – 4 years to be in daycare long enough for the mother to do a full time job five days a week with, say, an hour’s commute from nursery to workplace, does in practice mean that for the child almost every waking hour from Monday to Friday will be spent in daycare simply because babies and toddlers need much more sleep than older children.
The Times 11 April 1914 p4
It would appear that the busy-bodies of a hundred years ago have it in for child labour (or “half-time” working, as it was then known). Luckily, there are some willing to defend the practice:
I worked for nearly 20 years in the same factory. Contrary to the opinions expressed by some people, my health never suffered as a result of the half-time system, and I was never at home for more than a few days during the whole of my factory life. Again, I never had any trouble to pass the required “standard” at school, and I certainly cannot remember to have fallen asleep over my lessons, or even to have felt inclined to do so.
Love the scare quotes.
So, why do we have child labour?
To speak generally, the half-time children belong to parents of the unskilled labour class, where every shilling earned makes a difference at the week-end…
Unfortunately, our correspondent then makes a serious error:
In my estimation the half-timers employed in the factories are far better off than the unfortunate children who work in barbers’ shops, hawk newspapers in the streets, run about mornings and evenings on milk rounds, card hooks and eyes or make match-boxes.
Don’t give them ideas!
I had to laugh at this:
In these progressive days parents almost invariably allow their children to sit up until their own bed hour: the children have just what they fancy for supper, not what is most suitable…
Plus ça change…
So relentless is this brainwashing that it percolates throughout the curriculum, so that even exam papers in French, English or religious studies can ask students to explain why the world is dangerously warming up, or why we must build more wind turbines. In 2012, I described an A-level general studies paper set by our leading exam board, AQA, asking for comment on 11 pages of propagandist “source materials”, riddled with basic errors. A mother wrote to tell me how her intelligent son, after getting straight As on all his science papers, used his extensive knowledge of climate science to point out all their absurd distortions.
He was given the lowest possible mark, a fail. When his mother paid to have his paper independently assessed, the new examiner conceded that it was “articulate, well-structured” and well-informed. But because it did not parrot the party line, it was still given a fail. I fear this corruption of everything that education and science should stand for has become a much more serious scandal than Mr Gove yet realises.
– Christopher Booker
One of the most encouraging things happening to the British pro-free-market and libertarian movement is the outreach work being done by the Institute of Economic Affairs, to students at British universities and in British schools. In this IEATV video Steven Davies and Christiana Hambro describe what they have been getting up to in this area. They are a bit stilted in their delivery and demeanour. Steve Davies in particular is a rather more relaxed, animated and persuasive public performer than this short video makes him seem. I get the feeling that there were retakes, as they negotiated car doors and seatbelts when on camera. But if any of this inclines you to be put off, don’t be, because the process these two excellent people are talking about in this video is definitely the genuine article.
They mention the Freedom Forum. This has, says Davies “rapidly become the biggest gathering of pro-liberty students and young people in the UK”. The latest iteration of this, Liberty League Freedom Forum 2014, is happening next weekend and its detailed timetable has just been announced. If this get-together was just a one-off annual event with nothing else related to it happening, that would definitely still be something, although I do agree with those who say that the title of these things is a bit of a mouthful. But LLFF2014 is a great deal more than just an annual event, being but the London manifestation of a much bigger program of intellectual and ideological outreach to universities and to schools throughout the UK.
Recently I dropped in at the IEA, where Christiana Hambro and her IEA colleague Grant Tucker made time to tell me in person about what they have been doing. I also picked their about people who might be good to invite to talk at my last-Friday-of-the-month meetings. For me, the most interesting thing that they said to me was in answer to my question concerning to what extent their outreach activities were piggy-backing on the earlier efforts of the Adam Smith Institute, efforts which have been going on for many years, under the leadership of ASI President Madsen Pirie. What Christiana Hambro and Grant Tucker said was that when it came to outreach to universities, then yes, their work does depend on earlier ASI efforts. University economics departments are tough nuts to crack open with contrary ideas, and the best way to get to universities is by working with free market and libertarian student societies, rather than relying on the intellectual hospitality of academics. The ASI has done a huge amount to encourage such groups over the years, and without such groups what the IEA is now doing in universities would have been harder to accomplish.
But in schools, it has been a very different story. The ASI has done plenty of work in schools as well over the years, but what Christiana Hambro and Grant Tucker said to me was that basically, in schools, the IEA’s outreach operation is basically operating in virgin territory, with economics pupils all of whom have heard of Keynes, for instance, but none of whom have ever heard of Hayek. Another way of putting that might be to say that when it comes to preaching free market economics to British schools, this is a town that is plenty big enough for the both of them.
Schools are also different from universities in often being much more open to different ideas than universities are. Universities are dominated by people who take ideas seriously, but this can have the paradoxical result that many universities and university departments become bastions of bias and groupthink, all about deciding what is true and then defending it against all heretical comers. Schools, on the other hand, some at least, are more concerned to persuade their often indifferent pupils to care, at all, about ideas of any kind, which, again rather paradoxically, makes many such schools far more open to unfamiliar ideas than many universities. A teacher may be a devout Keynesian, even a Marxist. But if these IEA people from London can help him stir up his pupils’ minds by showing economics to be an arena of urgent and contemporary intellectual and ideological conflict rather than merely a huge stack of dull facts mostly about the past, then he is liable to be very grateful to these intruders, even if he flatly disagrees with their particular way of thinking.
Present at this Liberty League Freedom Forum that is coming up next weekend, which I will be attending (just as I attended LLFF2013 last year), will be some of the products of all this outreach. Someone like me has heard most of the featured speakers before, some of them many times. But many of the people at LLFF2014 will be hearing talks from people only a very few of whom they have ever encountered before. Here are some of the topics which they may find themselves learning about: Public Speaking and Networking, Doing Virtuous Business, How To Be A Journalist, and (my personal favourite) Setting Up A Society (i.e. a school or university pro-liberty society).
As for me, no matter how many times I hear Steve Davies speak, I am always keen to hear what he has to say about something new, and this year, I am particularly looking forward to him answering the question: “But who will build the roads?” In my opinion, when Libertaria finally gets going, somewhere on this planet, defence policy (often regarded as a big headache) will be very simple. Just allow the citizens of Libertaria to arm themselves. But, building “infrastructure”, while nevertheless taking property rights seriously (instead of merely taking seriously the idea of taking people’s property from them to make infrastructure) will, I think, be much more tricky. I look forward very much to hearing what Davies has to say about this.
Too bad that his talk clashes with the one about Setting Up A Society. I’d love to sit in at the back of that one also, and maybe I will pick that one on the day. That such clashes will happen is my one regret about this event. But you can see why they want to do things this way. As well as big gatherings, they also want small ones, in which new talent feels more comfortable about expressing itself, and flagging itself up as worth networking with, by other talent.
I recall writing a blog posting here a while back, in which I described a talk I heard the IEA’s then newly appointed Director Mark Littlewood about his plans for the IEA. Right near the end of that piece, which I think still stands up very well, I wrote that: “there is now considerable reason to be optimistic about the future of the Institute of Economic Affairs”.
There still is, and even more so.
“There’s nothing like a bunch of unemployed recent college graduates to bring out the central planner in parent-aged pundits.”
– Virginia Postrel.
There may indeed be what US law professor and uber-blogger Glenn Reynolds calls an education bubble in the US (and for that matter, here in the UK). That does not, however, mean that studying a “liberal arts” degree is somehow shameful or pointless, and yet that is the impression I sometimes get on part of the right-of-centre blogosphere. By all means let’s cut the state education establishment down, but that is utterly different from the argument about education per se and ideas about how people should broaden their horizons culturally and intellectually. It is important that libertarians/classical liberals understand that distinction, and make it often.
As JGrossman, one of the commenters to the Guardian article I will quote extensively below, says of it, there are some views to which the only possible response is to quote the physicist Wolfgang Pauli:
This is not only not right, it is not even wrong.
The article I am about to quote falls, crashes and burns into that category.
Some background: the writer, Dawn Casey, is an Australian museum director and a well known Indigenous (i.e. Australian aboriginal) public figure. Warren Mundine, mentioned in the article as head of Tony Abbott’s Indigenous Council, is of the same heritage. Christopher Pyne, the Australian Education Minister, isn’t. How sad that one needs to spell out such things to understand what is being debated here. Here is what Dawn Casey writes:
Last week, Warren Mundine, head of the prime minister’s Indigenous council, was quoted in the Australian as saying that it is ridiculous to include an Indigenous culture perspective in the teaching of science and maths. Mundine said: “I agree with Christopher Pyne, I think in some areas we have got ridiculous. What is Indigenous physics? Physics is physics. If we are to compete in the job market we must learn technology and engineering, we need to be taught subjects properly.
“I agree that we need to reassess the curriculum because we need real units that teach the subjects without this ridiculous insertion of culture, the idea that you have to have an indigenous or Asian perspective, to be frank, is silly. The sciences and maths should be taught properly.”
Mundine’s comments add nothing to the very important debates on what should be included in the national curriculum and how children, regardless of their cultural background, should be taught. They ignore that culture permeates everything we do — including maths and physics — and reinforces stereotypical views that Indigenous culture is only about language, kinships systems and hunting and gathering – important as they are.
For centuries, people from all cultural backgrounds have been developing ideas andsolving problems. Euclid who lived in Alexandria more than 2000 years ago laid the foundations for mathematics. Australia’s Aboriginal people represent the longest-living culture on earth. It is incredible that our culture should be treated as a stand-alone subject or as part of the humanities.
To go back to a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture was put into an ethnographic box, as some sort of anthropological curiosity, and excluded from the breadth of mainstream knowledge, including maths and science, is to disadvantage all Australians.
The commenter who quoted Wolfgang Pauli chose his example well. Pauli was born in Germany but had to flee to the United States in 1940 because of his Jewish ancestry. So he would have been familiar in his own life with the concepts of “Jewish physics” and “German physics”. One can guess what he would have made of “Indigenous physics”.
Academic freedom once meant protection from politics; now it means protection for politics.
– Peter Wood, quoted earlier today by David Thompson.
A recent essay by Heather Macdonald in City Journal is getting lots of attention. Her piece was on the narrowing horizons of those who seek to teach the humanities in our places of higher learning. She ruffled feathers, and wrote this zinger of a response to one of her critics. Here is an excerpt:
…in contrast to the narcissism of today’s identity studies, the humanist tradition was founded “on the all-consuming desire to engage with the genius and radical difference of the past.” The Renaissance humanists were attracted to Classical Rome precisely because it differed so much from their contemporary Rome, with its papal intrigues and corrupted Latin; they were acutely aware of historical change and developed the seminal methods of textual scholarship to overcome the effects of time on historical and literary sources. It is instead the contemporary identity theorist who lacks an appreciation for the specificity of the past, determined as he is to expound on his own or others’ victimhood rather than lose himself in a world that may not mirror his narrow obsessions.
And that surely is the point. Western civilisation was reinvigorated when the lessons and musings of the Ancients were rediscovered. So much so that the “Grand Tour” was considered part of an educated person’s life, albeit only one that the rich could then afford. True progressives should want, and have wanted, this sort of grand tour of the intellect to be made available to all. No educated person would pass through life ignorant of Cicero; Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius. Instead, however, some of today’s educators would happily Balkanize us all inside narrow, self-regarding “victim groups”. (This is not just a fault of the academic Left, by the way – there are variants of this on the hard right, as far as I can see, when such folk fret about the impact of “alien cultures”).
Tim Sandefur also has comments on this topic:
This is true in other arts, too. There’s good poetry, sculpture, painting, and music out there, but the artistic elite—indoctrinated in postmodernism and identity politics—largely ignore those who produce it, on the grounds that it appeals to the common man and is therefore “commercial” (i.e., capitalist; i.e., evil) or “irrelevant” because it does not express the identity-politics agenda that is acceptable within that elite. This might at first seem paradoxical, since the political roots of this movement are in Marxism, which claimed to reject class divisions and to create a universal-humanity state. But just as Marxist societies become rigidly hierarchical—with a privileged nomenklatura on top and the faceless mass of disposable proles below—so in the art world, there is an elite of aesthetic correctness…and the consumers and consumer-friendly artists who are ignored when they are not ridiculed. Marxism was and remains a disease of the elite. Based on contempt for bourgeois society and bourgeois virtues, it has never recognized that these virtues are actually the desires of all mankind. Beauty is the most fragile of bourgeois virtues. It is always thought the most disposable by leaders with more militant goals.
I corrected the name of the publication to City Journal. My goof.