I Don't Care if El Sistema Doesn't Fight Poverty

A randomized controlled trial has just determined with minute mathematical precision that economists have no friggin' clue why art matters.

[To appreciate this post properly, put on some headphones and press play on the video first. Seriously. Do it.]

A major piece of research has just landed evaluating the (sometimes extravagant) social claims made on behalf El Sistema, Venezuela’s celebrated, controversial youth musical training system. The Interamerican Development Bank-led study has some bad news for El Sistema fans. Using cutting edge social research methodology, it found the program had no significant impact on 24 of the 26 social and behavioral measures.

While El Sistema did have a non-random positive impact on measures of self-control and aggressive behavior, particularly in boys, it had no measurable impact on school performance, self-esteem, risky driving and a host of other measures. Turns out that, for the most part, El Sistema doesn’t dramatically alter participants’ lives.

What if the main measurable impact of teaching kids to play amazing music is…for children to be able to play amazing music?

To which I say, emphatically: I. Couldn’t. Care. Less.

I fart in this paper’s general direction.

Here’s an idea, IDB. What if you stfu, put away the multivariate regressions, and listen?

“But I hate Dudamel that guy is a chavi…”


Turn off the lights. Turn up the volume. Close your eyes. And listen!

Here’s a crazy idea: what if the main measurable impact of teaching kids to play amazing music is…for children to be able to play amazing music? What if the purpose of art is art?

Yes, I know. I understand El Sistema brought this on itself. For years it’s been making claims about social impact, claims that aren’t backed up by facts.

It may be that in a society like ours, telling people that the point of music is music was always going to be a losing proposition. It may be that, politically, art had to be sold as a means to some end beyond art.

But then this — and not its hypothesized sympathy for the revolution — is El Sistema’s real moral failure. To go looking for a justification for art outside of art is always to do it violence.

Unnecessary violence, too.

Don’t buy it? Take the slider up to 13:26. The Stürmisch bewegt —the hair-raising, goosebump-inducing second movement— starts there. Listen to that!

No, no, for real: shut up and listen. It’s…astonishing. Or go up to the Adagietto on 48:18. Stop what you’re doing and give it the mindshare it deserves.

That is the reason El Sistema should exist.

So dear, catastrophically point-missing IDB-researchers, here’s the Randomized Controlled Trial I’d like to propose: go to Caucagüita, pick out 100 kids and randomly assign 50 of them to learn Mahler for ten years, while the other 50 play perinola or whatever. At the end of that period, ask each group to play you the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th and write us a paper on how each group got on.

Who’s up for it?