The Election Was About Racism Against Barack Obama

the election was about racism against barack obama

This article appeared in Time Magazine on December 13, 2016. Read online here
by Leon Botstein

The popularity of radical anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe, from Britain to Russia, and in the United States—the recent defeat of a right-wing candidate in the Austrian presidential election notwithstanding—unmasks a startling irony in the way history influences the present. Among the most common complaints leveled at the migrants and refugees now in Europe and the millions who seek to follow in their footsteps—primarily Muslims—is their unwillingness and failure to adapt to Europe and assimilate.

The controversies over burkas, head scarves and mosques suggest a widespread anxiety that the new populations, and therefore potential citizens of the future, will undermine and change cherished definitions of European national identities based on shared religion, shared language and, since the 20th century, a commitment to secular traditions, in which political practices and public culture presume a separation of church and state. The new immigrants, and their predecessors, particularly those in France who came after the independence of Algeria, are seen as determined to retain the customs, laws and way of life, and therefore the identities, they came with, all alien to long-standing, seemingly coherent but distinct national characters—English, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Russian and Dutch—each rooted in a common history, Christian faith and a shared language.

The several generations of Muslim immigrants to Europe since the end of World War II may not be deeply versed in European history, but it would be hard for them not to sense the widespread and unavoidable shadow cast by the Holocaust and the liquidation of European Jewry between 1933 and 1945. Little in post-1945 European politics has not been shaped by the effort the grapple with the consequences of Fascism during the interwar era and the war itself, particularly the extermination of the Jews.

The ugly fact in that history is that the Jews, once Europe’s most visible and shared minority population, became more hated the more they successfully adapted and assimilated into European national cultures. Rabid political anti-Semitism—whether in France during the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer falsely accused of espionage; or at the turn of the century in Vienna when the city’s mayor, Karl Lueger, pioneered the use of anti-Semitism as a successful electoral strategy; or later, in Germany, when the assimilated Jew par excellence, the wealthy and brilliant foreign minister Walther Rathenau was assassinated by right-wing operatives in 1922—was directed not against pious Jews in black hats, who kept the Sabbath, deferred to rabbinical courts and ate strictly kosher food. Virulent modern anti-Semitism was directed against Jews who willingly shed all that, and became loyal, successful citizens of France, Austro-Hungary and Germany. Their command of the language, dress and social and cultural habits of Europe’s nations made them indistinguishable from their Christian counterparts.

What enraged the majority population in late 19th-century and early 20th-century European nations was not difference but rather sameness, and in particular exceptional sameness: the triumph of Jewish adaptation and assimilation. The composer Richard Wagner in 1850 argued that what made the Jews dangerous and insidious was that they were integrated and unidentifiable. By entering the elite of the nation their essentially subversive presence suddenly became invisible and powerful. Jewish bankers, manufacturers, scientists, writers, doctors, lawyers and artists were now Englishmen, Frenchmen and Germans. They were the real problem, not the pious Yiddish-speaking anonymous Jew with his foreign and unfamiliar ways living in a ghetto.

How did Europe respond? It forcibly stripped its major minority that between the late 18th century and 1933 became a significant defining element in national cultures—as was the case in Poland and Hungary it of its hard earned and fragile equality. It then incarcerated it, expelled it and finally murdered it. Germans and Austrians initiated the Nazi “Final Solution”; but its success depended on enthusiastic cooperation throughout the nations of Europe, with few notable exceptions. It is, therefore, all the more admirable that the Germans and Austrians seem to lag behind in the rise of European populist nativism.

The lesson of this history, whether conscious or implicit, cannot be escaped. This dark past fuels an unspoken argument against assimilation and adaptation. It justifies inherited tradition and identity. Why should young Muslim Europeans, who witnessed the disappointments and resistance to integration on the part of their parents and grandparents, much less new arrivals, embrace European customs, mores and religions, and seek to disappear as a distinct group within the various European cultures when the lesson of European history is that the last time a visible minority sought to do so it met its destruction at the hands of the world into which its members sought entrance through assimilation?

Turning to post-Donald Trump America, the European predicament offers a cautionary comparison. White America has prided itself as a nation based on acquired citizenship, freedom of religion and the rule of law, and formed by immigration. But that ideology was dominant two generations ago. The defining distinction, from the beginning, has been race and color, not religion or nationality. What post-Trump white America has expressed by endorsing Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” is not merely anger against elites in general but targeted resentment against the recent history of success by Americans of color. The racism in this year’s election was not about an older stereotype of the Willie Horton-type, but directed against Barack Obama. It is precisely the parity in the achievements of black Americans, those who have become CEOs, scholars, scientists, artists, doctors, lawyers and politicians—and now even president—that has fueled the resurgence of intolerance and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Our challenge is to confront and diffuse the hypocrisy that exists between our ideals; our rhetoric about America as a place of freedom, tolerance and justice for all, a nation in which the Constitution and the Statue of Liberty are our guiding symbols; and our actions. Those of us who are in the dwindling white majority need to persuade our fellow citizens that overcoming prejudice is tested not by embracing those subordinate to us in class and status but by celebrating the reality of successful integration, the leading presence of citizens of color into the nation’s elite. Doing that will benefit all citizens and make America “great.” The time is now to revive the American dream of a “melting pot” out of which prosperity and dignity for all can emerge.

Music and Politics


by Leon Botstein

The horror, destruction, and cruelty that persist, particularly in this past year in Ukraine and Gaza, have properly forced raw politics into the center of our attention. By coincidence, in two of the countries tied to these conflicts, there are prominent musicians who are public figures, Valery Gergiev and Daniel Barenboim. As conductors, they are highly visible, and both of them have become controversial. Gergiev has been criticized for supporting Vladimir Putin and failing to use his international stature and well-earned reputation as a Russian patriot to combat restrictions within Russia on civil liberties, freedom of expression and assembly, and to combat xenophobia and discrimination against the Lesbian, gay, and transgender community. Barenboim, although lionized by the Israeli public as a performer, has been taken to task for his fierce and longstanding advocacy forthe rights of the Palestinians and his criticism of the Israeli government. By their actions as leading citizens of their respective countries, these two star performers raise the question of the connection between music and politics. Music has occupied an ambiguous place as a public art form. In the tradition of Western music, particularly as it flourished during the 19th century, music was a widespread and popular activity. Music was not only about going to concerts and the opera; listening to professionals perform emerged from amateurs who played and sang at home and in the closed circle of private societies. In the repressive regimes that dominated Europe between 1815 and 1848, musical culture assumed a privileged place. The forms of music, particularly symphonic and chamber music but also choral music, appeared to censors in a police state as innocent and devoid of politically dangerous content when compared to literature and the visual arts. (Even so, the manuscript of Schubert’s 1823 opera of the Medieval Christian-Moslem conflict, Fierrabras, is studded with changes demanded by the censors, although it was never produced in the composer’s lifetime.) Even though political freedom was restricted, music was to a greater degree exempt and thereby assumed a distinct appeal as an arena of human expression at once both abstract and emotional and deeply personal, but devoid of any unambiguous content or meaning that could threaten or challenge political authority.

These circumstances helped lend credibility to the mid-19th-century aesthetic theory that declared music to be a self-referential aesthetic system without any explicit correlation to images and words and, therefore,ordinary meaning: the notion of “absolute music.” Music achieved the status of appearing to be—on its own and without words—entirely apolitical. There was, of course, a potent challenge to this construct of the nature of music that came from Liszt and Wagner, both of whom were decidedly politically engaged—Liszt in the Hungarian national movement, and Wagner on behalf of the aspirations of the new German nation after 1870.

Wagner’s extraordinary success and impact, particularly the unprecedented popularity he achieved through his music, rendered the supposition that music is inherently apolitical an illusion. Music as an activity and as entertainment turned out to be crucial to the development of various late 19th-century nationalisms. In the German-speaking world, the Wagnerian came to define the German. Dvořák and Smetana became central to fashioning a Czech identity, just as the Mighty Five in Russia became successful protagonists of what they regarded to be the essence of the distinctive Russian spirit.

The popularity and centrality of musical culture as a social phenomenon was not lost on the dictators of the 20th century. Stalin and Hitler were notorious lovers of music. For Hitler, music was at the core of the Nazi aspiration to create a new Aryan sensibility. His favorite composers were Wagner and Bruckner. Stalin was, de facto, the Soviet Union’s chief music critic. He castigated Shostakovich’s incipient modernism in the mid-1930s, and backed the notorious Zhdanov decrees of 1948 that excoriated formalism not only in Shostakovich but Miaskovsky and Prokofiev as well.

The intersection of music and politics during the 1930s was not limited to tyrannies. In the United States, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and Roy Harris took political considerations into account in their search for distinctive voices as composers; they sought to reconcile aesthetic modernism with political advocacy for social justice and equality. Like their Weimar Republic contemporaries Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, they had second thoughts about the virtues of a musical modernism rooted in progressive aesthetic criteria whose radical character alienated the audience and held, in particular, no attraction for the working classes. It may have been chic to “épater le bourgeois,” but to have no public at large seemed both ironic and elitist.

Throughout the 20th century the connection between politics and music was not limited to the work of composers. Early in the century the balance of musical life and the attention of the general public had shifted from an interest in new music to the performance of canonic music from the past. Much to the ire of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the musicians who made the most money and garnered the greatest public attention were no longer composers but performers. The star performers of the mid-20th century became music’s ambassadors, the key public figures of the day.

Consequently their political engagement came under scrutiny. Toscanini was honored as an Italian patriot who was an ardent anti-Fascist. Ignace Paderewski took on the mantle of Polish national liberation and became the new nation’s first president. Yehudi Menuhin defended himself against criticismcelebrating the dream of the musician as citizen of the world by ostentatiously embracing former Nazis as colleagues immediately after the war. Rafael Kubelik and Rudolf Firkusny were stalwart opponents of the post-war Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia, and they returned after 1989 as heroes. A host of German artists, notably Walter Gieseking, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, collaborated with the Nazis with embarrassing enthusiasm, as did the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s post-1933 politics became a hotly debated subject in the immediate years following the war, as was Ernő Dohnányi’s wartime behavior in Hungary.

Oddly enough, in the United States, during the heyday of modernism in the 1950s, the image of the musician as inherently apolitical became the norm. The most prominent musicians in the U.S. after World War II came as refugees; they understandably felt that engaging in American politics was inappropriate. Leonard Bernstein was an exception to the image of the musician as above politics within the generation of American-born musicians that attained prominence in the 1950s. Bernstein may also have been the last highly visible American classical musician to speak out on political matters. He did so mostly during the 1950s and 1960s, before his retirement from the New York Philharmonic. In 1970, a few months after his retirement, he was famously excoriated for expressing solidarity with the Black Panthers and was the inspiration for the phrase “radical chic.” To his credit, however, Bernstein believed that music mattered, and that as a public figure he had an obligation to speak his mind on crucial issues in American politics, including McCarthyism and Civil Rights.

It is a sad commentary on the decline of the importance and prestige of classical musicians that, in the United States, so few classical musicians are currently active in the political life of the nation, hiding unchallenged behind the blithe assumption that music is a world apart. They exploit the false distinction between the “musical” and the “extra-musical,” a distinction that is artificial and defies the simple truth so eloquently expressed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that music is “a form of life” much like any other. Although orchestras and opera houses are supported indirectly by the state through tax exemptions for philanthropy, and are constituent institutions of civil society performing a public function, the number of prominent conductors and star soloists who now speak out on political questions can barely be counted on one hand.

At the same time, music critics and the public in this country take aim not at the silence of American musicians in matters of politics, but at Gergiev, Barenboim, and most recently Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The one exception in this respect in today’s debate regarding the intersection between politics and classical music is the American composer John Adams, whose operas have consistently had political overtones if not political content. The most controversial of these is The Death of Klinghoffer, premiered in 1991, the argument of which deals not with American politics but the Arab-Israeli conflict and an act of terrorism dating from the 1980s.

The Metropolitan Opera scheduled a production for this coming season, but backed away from disseminating it through its HD network for fear of offending the wider public. For a variety of understandable reasons, the Met settled on a compromise and declined to confront the politics surrounding the opera’s purported message. Apart from the Met’s Klinghoffercontroversy, most of the attention in the American press regarding music and politics has focused on Gergiev and Dudamel. In Gergiev’s case, the irony is that he has consistently displayed a fierce patriotism as a Russian in a manner consistent with his advocacy of the Russian repertoire, particularly rare operas. His tireless efforts on behalf of the Mariinsky Theater, which he has led since 1988, and the musical life of St. Petersburg are immense.

Americans as outsiders may not like his politics, but he is to be admired for stepping out of the protected realm of his own career to try to sustain a vital musical culture in post-Communist Russia. He is part of a tradition more than a century old in which Russian musicians have not shied away from being controversial political figures. The politics Gergiev defends may merit criticism, but not his political engagement.

The more complicated case is that of Dudamel, the finest alumnus of Venezuela’s legendary El Sistema program. The program was founded 40 years agoby José Antonio Abreu, a brilliant academic and musician and, above all, a superlative and idealistic politician. He started it under the regime of Carlos Andrés Pérez and saw it flourish after 1999 during the era of Hugo Chávez. It continues to be the object of extensive patronage by the Maduro regime. Abreu’s program now reaches over 400,000 Venezuelans, primarily children and young adults from the poorest areas of the country. Abreu found a way to use music education and participation in musical ensembles, incorporating the Western classical tradition, to do more than teach music. El Sistema is a program that provides social mobility and hope, and an avenue out of poverty and ignorance. Abreu has done so by placing music at the core of a social program rather than an arts program, and by working with regimes considered undemocratic, populist, and unsavory. He has embraced one of the toughest challenges in public life: to live with compromise on behalf of long-term public good, and to take the long view about what needs to be done in order to lay a better foundation for a political future based on social justice and freedom. El Sistema would never have had its impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals had it not been for Abreu’s ability to muster massive public support and shun the role of public critic. El Sistema has taken a place in Venezuelan national identity usually reserved for sports teams. This is no trivial accomplishment.

To speak out against tyranny, war, and injustice certainly takes courage, since speech is a form of action. But to establish a program with deep roots in society that develops the minds and skills of underserved and impoverished people on a massive scale takes an altogether different form of courage. Dudamel is crucial to El Sistema’s survival after Abreu. Dudamel, unlike Gergiev, is not active in politics. His unambiguous commitment is to El Sistema in Venezuela and to its adaptation in the context of the United States, as his work in Los Angeles shows. Criticism of his unwillingness to take the expected and seemingly straightforward step of rebuking the Venezuelan government and to reject the desire of a still quite popular regime to spotlight him as the pride of Venezuela is misplaced. Like Abreu, Dudamel appears to have taken the long view. The short-term publicity that might redoundto his benefit for being critical of the current regime would perhaps endear him to a class of liberal music lovers in North America and Europe, but it could alienate him from his countrymen and imperil the essential government support for El Sistema.

The American criticism of Dudamel (and for that matter Gergiev) poorly camouflages the profound paradox among our fellow citizens who have chosen to speak out against both of them. Where is the outspoken engagement by musicians here at home? Where is the outrage at the deafening silence among our own classical musicians of prominence, concerning the shortcomings of our politics and government or on behalf of causes related to this country’s predicaments? Where are the voices of musicians in positions of leadership on behalf of the rising and corrosive inequality of wealth in the United States? Where are the voices among musicians on behalf of the improvement of public education? Where in the United States are the leaders in the classical-music establishment pioneering and developing programs of arts education that are more than decorative “outreach” efforts, that are insteadsystemic collaborations with schools and other institutions on behalf of the least well-served populations in the United States?

Speaking truth to power, as the phrase goes, is hard. Working on behalf of improving the lot of our less fortunate fellow citizens is even harder. Gergiev and Dudamel, in quite different ways, have shown commitment to the potential role of musical culture in advancing the well-being of their respective communities and nations. Would we benefit from less moralizing about the political role played by star performers in other countries, and more attention to what musicians in the United States can do in our own country to make progress in the key areas of education, social mobility, and, finally, privacy and freedom of expression?

The argument against taking this point of view rests primarily on our view of the past, primarily the legacy of political collaboration by musicians with Hitler and Stalin. Musicians and music lovers find themselves caught in a bind when they contemplate the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Strauss on the one hand, and on the other are forced to make a candid assessment of the political behavior of these three great composers. We are not consistent in how we balance politics with aesthetic judgment. Hans Pfitzner’s music is performed more than the music by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Pfitzner was an enthusiastic Nazi, and a fine composer. Hartmann was a far greater composer and one of the few heroic non-Jewish anti-Nazis; during the 1930s and 1940s he sacrificed his career by refusing to collaborate.

When we criticize Gergiev and Dudamel, we think we are trying to show that we have learned the lessons taught by the cases of Furtwängler, Karajan, and Böhm. Yet have we? Each of these three had successful post-war careers. Their legacies are still cherished today. Even Leonard Bernstein, a proud Jew and supporter of Israel saw no difficulty lavishing inordinate praise on Böhm, whose wartime behavior was utterly reprehensible. A similar inconsistency extends to Israel, where a ban on the music of Wagner (who died in 1883, before Hitler was born) remains in effect, and yet Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a work written during the Third Reich explicitly calculated to celebrate Nazi ideology and aesthetics, is performed in Israel without comment.

This dissonance between moral and political judgments, and aesthetic preferences may not apply to the cases of Gergiev and Dudamel. They are doing more than simply burnishing their résumés and advancing their careers. In an imperfect and troublesome political context, rife with thorny ethical implications, they have chosen to work on behalf of the public good in their countries through music and education, by siding with a politics many may not admire, for good reason. Instead of focusing our attention on them, we ought to turn our attention to the situation here in the United States. We should call on our fellow musicians to speak and work, as musicians, in the public sphere on the tough task of advancing the causes of good government, social justice, and individual liberty—the core values of democracy.

A version of this article appeared in Musical America 2015 Edition. Read online here

Are We Still Making Citizens?

Are We Still Making Citizens?

Democracy requires a commitment to the public good. But for a long time now, our citizens have been taught to see themselves as only private actors.

This article was published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in the spring of 2015. Read online here
by Leon Botstein

Education—as well as its political consequences and place in society—is not a subject about which I know much beyond the experience of working in education. I am to education what a volunteer combat officer is to war (in contrast to an officer who attended West Point to study the art, science, and history of war). I have fought in many types of wars—an appropriate metaphor given the conditions in which education is expected to take place and the goals it is supposed to achieve. What I know comes from the field of battle.

What that experience has taught me is that the purpose, challenge, and substance of education in a democracy are defined by two questions: How ought we to live, side by side, not as lone individuals but as citizens? And how can we, through education, help individuals answer that question? Answering these questions is hard, particularly in the United States, where many seem to view citizenship as a burden and even an unfortunate necessity. The rampant distrust of government and the public sector has become overwhelming. We sidestep the question and defend education in purely economic terms, linking education to work and productivity. Nonetheless, citizenship is more than economic; it is a defining political fact of life, one that even in its neglect can’t be dismissed. And active citizenship, embraced with some measure of critical enthusiasm, may be an indispensable foundation of justice, freedom, and civility.

Hannah Arendt’s view of education in America was based on an imagined comparison with her own biography. Her generation of European émigrés, who came to the United States during the years surrounding the Second World War, developed a love affair with the political ideal of America, if not with America itself. America was a nation in which citizenship could be acquired by anyone; citizenship (and therefore patriotism in its most palatable form) was defined by loyalty to a form of government and the rule of law, not blood or soil. Among those things distinctly American that émigrés—notably Hans Weil (author of a book on education admired by Arendt) and Christian W. Mackauer, one of my teachers (and that of Anthony Grafton) at the University of Chicago—liked most was the fact that the American public school system, by any reasonable comparison to the systems of their former homelands, was fundamentally not authoritarian. A child, so the American progressive educators who held sway in the 1930s and ’40s believed, should be able to express him- or herself as an individual from the very start.

Learning was achieved not by rote, or by spoon-feeding a set of standardized materials; learning emerged out of active trial and error—by doing. For example, in one of the legendary progressive elementary schools founded in the 1930s, very young children were taught to operate a manual letterpress (placed prominently in the classroom), setting moveable type in order to motivate a love of books, the desire to read, and a sense of the beauty of words by designing and printing their own writing. This approach, sadly, has been under attack for decades. That kind of learning does not happen as much anymore in public school systems, having given way to teaching as repetitive drilling, based on crude, reductive textbook accounts of traditional subject matter linked to so-called “high-stakes” standardized testing.

But in contrast, during the Progressive Era, teachers believed not in today’s Common Core, but in something called a highly individualized “child-centered curriculum.” The purpose was the development of curiosity and skills, and cultivating the need to know. As part of this pedagogical ideal, the child, who knew nothing and could do nothing, was nevertheless entitled to express him- or herself; it was believed that only though active exploration and making mistakes would questions be inspired, ignorance discovered, the motivation to pursue knowledge heightened, and ideas, methods, and information be remembered. For all their snobbery about America as a land of unkultur, the thoughtful (if somewhat sentimental) intellectuals among the European refugees recognized the value of American pedagogy, if for no other reason than its potential merit as an instrument of political education for the sake of citizen engagement in a free society.

These Europeans encountered America at a time when there was considerable hypocrisy about demographic diversity, particularly on the matter of race. Nevertheless, in the midst of segregation and institutionalized racism in the 1940s and early ’50s, and in large measure because of it, white America appeared quite diverse and tolerant from a European point of view. The country seemed intent on harmonizing the “melting pot” of immigrant white-skinned citizens through public schooling.

From the émigré perspective, the attraction of the anti-authoritarian and egalitarian character of American education was therefore twofold. First, there was the premium placed on independence of thought, particularly as each child grew older. Second, and more importantly, independent judgment and the will to express it—the effects of a successful progressive education—were valued in terms of how well one learned to live as a citizen. A good education was neither purely cognitive nor solely based on subject matter or skill, but linked in both instances to legitimating the right of each individual to express judgment. The nation by its very self-definition was pluralistic and diverse; citizens—in the best sense of Rousseau—were not born. They had to be made. The Progressives understood that therefore the right kind of public education—a modern version of Horace Mann’s mid-nineteenth-century nonsectarian “common school”—was needed. Education was the experience that could transform private individuals with diverse faiths and origins into equal citizens in a democracy.

The American Way of Learning

What the European émigrés discovered was a reality that partially resembled these principles. They saw from the outside, as it were, how vital the connection is between how we structure our schools and our capacity to maintain a functioning pluralist democracy. John Dewey, America’s greatest thinker on education since Mann, guided the ideology of public education. For Dewey, the justification for the proper pedagogy was not primarily political; his conception of teaching and learning derived largely from an epistemological conceit within Pragmatism. But for the European émigrés, the contrast between the school systems from which they came and the school system in the country in which they arrived—the virtue and attraction of American educational practice—was significant in terms of its political consequences.

In those years, the defining factor in the American system was the idea of a single, unitary public school system in which everybody enrolled. All citizens went to the same sort of schools through to the end of secondary school. Private schools were an elite phenomenon and relatively insignificant. Most European public systems, by contrast, were intentionally segregated by ability, creating distinct groups beginning at age 11. The state, using examinations, divided the school population into varying categories, each of which maintained a different track. The majority of citizens never completed school beyond elementary school. Some percentage went on to vocational schooling. A very small segment of the population went, as adolescents, either to a humanistic academic high school (Gymnasium) or to a less prestigious practical and science-oriented high school (Realschule) and received a secondary-school diploma. A Matura or Abitur, the diploma from these two types of secondary schools, permitted an elite student to enroll in the university.

Consequently, the unitary public school system that kept all children together until college and that built citizens of character, devoted to democratic values, was viewed by the émigré generation as a marvel. American education appeared to fit the idea that the nation and democracy were tied to a homogeneity of rights, and that diverse constituencies could not only obtain equal legal status but through education achieve the means to realize it in economic and social terms. Citizenship via a nominally nondiscriminatory and standard process accessible to all irrespective of birth, religion, ethnicity, or even language was unheard of in Europe, but it—and the concrete advantages education added—seemed possible in America.

Higher education was no less eye-opening. Undergraduates delayed specialization and studied more than one subject. They were, from the start, asked to do far more writing that called for the expression of their own arguments and judgments. What was equally shocking to a European was the way in which the American university system seemed immensely flexible and open to new ideas. There was not a rigid hierarchy with one professor running each “faculty.” Young scholars did not have to wait for their elders to retire or die. The university was able to create new fields and new positions. Not only was there less hierarchy and formality, but in graduate education there was even less deference to authority than in the public school system. The dissenter, rebel, and ambitious entrepreneur were prized more than in Europe. In terms of graduate education and academic career advancement, American university practice still stands in contrast to that of Europe.

That was the good news. The bad news was that the academic standards by which the American common school system operated seemed horrifically low. The price paid by the democratic culture of the American school system, the émigré observers concluded, was the low level of shared culture achieved at the end of secondary public education. Freshmen could not read or write properly, and they possessed little understanding of literature, art, philosophy, or history. The thinly veiled (at best) snobbery of the mid-century émigré scholars simply exploded when their members (such as Werner Jaeger, Leo Strauss, and Kurt Wolff) came to teach American college students.

Outside of the realms of science and engineering, the Americans—students and professors alike—seemed provincial, naive, and disoriented (consider, for example, the depictions in Nabokov’s 1957 Pnin, a thinly disguised account of his years at Wellesley College). They seemed to get little right and displayed astonishing cultural ignorance. This merited condescension. What they had to say did not engage the grand historical intellectual tradition, and, from the point of view of the émigrés, Americans in the academy were materialistic and tone-deaf to vulgarity. And so a few of the émigrés (Jacob Klein at St. John’s and Heinrich Blücher at Bard) allied themselves with the opponents of the Progressive movement, including Robert Maynard Hutchins and Stringfellow Barr. They favored core general educational requirements and limits to the free elective system, since they perceived a need to introduce American students to the noble traditions of learning and culture that seemed to hold little place in the curriculum of the American public school. For the émigrés, the absence of knowledge or cultural understanding was the result of a distorted progressive emphasis on a misleading separation of content from method.

Since the 1930s, when a majority of Americans began to attend high school, a similar concern has arisen with increasing intensity. The notion that public schools fail to provide sufficient basic knowledge surfaces every few decades. The result has been a series of “back-to-basics” curricular movements. After the shock of Sputnik, the pride of place in progressive pedagogy assigned to ways of learning—to method—began to be challenged fundamentally. The focus in public policy, particularly in the 1980s, shifted to testing for content; in the past decade, the emphasis has been on science. Educational reformers now seek to define what all people ought to know, and when the proper subject matter should be taught and learned. However admirable the connection between progressive public schooling and democracy was supposed to be, the fatal flaw in American education was that people were encouraged to think for themselves, but they knew nothing. So what could they think about?

The overemphasis on method notwithstanding, the progressive legacy should not be forgotten or shortchanged. Its stress on nurturing independent thought, self-confidence, entrepreneurial and innovative ambition, and above all the ability to negotiate in a shared school setting with peers from different classes, religious groups, and ethnicities remains the right objective. Ironically, the fact that the quality of political discourse has declined over the very decades in our recent past that have witnessed the erosion of confidence in progressive pedagogy should inspire us, as a society, to redouble our efforts to forge the connection between American education and American democracy that defined the Progressive movement and captivated the refugees from European fascism.

Can the Common Public School Survive?

The mid-twentieth-century perspective on American education shared by Arendt and her contemporaries is only partially relevant to the situation we now face. Until 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, no one took seriously the prospect of dismantling the public school system and challenging its virtual monopoly throughout the 50 states. Now we do. One of the consequences of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was the creation of a charter school movement in the South as a means to evade integration. The popularization and legitimization of the idea that the American public school system has failed and therefore ought to be deregulated and differentiated, largely through privatization, gathered momentum not only from the legal defeat of segregation but also from the revulsion at the counterculture of the late 1960s and early ’70s that inspired the “culture wars” of the late twentieth century, with which we still contend.

We are now caught in the throes of an anti-government movement that is 60 years old and that started with an attack, fueled by a fear of racial integration, on the notion that all children should attend a public school. Race and class interests, and the growth of suburbia as a refuge from integrated inner-city school systems, came to a head in the late 1960s. The 1968 teachers’ strike in New York City was a watershed in the decline of confidence in the historic role of public schooling as a key to fostering citizenship.

This article appeared in Democracy: A Journal for Ideas


The Arts and an Open Society

The Arts and an Open Society

December 2, 2014

Let us accept the following characteristics as representative of an open society. An open society is marked by the rule of law that protects individuals and minorities. It safeguards freedom of expression and movement. Governments of open societies are placed into power and removed through democratic means. They maintain an independent judiciary and most often a legal separation from sectarian religious doctrine. The open society is therefore a place in which dissent flourishes, skepticism and criticism thrive, where speech and not violence is the primary instrument of politics, and where there is no such thing as heresy; a high degree of transparency about government also exists, as does a protection of privacy and individual rights. Whether an open society requires a certain minimum measure of social justice in economic terms---the absence of extreme poverty and grotesque wealth—on the assumption that radical economic inequality threatens the stability of a just and open politics, is an awkward but open question. It is clear that in an open society radical inequality can flourish. In short, market capitalism—regulated, to be sure—is compatible with the open society.

But crucial to the open society is the role of language and public space in politics. The state does not possess a monopoly in the formation of civil society or in the creation and control of education or civic entertainment, from sports and the circus to institutions of learning, research and preservation. Dissenting opinions and a pluralism of thought ought to thrive.

In this context, the phrase “arts and culture” refers to those activities that have long traditions, quite variable followings (in terms of numbers), public activities and public outcomes that are not commercially viable in market terms. They are minority phenomena and merit protection and support, from the state, from majorities and from markets. Often the activities of the arts and culture—from poetry to performance art---are linked to so-called “high” cultural traditions that date back to antiquity (to the invention of writing) or to endangered forms of so-called “folk” (and often oral and rural) culture as opposed to popular commercial culture.

It should be understood that the distinction between “high” or genuine “folk” art and popular culture is not one of aesthetic judgment, but sociological. By “arts and culture”, one is therefore not speaking of Bono, Beyoncé or the films that come out of Disney, Warner or Bollywood. These boundaries are as a matter of course blurred. Jazz was once commercially viable, but is no longer. Light opera, operetta and Broadway have bifurcated histories. Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach, Emmerich Kalman and Oklahoma have migrated from the commercial to the realm of culture that requires patronage and subsidy, and they no longer have a politically significant audience. Yet how is one to regard Les Miserables (the musical) or Andrew Lloyd Webber?

The very distinction between high culture and popular culture creates the main problem. The “high” culture practices—from art making and collecting, poetry writing, dance, independent filmmaking, electronic arts and theater to composing and playing acoustic instruments—are   particularly in Europe derived from a history that includes aristocratic and imperial patronage and therefore habits from the era of absolutist monarchy. It is only in imitation of the English aristocracy, learned at Queen Victoria’s wedding, that the continental aristocracy turned away from culture to sports and hunting as the primary markers of their social class.

Just as the aristocracy was abandoning culture during the first half of the nineteenth century, the middle classes stepped in the breach. They were extremely eager to emulate the time-honored habits of the ancien regime. By the advent of fascism, it was clear that the traditions of aesthetic and cultural practice—Bildung and Kultur—had become defining but de-politicized hallmarks of social distinction and self-worth among the middle classes. The middle class civility presumed to derive from the arts and culture turned out to be bankrupt, corrupt or irrelevant; it was entirely compatible with collaboration with radical evil and barbarism in modern times. The education and cultivated sensibilities of the bourgeois not only represented no obstacle to the worst horrors of modern “closed” societies, but they also became prestige emblems within one party dictatorships, particularly in the Soviet Union (and later in the Soviet Empire) first under Stalin and subsequently for the succeeding four decades.

The behavior of cultured and educated elites under Hitler and Stalin stripped all plausibility from the 18th-century conviction that there is must be some connection between the good and the beautiful, and therefore between a humanistic and aesthetic education (as argued by Schiller) and the allegiance to freedom, individual autonomy and the notion of rights and tolerance. In the wake of World War II, an understandable prejudice about high culture surfaced in a sophisticated neo-Marxist form in the West that in turn stimulated a radical modernist avant-garde. The cultural commitments and proclivities of an elite, not an elite of birth or wealth, but an elite of merit, wealth and learning were scorned as marginal phenomena in an unjust world and irrelevant to politics, particularly in the 1960s.

This point of view may now, however, be misplaced and obsolete. Arts and culture may turn out to be more than decorative, more than arbitrary matters of taste and routes to fame and wealth. They may now have a political relevance and utility. Europe and North America are places in which there is a vital life of arts and culture that is inherently dissenting with respect to the dominant politics and mores of the day.

The contemporary engagement with arts and culture, particularly among the young, is in the first instance a reaction to the undeniable fact that the world of mass culture, dominated by massive commercial enterprises of entertainment and communication threatens the values of open society. The threat of tyranny and closed regimes has never been exclusively from above, but also from below, from intolerant majorities. This sympathetic acknowledgment of the validity of pessimistic warnings from a “conservative” intellectual tradition—which includes Plato, Burke, Tocqueville and Burckhardt—seems indispensable if we are to confront the failures of contemporary politics in Europe, the dissatisfaction with liberal democracy in the post-Cold War era and the ease with which not only prejudices but falsehoods dominate and achieve popularity, particularly in American politics.

Truth, however provisional in the natural sciences, is often counter-intuitive, and capable of being understood only by a comparatively narrow segment of society. Its capacity to win the hearts and minds of all citizens, no matter their education, has proven weak. Education through the extension of literacy has not made the body politic more immune from the politics of fear or inspired more critical reflection on matters of national identity and the notion of the “other” and therefore immigration. Some other persuasive means of galvanizing the body politic on behalf of the values of an open society is needed. Just as a way must be found to communicate the consequences of science, might we not explore a way to influence popular sentiment and culture using the extensive traditions and contemporary existence of arts and culture that inherently underscore cosmopolitan sentiments, curiosity, and the embrace of novelty? Do the arts and culture not offer an alternative to a quite uniform diet of entertainment and commercial culture whose political impact is rather to secure the status quo?

It may be then (by analogy to science) that although the activities of artists, writers, musicians and scholars are not viable in a commercial sense and reach only small segments of society, they nonetheless have the potential (as in the past) to develop a symbolic and influence in politics and society. Do they not then deserve patronage in the name of “open society”, not merely from the state but also from non-governmental sources? One of the singular ironies of Europe today is that it has a continuing tradition of high art creation and consumption, albeit every more under siege in terms of funding, that represents a counterweight to national frameworks. A high percentage of the makers of that art and culture, and their audiences represent those who are among the most determined and loyal citizens of an international order, and of the idea of Europe. They represent a powerful antidote to nationalism.

Consider the subversive potential in the quite valid claim that the tradition of art and culture has been crucial to the development of national identity. Consider Hungary, for example. The musical tradition of Hungary as represented by Haydn, Liszt, Bartok, Kodaly, Dohnanyi, Ligeti and Kurtag—for all its self-conscious appropriations of emblems of national identity—has been at the same time a disruptive source of cosmopolitan allegiance in direct conflict with xenophobic chauvinism.

The vital presence of a literary, visual and musical art and cultural community becomes inevitably a fact of dissonance to the “illiberal” in a nation. Bartók fled Hungary in response to the fascist misuse of his research into folk music and the attempt to co-opt his compositional debt to Hungarian materials. The ostentatious re-interment of the remains of Hungary’s most celebrated composer from New York to Budapest during the last days of communism indicates the lingering prestige and fear of the potentially destabilizing influence of the high art and culture tradition. For all the official effort to appropriate Bartók (and his recalcitrant modernism) in Hungary, even today, on behalf of an illiberal definition of the Hungarian—(and comparable efforts regarding Shostakovich in Putin’s Russia)—as well younger composers in the Bartók tradition, the end result, as in the Soviet case (consider the career of Schnittke) is failure. Bartók and Ligeti represent today a resistant and dissenting element of national pride that can and is made to work against intolerant populism.

The Hungarian example of long traditions of high art and culture that possess the potential of resisting provincialism, uniformity, conformism and reductive nationalism and also invite a cosmopolitan and international sensibility on behalf of the individual, freedom of expression, unpopular causes and unconventional views, has a parallel in each of the European nations, primarily in their major cities. Why is that potential on behalf of a post-nationalist international politics and a truly non-trivial cosmopolitan civic spirit not being cultivated? Would it not be proper, on behalf of an open society, to attempt to connect the art and culture traditions to the dynamics of mass democracy, and seek to use the traditions to broaden, within a populist framework, the values of dissent and rebellion against imitation and conformism? It is time to revisit, perhaps not in a normative philosophical manner (i.e. asserting an ideal of beauty) but in an instrumental sense, the possibility of forging a connection between art and culture on the one hand, and public life on the other in a manner that influences positively conceptions of national identity, attitudes to minorities, respect for dissent, the beauty of nature and the sanctity of the human. Let us abandon the vulgar Marxist contempt for art and culture as little more than superficial emblems that grace the façade of exploitative individualism. Let us not let the failures of the twentieth century blind us to the power of art and culture in the twenty-first, especially within younger generations. Part of the task, particularly in the visual arts is to counteract the influence of the buying and selling of art, at the very high end, through the act of collecting of art as financial assets, as well as the power of centralization in the production of film and popular music.

Therefore, artists and society must forge a link between aesthetic freedom and ambition to political freedom and dissent. Social foundations and agencies must utilize the exceptional power of the imagination and the imaginative within communities and thereby underscore the sanctity, through the broadened encounter with arts and culture, of the life of the individual life and the importance of civility.  This will create new constituencies for the use of language (written and spoken) in more than routine and journalistic patterns, thereby exposing the limits of the current political discourse, particularly on the question of identity.



Learning is like sex — and other key reasons the liberal arts remain relevant

Learning is like sex — and other key reasons the liberal arts remain relevant

November 6, 2014
by Leon Botstein

Technology, particularly in the information sciences and biology, has placed science and engineering at the forefront as timely and useful areas of study. And the sustained loss of manufacturing jobs domestically and the prospects of increasing mechanization — replacing humans with smart devices and robots — have fueled a sense of panic about the relevance of the liberal arts, notably the traditions of learning in the humanities and social sciences. So here are a few things to remember as the discussion continues.

Look at all the winners of the Nobel Prizes in science over the past 50 years. You will find people for whom the humanities, social sciences and the arts —were critical and central to their work and life. In short, there will be no discoveries and breakthroughs without pioneers whose ambitions are fueled by matters outside of the realm of science and technology, narrowly defined.

To be honest, the defense of the liberal arts and humanities rings a bit hollow as colleges and universities often do not actually do what we claim to do. We, as a group, tend to do a poor job of delivering the humanities and social sciences to students. Departments mirroring a system of specialized disciplines, as in a graduate university, define many undergraduate programs. Those disciplines are often self-serving bureaucratic enclaves that once represented discrete boundaries in research and scholarship. This system has become rigid and out of date, particularly as a basis for an undergraduate curriculum. Students come to college interested in issues and questions, and ready to tackle challenges, not just to “major” in a subject, even in a scientific discipline. They are interested in the environment, in understanding genetic inheritance, in tackling disease, poverty, and inequality, even boredom. They are interested in humor, beauty, communities and the past. What do we so often find in college? Courses that correspond to narrow faculty interests and ambitions, cast in terms defined by academic discourse, not necessarily curiosity or common sense. The liberal arts curriculum in most institutions does not match the interests and the ‘need to know’ on the part of students. The problem is not with the subject matter, ideals, or content of the liberal arts and humanities, but with the delivery system.

Let’s take the so-called crisis of confidence about the liberal arts and humanities as the chance to reform and revitalize what we teach and how we teach. Let’s stop preaching. On the matter of teaching, the only aspect that is truly threatened by technology is bad teaching, particularly lecturing. The institutions that are most threatened by technology are those that rely on large lecture classes and graduate assistants.

Teaching and learning are basic human experiences. Consider teaching and learning, for a moment, as analogous to sex. Technology has no doubt added opportunity and diversity to the experience, but it has not rendered the basic transaction obsolete, and it is not about to. Furthermore, the true experience of teaching has remained pretty stable for centuries. What happens in a seminar today, whether in physics or literature — discussion, argument, close reading, speculation — has remained the same despite all the momentous changes in technology since the 12th century, from the book to the moving image to the computer.

There are two dimensions to a genuine liberal education that must be considered but are often ignored. First is the proper approach to learning how to use language — to read with a rich capacity to interpret and interrogate texts, and to write. Second is to insure that all students in the liberal arts become literate in science. We place the liberal arts in peril if we do not integrate the sciences and mathematics (and that includes computer science) into the substance of the humanities and social sciences. Consider history. The history of design, medicine, science and technology are natural ways to connect science and the humanities. That connection needs to go both ways. We cannot permit our students in the humanities and social sciences to be ignorant of science any more than we can allow scientists to develop too narrowly in terms of the fundamental issues of culture and society.

Colleges and universities also must find ways to bring the visual and performing arts into the liberal arts, as practice and not mere objects of study and as more than peripheral and decorative additions to literature and history.

We need to do what we say and stop defending and bemoaning. That will be hard, since it goes against bad habits and so-called “tradition” and vested interests, but reform is essential. The reform that is needed is not cosmetic but fundamental in terms of the organization of faculty and the curriculum. The relevance and utility —let alone the substance — of the liberal arts (which include the sciences, by the way) are not in danger.

The danger lies only in the way we go about making the case and delivering on the promise of the liberal education.


Versions of this article appeared in The Washington Post and The Hechinger Report.


SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud

SAT Is Part Hoax, Part Fraud

The following article was published in Time Magazine on March 7, 2014. Read online here
by Leon Botstein

The president of Bard College says recent changes to the SAT are motivated by the competition that College Board has experienced with its arch rival, the ACT, rather than any serious soul searching

The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents.

The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician—and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.

And why do we remain addicted to the College Board’s near monopoly on tests? Why do they have an undue influence on college placement? These tests actually violate the basic justification for tests. First, despite the changes, these tests remain divorced from what is taught in high school and what ought to be taught in high school. Second, the test taker never really finds out whether he or she got any answer right or wrong and why. No baseball coach would train a team by accumulating an aggregate comparative numerical score of errors and well executed plays by each player, rating them, and then send them the results weeks later. When an error is committed it is immediately noted; the reasons are explained and the coach, at a moment in time close to the event, seeks to train the player how not to do it again.

What purpose is served by putting young people through an ordeal from which they learn nothing? Is the SAT a reasonable representation of the ideals and benefits of learning? No, it makes a mockery of them. Given the possibilities explicit in modern technology, a college entrance examination could be developed in which the test takers in real time could be told immediately if they got the right or wrong answer and guided to a program that might help them understand why they got a question right or wrong. Such a test would be like a chess match, where the clock stops after a move is made. And although the pressure of time—the need to excel under pressure—applies legitimately to pilots, generals and surgeons, is it really so important? Why not give students the time to think, research, and learn as they answer serious questions whose answers demand careful thought and knowledge? Those are the skills that are rewarded in college, and in life.

What is needed is not minor so called improvements to the SAT, but an entirely new generation of testing instruments that utilize modern technology not only to measure the performance of our students but also teach them.

That being said, the new changes to the SAT are harmless. No one will be asked arcane ugly words that have no use. No one will be penalized for guessing, which is a relief since intelligent guessing is a vital life skill that needs encouragement. (It is also nice to see that the College Board has chosen to emulate Bard’s new alternative essay entrance exam that has students read important historic texts and write on them.) The changes to the math section are welcome since they turn that part of the SAT more to fundamental areas of quantitative reasoning.

These modest reforms will do little to stem the rising tide against the College Board and its SAT. There is more and more resistance to pressuring students and parents into paying money to take a senseless exam that claims to be objective when in fact the only persistent statistical result from the SAT is the correlation between high income and high test scores. The richer one is, the better one does on the SAT. Nothing that is now proposed by the College Board breaks the fundamental role the SAT plays in perpetuating economic and therefore educational inequality.

The justification behind the SAT has been that it is an objective instrument of ability to succeed in college, when it is not. But the truth is less principled. The SAT is used by selective institutions to help them sort applicants and justify dismissing many from consideration. SAT scores also have become an integral part of another money-making racket—college rankings. The victim in this unholy alliance between the College Board (a profit-making business masquerading as a not-for-profit educational institution serving the public good) and our elite institutions of higher education are students and our nation’s educational standards.

The commonsensical truth is that the only legitimate test is one where a question is put forward and an answer required with no options or hints. The one major reform in the new SAT seems to be the dropping of a required essay. This is ironic because the one thing colleges need to know in their admissions process is how well a student can think, construct an argument, and persuade. Asking a student to sit down and write essays in an examination setting might be an excellent way to discover an applicant’s command of language and thought. This one potentially useful piece of evidence has been made optional.

The SAT will continue in its revised form to face challenges. It is part hoax and part fraud, albeit a profitable one. The College Board, however, is not entirely to blame. David Coleman is to be admired for trying to rescue an outdated, sinking ship. The real responsibility for our sorry state of affairs regarding college entrance examinations rests with our colleges and universities themselves. The elite institutions have willingly supported an alliance with the College Board to make their own lives easier, and we Americans seem to have accepted this owing to our misplaced love affair with standardized testing and rankings as the proper means to ensure educational excellence.

The time has come for colleges and universities to join together with the most innovative software designers to fundamentally reinvent a college entrance examination system. We need to come up with one that puts applicants through a rigorous but enlightening process showing what they can and cannot do, and what they know and do not know, all in an effort to reverse the unacceptable low standard of learning among high school graduates we now tolerate and to inspire prospective college students about the joy of serious learning.

Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra. 

Speech to the American Academy in Berlin on its 20th Anniversary

Speech to the American Academy in Berlin on its 20th Anniversary


Leon Botstein delivered the following keynote speech on October 8, 2014 at the American Academy in Berlin on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the institution.

Read the full PDF.

Ladies and Gentlemen! Please understand that if I were prone to nightmares, one would certainly be an invitation to follow Max Raabe on a public stage. I cannot imagine a more daunting circumstance in which to give any kind of talk of any length.

I have long been a fan of Max Raabe.  Not only is his capacity to perform so utterly elegant and he so innately and fabulously musical, but he has unearthed an entire repertoire that has vanished.  For those of you who can’t get to sleep and have a good Internet connection I recommend all the Max Raabe material that is available on YouTube. Max Raabe, in my experience, has redeemed insomnia.  Among the items most worth seeing is a documentary of Max Raabe on his first trip to Israel. It is a remarkable documentary, one in which elderly survivors are in tears as they hear music they have not heard in decades but they know by heart.  Many—if not most—of the creators of the music that he sings, both the lyrics and the music, were Jews, and when the Nazis came to power this genre disappeared. He has reconstructed it with the Palast Orchester in a fantastic way. His is a great achievement not only as performance, but as authentic musical archaeology, one that brings something forgotten back to life.

And if one was ever in search of a witness to the transatlantic partnership between Germany and the United States, it can be located in the music of the 1920s and early 1930s that Raabe performs. The style is unthinkable without the American influence. Consider Walter Jurman (1903-1971), the Viennese Jewish songwriter who appropriated American models and whose career took off in Berlin during the 1920s. After fleeing to America after 1933, he went on to compose for Hollywood (as you just heard)—including for the Marx Brothers. Max Raabe has provided us a multi-layered example of the transatlantic symbiosis that sustains the American Academy. It was worth the entire trip to Berlin.

In 1907 the German economist Werner Sombart wrote an article comparing Berlin and Vienna. He wrote it because during that period Berlin had become quite arrogant about itself and looked down on its rival Vienna. Sombart took aim at all the anti-Viennese Berliners. He described Berlin as essentially a soulless place that was completely mechanistic, where people were only interested in time, power and money.  The worst insult he could hurl at it was that it was rapidly becoming New York—the symbol of materialist modernity.

In contrast, Vienna was a place of culture and Kultur, and the jokes Berliners made about the Viennese and Austrian habits—their Gemütlichkeit and their Schlampigkeit, all of this familiar stuff, were simply evidence of the stupidity, the arrogance, the dangerous blindness and material greed of Berliners. Kultur was the distinct essence of all good things German.

It is fascinating that when Sombart insulted New York as the historical destination point of Berlin’s culture, what he didn’t fully realize is the extent of the history of interaction between Germany and America. That experience constitutes the pre-history of the Academy. The Academy has a Vorgeschichte, if you will, because, as many of you know, in late nineteenth century America, Germany was the most important cultural influence on what became America. Our universities, originally somewhat imitative of the British, were completely transformed after the Civil War by an American embrace of the model of the German university.  In New York City in 1900, there were probably 150 German newspapers and periodicals; one could survive in the City of New York speaking German.  If you went to the Metropolitan Opera you had no need to speak English.  When Anton Seidl conducted there he needed no English, and when Gustav Mahler came to take over the New York Philharmonic in 1907, the year of Sombart’s essay, there was likewise no necessity for him or for Alma to learn a word of English.

Apart from the German-speaking religious communities in the Midwest and the South that came into being after 1848, there were choral societies all over the country, as far as San Francisco-- Liedertafel, and Männergesangvereine.  They were all directly imitative of a German tradition initially liberal and later virulently nationalistic--

constituents of the Deutsche Sängerbund that first developed in the 1840s here in German-speaking Europe.

This all came to a very abrupt end in 1917. Yet when we think of this city in the 1920s,—the Berlin that one can see clearly and candidly through the Russian novels of Vladimir Nabokov who lived here at that time—the influence of America, and the migration of Americans to Berlin, continued not only in science and music but in painting, architecture and popular culture.  The transatlantic exchange and communication for which the Academy stands have indeed a very long history.

Ironically, the most important pre-history for the American Academy in Berlin is the rise to power of Nazism, and the emigration of a whole cadre of German intellectuals, scientists and artists to America, some of whom returned after 1945.  For those of us who grew up in the United States after the Second World War, the American university would be unrecognizable without figures such as Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, and Werner Jaeger the classicist; Hans Morgenthau in politics, at Columbia Franz Neumann, and, of course, all the Frankfurt School members, including T.W.Adorno (who returned), and Max Horkheimer. And of course one cannot forget the obvious: the emigration of scientists, among whom Einstein was by far the most prominent.  In the visual arts, Hans Hoffman, Josef Albers and Max Beckmann come to mind, (as well as Lyonel Feininger, American born of a German musician, who moved to Germany only to return after the Nazis came to power) and in my own field, in music, young talents including Lukas Foss and Andre Previn, and Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, for whom the Music Academy right here is named, who was actually forced out of the United States together with Bertolt Brecht in the late 1940s.  And there was of course Arnold Schoenberg whose uncontrollable arrogance was a parody of an unquestioned sense of German superiority in matters of high culture that came along with the post 1933 emigration.

As a Jewish child émigré myself who was not from German stock, I grew up with the well-known joke about the encounter of two dachshunds in Central Park.  They meet and sniff one another, and both figure out that they are German-speaking. One asks the other where he’s from. Vienna, he says, and the first one replies, “I’m from Berlin”.  The Berliner asks, “how do you like it here?” They both end up complaining about the Wurst, the apartments, and the fact that Central Park isn’t quite the Tiergarten or the Volksgarten. After this bemoaning, the Viennese concedes that it is after all not too bad, considering the alternative.  The Berliner agrees but adds: “yes, all that isn’t really important, but what really bothers me is that in Berlin I was a St. Bernard”. We grew up in the shadow of this tremendous cultural German emigration—particularly of writers, (consider Heinrich and Thomas Mann and Carl Zuckmayer)—and the radical transformation of the American university.

The end of the war revealed the extent of Germany’s cultural loss. What is interesting is that German intellectuals after 1945 tried to figure out why the German universities and German cultural institutions, from museums to opera houses and orchestras (particularly in Berlin) and indeed the German intellectual and artistic community, in many different ways both heinous and utterly thoughtless, collaborated with the Nazi regime. The result was a sense that perhaps there needed to be an effort to reform the German university.  Jürgen Habermas, in the later 1940s, argued that what the German university ought to do is imitate the American, and institute something that we would recognize as the liberal arts or the college experience in the United States, and try to reform the way in which the professors were appointed and courses of study organized. Inspired by the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism he suggested that the hierarchical, authoritarian system, the kind of education of extreme obedience that Walther Rathenau described experiencing as a young man, in a critique of the German educational system that he wrote before World War I, be abandoned.  If one could find a way, Habermas argued, to reform the German school system and university so they would be more like the American (on the assumption that the American common school and university, in its hybrid form of English and German, were somehow contributors to the sustaining of democracy), there might be a chance for democracy in post-war West Germany. Although this did not come to pass, in the midst of the Cold War, clearly in West Germany, the transatlantic dialogue continued, partly motivated by the extreme fear and danger represented by the Cold War and by the Soviet Union.

To turn now to Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall: what is astonishing, as I stand here in the garden of this house, is that the most important post-unification effort to renew and sustain the transatlantic dialogue, the American Academy, is the creature of a very unusual nostalgia, a sentimental echo of the nostalgia we heard so wonderfully evoked by Max Raabe, and that is the nostalgia of the German Jewish émigrés of the 1930s and 1940s.  The Arnhold family, the Kellen family, Richard Holbrooke himself, Henry Kissinger, Gary Smith’s parents, like so many American émigrés of German Jewish origin, unlike their fellow Jewish European refugees, retained a tremendously deep affection for the place from which they were expelled. Despite everything, they remained attached to the image of Germany.  No equivalent of the American Academy in Berlin funded by survivors and descendants of Polish Jewry, is imaginable in Poland, and nothing like it is remotely thinkable for Russia or the Ukraine, at least certainly not sponsored by the Jewish emigration from those places.

Gershom (or rather Gerhard) Scholem used to claim that there was no “symbiosis” between Germans and Jews in the years between the 1780s and 1933.  I am not quite sure he was right.  Why did these German Jews who were forced out actually return in the 1990s with the idea of putting an institution into place that would sustain, after the end of the Cold War and German unification, the transatlantic dialogue and exchange of ideas and of people between their new welcoming Heimat America and the old one, Germany? The answer goes back to Sombart’s critique of Berlin’s conceits and his privileging of culture as a major aspect of what Berlin needed but lacked.

The German Jewish emigres held fast to the belief that Bildung and cultural attainment, including an aesthetic sensibility, were instruments of civilizing people and the world. This ideal was an extension of a late nineteenth-century and very widespread belief that Germany was a kind of pinnacle of true humanistic civilization placed in the middle between the raw barbarism of the Russian to the East, the effete superficiality of the French, and the crass materialism of the American to the West.

The dachshund and St Bernard exchange implicitly reveals this conceit. For example, all of us who studied music with émigrés constantly heard about how terrific it all had been in the old country, and we, as Americans, were considered simply unwashed and kulturlos, and hopelessly resistant to true cultivation.  Even my parents—Ostjuden who never lived in Germany—looked at America with a kind of horror at America’s vulgarity, as if such vulgarity had not existed here in Germany. Germany before 1914 put itself forward politically and culturally as a kind of a broker between East and West as a cultural ideal.  Friedrich Naumann’s concept of Mitteleuropa, which was a serious idea for many a great social scientist and keen mind, was rooted in Germany’s pride in its cultural and scholarly pre-eminence.  It revealed the glib conviction that Germany and particularly Berlin would become the cultural capital of the world, perched between these two extremes, America and Russia. Sombart’s critique of Berlin was fueled by his frustration at Berlin’s failure to grasp its proper destiny.

Ironically, after unification Germany has indeed re-emerged as unusually powerful and the essential instrument of Europe, economically, politically and culturally. Placed between America and Russia, Berlin is and will doubtlessly remain for decades to come the cultural capital of Europe, a cosmopolitan destination point for artists, young people, students, and the place of dominant cultural institutions. But in this political context, one might ask, to what end?

The American Academy was built through German Jewish philanthropy and enthusiasm on the premise that the answer lies in some connection between culture and civility, between art and culture and the way we conduct our lives in the public space of everyday life.  The irony of this belief is that it has survived not only among the victims of the failure of that connection, but despite the complete disproving of the link between culture and civility. It was during the Nazi era that culture, and its attributes among its devotees—Geschmack, Bildungoffered no barriers to barbarism and no barriers to hate and to the unthinkable.  Indeed, the elites of culture and scholarship collaborated. So, why did the survivors of this colossal failure return to the premise that culture mattered in politics?

I think the American Academy was created explicitly to give the role of culture and the arts in politics a second chance. The work that Gary Smith has done with the Academy initially may appear on the surface be about politics, (including the hobnobbing, if I may say so, with foreign ministers and ambassadors and other power brokers), but it is not; that is really not what the Academy has been about.  The fellowships at the Academy represent the core belief that through the arts, education, scholarship, literature and research, through what we call the humanities, the development of the Geisteswissenschaften, the development of sensibilities and thought processes that are speculative and are imaginative, that somehow there will emerge a connection between the flourishing of those activities and the way we conduct our political and personal lives. At its core the Academy under Gary’s tenure stands for the proposition that there is a link between democracy and freedom and learning, a link between learning and art making and the defense of freedom, especially in the contemporary world and particularly in the public space that has changed very dramatically with modern technology.

The Internet is, after all a large, undifferentiated sewer of self-expression, in which it is impossible to distinguish what’s true from what’s false. In it all sort of items look alike. And we, the users ever more addicted to it, rather than having a dialogue with others, end up, with the help of Google’s algorithms and Amazon’s manipulation, just confirming what we already believe, and visiting sites with which we are already comfortable.  So the massive technological expansion of freedom, communication and self-expression has actually led to a kind of incrustation of conformity. The more we have access to more information and data, can say anything we want, and blog to our heart’s content, the more we become predictable, ordinary and imitative.

And it is not enough to have inner freedom, just as inner emigration was helpless during the Third Reich. To assert that one is immune to the constant assault from the web of technology (I won’t buy a product because I’ve seen a blip ad while trying to navigate my way from Dahlem back to Berlin using Google, because of the belief that I can resist it) is unconvincing. Since inner freedom is not enough, the Academy has become devoted, in my view, to the proposition that precisely in the modern, technological world the face-to-face encounters, the work of artists, and the expression of ideas by individuals in real time and real space will actually emerge as the last vital bastion of dissent.

We may talk a lot about freedom but very few of us use it.  We say we like dissent but we really don’t like to hear somebody say something we don’t already believe.  I have not met or seen a politician whose mind was changed by evidence. In our country we talk a lot about democracy and we have candidates debate one another in a mockery of what is a debate.  I would vote—no matter what her political position might be—for any candidate who in a debate, faced with a set of arguments and evidence, said, “you know, now that I have listened, I concede that I might be wrong.”

Inspired by the highly sentimental and idealized hopes of Americans of German Jewish origin, the American Academy has become a kind of crucible, a meeting place, where people can figure out how to resist what’s happening in the world beyond the forms of inner emigration that flourished under Stalin and Hitler.  That technique of inner emigration, using the imaginative capacities of poets, particularly musicians, kept some measure of freedom intact, and survived under the radar screen of censors and tyrants. But after 1989 we know that this is not enough.  The purposes of dissent, dialogue, scholarship, finding that things which have been held to be true may not be true, whether in history or in the natural sciences, but for this Academy particularly in areas of philosophy, and politics, require and demand an intrusive public presence. Thought and expression are vital in ways that cannot be only interior; they must be exterior and in the public discourse. This Academy is devoted, in an idealistic and nostalgic way, spurred on by a generation that saw the death of the dream that Kultur and Bildung would lead to a civilized world, to restart that process.

The German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, herself an émigré to America, challenged the conventional distinction between the word (speech) and the idea of action. She argued, idealistically, that speech is and must be a form of action.  What this Academy is dedicated to, in a generous and eclectic definition of speech, including making of visual art, of music, performance, and of course literature and scholarship in the fields that Fellows come to work in, is the proposition that speech is indeed a form of action and should be politically engaged.

The tremendous irony and beauty of the music you heard from Max Raabe, with its tremendous twists on the classical tradition, and its inner jokes, is that it is part of a long tradition of using music and comic theater as modes of dissent and social and self-criticism. Its challenge to the conceits about romance and sexuality, and its undermining of the clichés of self-important individuality and notions about what is morally right and wrong, help show the way forward. The goal of the Academy can only be approached in a transatlantic way within the patterns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of an exchange back and forth, not forced by emigration or by tyranny, but exchange encouraged voluntarily.  Two societies, German and American, that are democratic, and pluralistic, might actually come to believe that Berlin, particularly because of its history and its immensely bright future, can become a place in which the connection between culture and freedom, and culture and justice, can be reshaped in a way that does not render all that we do in the arts and humanities irrelevant and merely private.

That is the future of the American Academy, in my view. It is also the legacy that Gary Smith so ably has left us with. I want to thank Gary, all the Trustees of the American Academy, all its benefactors, and its Fellows for making this place possible, and for redeeming the cherished hopes of those who fled from this very place, not willingly but who nonetheless have now come back, some only in spirit, to finally, we hope, make possible a dream brutally destroyed in 1933.

Thank you.


El Sistema Discovery Day at Carnegie Hall 2012

El Sistema Discovery Day at Carnegie Hall 2012

December 8, 2012
Leon Botstein delivered the following speech as keynote speaker at El Sistema's Discovery Day at Carnegie Hall.

I would like this event to be useful to you. We are celebrating not only now months of activity by the groups of El Sistema here in the United States, but also nearly 40 years of accomplishment of El Sistema in Venezuela and its consequences worldwide.  I want to begin by acknowledging the profound accomplishment of Maestro Abreu in nearly 40 years of music making, and in making music a central dimension of social policy for his nation. This is an incredible achievement. There are no comparable examples of the way Abreu has used of music as an instrument of social change while at the same time rendering the experience of music itself persuasive to participants and listeners.  In general aesthetic judgment and pleasure (our notion of great music and great performance of very high standards, and our conversations about art and judgment) seem divorced from issues of politics and issues of societal inspiration. Maestro Abreu has managed to merge the two by creating a very effective instrument–over hundreds of thousands of people all over the nation–and using music with children and young people as a transformative instrument. In doing so, he has vindicated as well the misconception that we in the United States (and, to some extent, in Europe) have always worried about, (especially since the cultural wars in the United States in the ‘70s and ‘80s): the idea that classical music (which is a misnomer to begin with–there’s nothing classical about it), the traditions of orchestral music, chamber music and choral music, are solely the output of a privileged, aristocratic, white, European, male class and irrelevant outside of the cultural context of their origin.  This notion doesn’t make this kind of music particularly endearing to communities viewed as “outside”. But as Maestro Abreu’s efforts have shown, the belief that this tradition of music is a thing of the past, a historical artifact that is atrophying, turns out to be wrong.  Equally misguided is the notion that its value is a dimension of colonial and imperial imposition.

For complex reasons the traditions of notated Western music from the 16th century to today that are associated with concert music turn out to be transferrable culturally. They are being reinvented by new communities in new places that have nothing to do with the dead white males that had a hand in creating them. This is happening in the Far East (in China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia) and South America (particularly Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela). This musical tradition is now reinvented anew, by new generations and in new cultural contexts. That said, it has shown a potential transferability comparable to matters of science and mathematics, which know no cultural boundaries.

Therefore, Maestro Abreu’s achievement is not only for the country of Venezuela and its citizens, but also on behalf of the capacity of any nation’s power to place music making into the center of its culture. And, of course, the most famous result of this, on the international concert scene is Maestro Dudamel, particularly with his continuing commitment to maestro Abreu’s principles, the creation in Los Angeles of YOLA (the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) and the programs which have created in Los Angeles the largest nucleo in the United States.

I start out with this praise because what I would like to talk about is not so much El Sistema as a model; rather we should regard it as an inspiration. It would be a mistake to look at what has been accomplished in Venezuela and conclude, “We can do this in the United States.” There is a certain tendency, given the power of the accomplishment, to follow the imitative route, to think that El Sistema is to music what Weight Watchers is to weight loss: that it’s a product you can package, wrap, and carry with you anywhere you go. But it’s not so simple. The problems of Venezuela are not the problems of the United States. There are certain things in common, but there are many things that are very different. There are fundamental aspects El Sistema from which we can learn, that allow us to say we are inspired by El Sistema, but without merely imitating it. To truly honor the achievement of Maestro Abreu is not to imitate it, but to think in the same transformative way about our own circumstances in the United States and find a means, though probably those means may look very different from what has worked in Venezuela, to realize some of the same objectives.

Let me concentrate first on what we can take from the Venezuelan experience that looks transferable. Translation can be either literal (that is to say, very exact), which makes it ugly. Or it can be poetic, which means you are trying to get to the underlying meaning of words in another language and translate it in a way that expresses its moral equivalent in your own language.  It may end up being, on the surface, quite a departure from the literal meaning.

The first principle of El Sistema we see that could impact the United States is to define music education and the function of music not in terms of some threshold and standard of quality in music making, but rather in terms of the activity itself. In the United States, we have a tendency to look at music as a function of something we call talent. Parents (wherever they are but also in poor and underserved communities), think that being musical is an exceptional quality. We love child prodigies, and we love to exploit them. This is a profound error based in this pervasive misconception. Music is an inbred, human activity, which every individual possesses, and the level of “natural” ability is not connected to what makes it meaningful, either to the individual or to the society. Prodigies do not define what is musical, and in our educational system we should not segregate by ability. The ability to make music should be encouraged democratically in every child without a prior prejudice of their so-called ability, because we do not know enough either about human psychology or human mechanisms of learning to make a reliable prediction of who in the end will be a good musician, who will not be one. Music making is developing a mode of expression apart from language and of encouraging a different dimension of sensibility. It is therefore not about the exceptional child; it is about every child. Once we accept that position, our whole attitude to music education must necessarily adjust, and that’s what El Sistema has done.

The second lesson to be learned from El Sistema is to regard music as a group activity and not as a divisive, individual activity, to understand that the learning of music is not only (or even primarily) a solo activity isolated from the community. In American popular culture we are familiar with the image of the bespectacled nerd carrying a violin case, someone who is laughed at by all the other kids on the baseball field, and perhaps even beaten up. (This is an autobiographical statement.) The centrality of the group experience in this case has everything to do with not making music. Later, rock music assumed the social collaborative and group function as an amateur activity that once defined classical music, in American society, at the expense of chamber and orchestral music. Snobs and defenders of classical music held rock and popular music in contempt, particularly after World War II. My point is that the perception of making music as a singular activity based in some exceptional talent must be changed. It is a group activity in which everyone at all levels of proficiency must be a participant. And this is perhaps easiest in choral groups.

The third important concept that El Sistema has successfully realized is that learning music and teaching it is a unified, simultaneous process.  The moment the young person begins to play they also have an opportunity to pass the knowledge and experience on. The process of having to explain and articulate what you are learning to someone else, only intensifies your own learning. One of El Sistema’s greatest triumphs is the integration of mentoring, which sharpens and accelerates the skill at every level, and informs the sense of communal activity. Older players sit with younger ones; the moment you can do something, you share it.

The fourth principle of El Sistema that is universally applicable is that of simplification without reduction. In traditional teaching methods, the core experience is the individual lesson in which music is simplified and reduced to the point of robbing it of its interest. (This is true even in the very successful Suzuki method.) A child encountering a simplified version of a complex piece may fail to perceive what makes it a great piece of music.  This is why composers like Bartok and Schumann tried to write music for children with actually intrinsically interesting content; it is preferable to watered down music. Imagine telling child, “I want you to learn Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so I’m going to simplify it. It’s all about an unhappy young guy who dies.”  The child might say, “What’s so interesting about an unhappy young guy? I can just look at my older brother. Why should I spend the time worrying about Hamlet?” It is essential to find a way to make the power and mystery and wonder of Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler palpable to the child as something they can experience by doing.  One way is through repertoire that’s specifically written for children, as Bartok and Schumann recognized. Then there is El Sistema’s way, which is to have the beginner be a part of the orchestra as it performs the repertoire in its full complexity but to play parts that are suitable to the beginner’s level; the parts will gradually become more complex as the student becomes more accomplished.  Therefore a student can take part in a full performance of a Shostakovich symphony, hearing and seeing how his or her companions play it, and participate according to the appropriate skill level.

These are the pedagogical achievements that we can take from El Sistema and try to transfer to the American circumstance. This would need to be done, of course, in a context that does not separate public music making from the community. The orchestras, the chorus, the musical activity from the beginning must be public and collective.  The primary objective is to put the orchestra to the service of social unification by fostering those qualities that make an orchestra great: its collaboration and mutual understanding.  Thus, for example, instead of badgering an orchestra to play in tune, we encourage the members to learn how to play together and find their own way to intonation through the exercise of discipline, social cohesion, and a sense of community. Is it possible to build through music a sense of self worth and a sense of solidarity and a sense of investment in wellbeing? Indeed yes, if it is done publicly with children; parents, neighbors and friends are the spectators so that they become integral parts of the children’s experience. That process of education, of intervention into children’s lives, cannot be limited to the school time. It has to be done within school and, as well, after school. It has to be integrated into the whole life of the children and community, seven days a week, of a child and community. And as El Sistema has shown, in this way music ceases to be a function of privilege and wealth, and that group music making can be a deeply successful intervention in communities that are largely excluded from many economic and social privileges.

These are the ideals of the achievement that we must find a way to transfer to the United States. We at the Longy School of Music and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in a program called Take a Stand, are at the beginning stages of trying to figure out what is it that we can learn from the El Sistema experience. So let me turn now to the question of the American circumstance and how it relates to El Sistema. We are fortunate that the idea that music is a democratic social activity and crucial for children, particularly in creating a sense of community and belonging, has an independent American philosophical heritage, and that heritage rests in the Transcendentalists in 19th-century New England. The most articulate heir of that tradition is the American composer Charles Ives, whose father was a bandleader. Ives was fond of saying that in a church choir, the most enthusiastic singer who could not sing in tune was, to his father, the most musical person.  To correct that person in a way that dampened his or her enthusiasm for singing was to inhibit their music making.  Ives felt that the activity rather than the end product was the most important part of music making.  The group activities in the 19th century America in which Ives grew up associated with music (the marching bands, choruses, church choirs), performed social functions essential to developing a sense of American citizenship, of being part of a community, and of having democratic respect for your neighbor.  We therefore don’t have to reach outside of our own intellectual heritage to find inspiration to adapt what El Sistema has achieved.

One major difference, of course, is that the United States has a genuine problem of scale–the size and pluralism of the nation. We are a nation of immigrants, a huge, disparate population with entirely different circumstances. We are, without question, a more affluent nation, and the nature of our poverty and of our prejudices and exclusions is peculiar to us. It exists in rural America and also in urban America. It overlaps with race, but not entirely.

A second difference is that we have a highly developed and internationally competitive popular culture of our own that has, over the last 50 to 75 years, marginalized classical music. This has resulted in classical music being damaged by those who resisted its democratization; defenders who cherished their presumed superiority, snobs and connoisseurs who have tried to make music seem like a luxury or fine wine that the average person can’t afford. It has become tainted by the impression that learning it is hard and motivated by trying to make an individual look socially better and more elite. Because it has been wiped out by American enthusiasm for sports and popular culture, it has been confined to a narrow sphere of admiration by those who want to consider themselves better than popular culture; classical has therefore lost the prestige that it once carried as a relevant and shared art form somehow representative of the values and aspirations of freedom and a democratic society.

The Venezuela in which Abreu invented El Sistema might be provocatively compared to America before the First World War, when the dominant German and Italian and Eastern European immigrants to America brought with them a high sense of the value of classical music, and created schools and choral societies. All the settlement houses in New York City have music programs: Henry Street, Third Street, Greenwich House. They were a crucial part of the settlement house movement in America (in Pittsburgh and in New York), because music education then was viewed as it is now in Venezuela, as a social instrument of real value. That movement died out, partly due to the closing of America to immigrants between 1920 and 1965. It is actually possible to track from that point the decline of audience interest in classical music with the loss of immigration and the aging of the population that believed in musical culture enough to put it in the school system beginning in the 1930s.  We have a bit of catch up to do to redeem the significance of classical music. The last president of the United States who loved classical music was probably Jimmy Carter, and he was less of an enthusiast than Richard Nixon. Now, that may not recommend classical music to us. But Mrs. Roosevelt loved classical music, and Harry Truman (who was not rich or privileged and an autodidact) liked it too. I don’t want to speak about the Bush family. I’ll leave them out for the moment. Again, I don’t want to comment on Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing, and I’ll fall silent about our current president. But classical music is not high on the national agenda, and in the culture in general the instrument of the orchestra and the choral society (except, perhaps, in the Midwest) is now an instrument that requires some revival in the United States in terms of its place and purpose.

It is not news that America is in the throes of a tremendous sense of crisis about its educational system, particularly among the underserved populations. We have an embarrassingly low high school completion rate. Of the people who complete high school, what they accomplish for the number of years they spend in school is an embarrassment. Our funding of the school system is completely antiquated, and if there is a movement that has resonated with many political factions, it is for the dismantling of public education through privatization–though given how little we invest in public education, which is not considered a federal constitutional obligation in the United States, there is less to dismantle than we might wish. This is tragic. It is completely different from the Venezuelan situation, where in fact Abreu’s achievement has been to convince the state, despite regime changes, to invest in El Sistema as a national program. I defy any of you, as we stand on the so-called fiscal cliff, to persuade anybody right, left, or center to invest in music education. The person who did would be considered a candidate for a psychiatric evaluation. And that is not only because the right wing doesn’t want big government, but also because the left considers high culture to be a peripheral decoration.

The suspicion of the American left to any form of culture that is not mass entertainment indicates a problem we have, which does not seem to exist in Mexico or the Latin American countries. The problem is a peculiar American egalitarian suspicion that the arts are not vital to democracy. Most Americans will not distinguish between art and entertainment. They think that freedom of expression is absolutely and satisfactorily fulfilled by what you can see in the commercial arena: movie theaters and television. If people want to hear Beethoven and Mahler, or John Cage or John Adams, pay for it without public help. As we all know, the tickets to our concerts in this hall and to the Metropolitan Opera or any American orchestra are hardly cheap. But even given this expense, the ticket price still does not pass on the cost of this activity to the average consumer. If you actually took an orchestra concert by the New York Philharmonic and made all the seats of Avery Fisher Hall pay in full for the orchestra’s expense, the price would be over a thousand dollars a seat. Even I wouldn’t pay that, and I wouldn’t expect anybody else to do so. Therefore these must be subsidized activities. Not surprisingly, the American public says, “Why should the taxpayer subsidize what you like? I’m perfectly happy listening to the music I like. Why should I have to learn about your music?” This, in a pluralist democracy, is an extremely hard argument to answer. The arts in America are hostages to the whims of the wealthy and private philanthropy.

When we actually try to transfer the insights of El Sistema to the United States, we therefore have to address these issues: funding, the prestige of the activity, the nature of the American educational system (which is not national but local), the intermittent and very complex structure of American poverty, and the essential diversity of the population. So what should we do? First, it seems to me that we actually have a tremendous advantage given the educational crisis. There is no doubt that the biological and neurological evidence increasingly makes the case that musical activity, especially collective musical activity that inspires individual discipline, is a correlative (not a cause, but a correlative) to educational achievement.  This is in part because classical music in our tradition is a notated system that has logic, grammar, syntax and meaning without being a language. What’s peculiar about music is that it is coherent, it coveys meaning, and transforms the experience of time.  It therefore requires the use of memory and the skill to identify and manipulate comparisons, relationships, similarities, and variations. In other words, it has a cognitive function.  It also develops the ability to locate and negotiate multiple activities in the same time frame. (A simple example, of course, would be harmony and counterpoint.) There is no doubt that being able train people to do these things and to listen and observe, has correlative benefits, and that is an argument in the United States to which people are willing to listen. We are concerned about our competitiveness and about the future, and there is no doubt that one could argue that in creating a widespread system of participatory music education among young people, it would improve their schooling and their achievement and cognitive ability. Those are potential claims that could make some headway in obtaining public support.

The second issue, of course, is the concern for the embarrassing unemployment rates measured by class and race in the United States, especially in urban centers. Work, which sustains life, occupies time and offers meaning to people, is something that fills an abyss of loneliness no matter what class you come from. The erosion of work has aggravated the absence of meaning in our lives. This is a shared problem along class lines: isolation, a sense of loss of value in one’s life. One common remedy in the United States from the sense of superfluity, and uselessness is religion. We seek refuge in the idea that God made us for a reason and therefore we are unique in some way that we don’t fully grasp. But apart from that religious belief, what else reminds us of our own need to exist? What keeps us going? That sense of meaning is increasingly hard to find, especially as technology presumably advances our society. The fear a century ago was once that we would all become factory robots, but now we’ve invented robots better than humans. There are no more toll collectors. There are no more elevator operators. Even in factories computers run the robots. We have only come to the beginning of the technological revolution of work. Most of us employed in simple physical tasks are going to be put out of business. We don’t have a bank teller to talk to anymore. We don’t have someone to sell us a subway token. Many of the things that once required human interaction have been mechanized in the name of efficiency. All the people in the world may not be able to be rendered useful in some old fashioned sense. They’re not needed to make food. They’re not needed to make drugs. What are they needed for? The question is of course a practical one of employment and economics, as we see all around us, but it is also one of internal value and sense of the human condition.

In the search for value, the role of the arts becomes that much more important. What can we do that is meaningful, if our work is no longer essential? It is the capacity for unpredictable activity of the imagination. The ATM machine may be more efficient than a bank teller, but no one can predict what expressive capacity any human, bank teller or otherwise, might reveal in the use of language, the use of visual imagination, and in the capacity to make music.

Our ability to use language is hard-wired, and so is our ability to make music. It is through the work of the imagination and our appreciation of others’ work of imagination that we begin to develop a sense of value in life that isn’t about economics, not about our paycheck, and not about our social function at work. It’s about our social function as members of a community. And that is where El Sistema comes in, to provide ambition for the young person, and a real joy of life apart from economic utility. Not to put it too simply, but the fear and intolerance exhibited by those who are capable of taking the lives of others in the name of radical causes, either religious or political, derives from a lack of their sense of the sanctity of life, and their feeling of existential emptiness that must be filled with purpose.  That will to fill the vacuum of purpose is a fundamental human need, easily perverted by the will of powerful leaders. How do you dissipate that?  The arts are not an answer (the Nazis were great lovers of art), but in the right circumstances, the arts can offer a different humanist option based in respect and empathy.

But to realize this humanist view, one cannot merely be a spectator.  Classical music can’t be experienced like a movie in which one sits in a dark place and vicariously experiences emotion through fantastic scenarios that, once we emerge from the cinema, only serve to remind us how drab real life is. Going to most movies (except for horror movies, which are popular precisely because of the sense of relief one feels after watching people get killed, and know we are only watching a movie) offers a passive, illusory use of imagination, a further development of the vicarious experience first provided by novels and plays at the end of the 18th century.  Romance genres are the worst.  Offering a vision of love and relationships that can’t be met in the real world foster a sense not of fulfillment but of discontent. The same thing is true of Wagner’s heroes. We can identify with Lohengrin for a few hours, before we go home to do the laundry and reflect on the certainty that we will never have the chance to play a heroic role or feel the passion of Tristan and Isolde. We compare everyone we meet to movie stars until we develop the same problem that Flaubert described in Madame Bovary, in which Emma Bovary looks at her life through the lens of the romantic sentimental novels she has read, and finds terminal unhappiness.

That escapist and disheartening relation to art can be avoided by changing the spectator into the participant. Art as an activity is play: playing in a group, in a community, hearing the feedback of the audience, are all thrilling. It needn’t be done with the objective of getting a job with the Berlin Philharmonic (and being told to give up playing if your teacher determines you can’t get such a job), but of being a participant in the imaginative activity of a community, anywhere. That is what El Sistema has proven can be done, and can be done with positive impact for both participant individuals and the spectator community.

Can we do this in the United States? The answer is unequivocally yes. But in our case it will have to be done without the national government, and only indirectly with the government on the local level. It needs to be a truly grass roots project. It has to be developed from within the community, and the community has to be part of its definition, which means the nucleos in different parts of the country will do different kinds of things according to their local context. But there also should be some national interchangeability. As in El Sistema, the nucleos should be nationally coordinated. Additionally, we must under these circumstances be very mindful of the catholicity of taste, so that what we do with the groups (particularly in what may be called the crossover) ranges from the standard classical repertory to the improvisatory to genres that are not necessarily within everyone’s training. And for that, we have to retrain all our classical musicians to be teachers not of individuals but of groups, to be group leaders. We also have to also train them to do transcription and arrangement. In one of Longy and Bard’s first nucleos, for example, in the Central Valley of California, we have a mariachi group. And that’s an excellent point to begin, developing outward from local tradition into other kinds of music, and also to exchange with other nucleos so that they can encounter mariachi as a new musical experience for themselves. The building of different kinds of ensembles and different kinds of repertoire facilitates a constructive national conversation.

There’s so much from which to draw outside the standard European repertoire, that these groups can make a contribution in bringing music to life.  We’re not only getting a youth orchestra or an orchestra to come through the system to play Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, but also the treasures that other orchestras might not dare to touch that are from the classical tradition that has been neglected and from the heritage of the nucleo’s community, whether it’s Mexican composers such as Chavez or Revueltas, or the Argentinian Ginastera, or in the United States the long, rich repository of repertory of American composers such as Copland, Still, Ellington, Harris and Beach.

In the organizing of this monumental project, the first step in every community is to create an alliance between the school system, the local government, the specific political and business leadership of the region, and the performing arts organizations (whether they be orchestras or choral societies), to involve the varying churches (both Protestant and Catholic) and the non-Christian religious communities. The core tenet is that this must done in a way that is collaborative and which reinforces a sense of a democratic pluralism. It also has to be defined in a way that does not slip into segregation, so we will have to find ways in which the actual constituencies of kids are not all of one neighborhood. That’s relatively easy to do in the bigger cities; it’s a little more complicated in rural areas.

In conclusion, what we learn from the success of Maestro Abreu and El Sistema is that music can be made to matter. Music can be placed at the center of a nation’s social and political agenda. It can be placed at the center of a nation’s desire to recreate a fabric of patriotism and community, to give a chance to people who are excluded from proper education and opportunity to develop the skills through music that will make them competitive. It also shows that really honoring musical expression is a way of redeeming a sense of personal value and can have practical impact on the success of a generation and of a community.  It’s a priority, not a luxury, and the emphasis has to be on participation. El Sistems’s example is an enormous encouragement, and therefore it is absolutely proper that we take a very good look at how and what is done in Venezuela, as we attempt to create in the United States versions of what they’ve achieved that will work for us. This is what we have tried to do at Longy and at Bard, in the creation of a national network through Take a Stand in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Our work isn’t about owning a franchise or a product, but it is about paying the greatest compliment we can to El Sistema, which is to imitate and to honor its principles rather than any specific practice. Thank you very much.


We’ll take a few moments for questions, if there are any.  I hate giving talks about without giving someone else a chance to speak, so I would be happy to take a few questions before we run out of time. Go ahead.

-You were going through the obstacles and the differences in American society versus in Venezuela. It makes me think that one of the biggest is the role of the individual in each of our societies. The role of the individual in our society is paramount (deified) which is, from my understanding, diametrically opposite to what El Sistema has been able to build on. So I’m thinking about all those parents who haul their kids to afterschool activities that are for their individual development, and how would we ever make the shift to afterschool activities for social development, especially since socialism is an anathema.

I think it’s a very good question. First, I can’t speak for Venezuela. I speak to the American experience. The focus on individual competitiveness and achievement is not irreconcilable with group activity, because you have to achieve in a group. An orchestra is a very peculiar instrument. It’s an instrument that could be an instrument of subordination (that is to say, everybody has to subordinate his or her artistic individuality to the conductor, and you hope the conductor is good, because if the subordination is obnoxious it breeds rage). However, the orchestra doesn’t necessarily have to be that, and that’s where the mentoring is very helpful. Much depends on the way a conductor treats an orchestra. For example, in an orchestra you have to have a sense of rhythmic cohesion and ensemble. Ensemble is not only created by hawk-like watching of the conductor, but it is formed by listening to the people around you in the acoustic space, so that the back of the orchestra plays a little early so it can line up with the front of the orchestra. In that, you have to rely on the orchestral musicians’ sense of their own ability to control the situation. So you can train an orchestra and a chorus to feel that the sum is greater than the parts but the parts are crucial.  I don’t accept the notion that individual instruction is at odds with the group, especially in music, because the amount of repertoire for solo tuba is limited, and the amount of repertoire even for solo violin is limited (without accompanist), so the moment you make music you’re talking about a social activity and social communication. Second, in America the premium on the individual is hypocritical, because we have freedom and the chance to attain individuality we never use. We use it to look like our neighbor. Actually, all this talk about individuality drives me nuts, because where are truly distinctive individuals? The moment we see the individual, we ostracize her, shun him, hurl epithets and even lock him up. We don’t tolerate a sense of individuality in America (not at all). The American school is all too much about conformity. You know, when we came to this country, the school called my mother, a professor of pediatrics (they made a mistake in calling her), and said that my sister failed to join the group and they were concerned. My mother said, “What was the group doing?” And when she heard what they were doing she said, “I’m on my daughter’s side.”

So Americans use freedom actually to voluntarily suppress real dissent and individuality. I’m being overly cynical. I wouldn’t be too concerned about individuality, because I think that in the training of musicians your point is very important. The training of musicians has to involve several things. One is not only playing together in an ensemble but also finding means of personal expression, being able to write music and improvise. All classical musicians need to be trained to improvise. So the experience of being in the group, and having the same technical capacity are crucial, and that’s why teaching the reading of music and the writing of music are so important. Therefore, then, the same individual who may spend three or four hours being part of an ensemble can use those very same skills for something that is her or his own. So I think this is not a problem. And the way you sell this to the public is that, unlike some group activities, musical achievement can’t be taken away from you. In fact, that’s something you can sustain individually. Onereason I never was interested in doing sports is I realized that even if I were good at it (which was implausible), I would be finished at 21. I mean, who are the tennis stars? This is a youth-related activity. But when you watch films of Artur Rubinstein or Casals going out onstage (let alone Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who gave a concert at 99), I thought, “Now, that’s worthwhile. I can amortize my youthful effort over my entire life. So it’s a much more attractive investment, if you want to put it in American terms, an investment that keeps giving.

-I’m aware of El Sistema having been replicated in, for example, Glasgow in Scotland, which is an incredibly deprived community, and where they had a considerable degree of success. My question is, have you had the opportunity to observe other examples of El Sistema being replicated with success, and what are their main points?

The questioner speaks of a replication of El Sistema in Scotland. Let me say something, which for those of you who are real El Sistema devotes may be a little bit heretical, but I’m just by nature a bit heretical, so I apologize ahead of time. I don’t know the details of the Glasgow program, but I would suggest that Scotland and Venezuela in many respects (both by scale and by the nature of the population) may have similarities that would make a direct transference more plausible. El Sistema, like all good ideas, has a history of its own that precedes it. What we are all talking about—music as a participant activity– is something that was second nature in the 19th century with the development of the first urban communities, Vienna of the 1820s or London in the mid-19th century. In this city alone (New York) there were at the turn of the century maybe 200 choral societies and hundreds of musical ensembles in the community that did exactly what El Sistema is trying to do, and that represented a tradition that got eroded by the advent of mechanical reproduction of sound. Our life was silent if we didn’t make the music ourselves. We stopped singing when you could just drop first the needle on a disc, and earlier when we had the first player pianos. The death of the piano as a consumer item was when the first rolls were introduced. So we actually mechanized our own entertainment. What you’re reviving has a human history before El Sistema, and El Sistema is just a way of organizing it so that it’s more connected to modern life and concerns. The other difference, of course, is that when music as practice is targeted at poverty or underserved populations it is undermining privilege, where in the 19th century access to real music education was a function of wealth. And that’s where the radical democratic potential exists. But you were asking, have I observed other examples? There are many examples in the world where this kind of musical activity has still sustained, primarily in choral music where traditions of choral singing (particularly church related) have passed on from generation to generation unbroken.

-You made the point that training in music adds all kinds of important skills: focus, social skills, listening, and then the transference of those to other academic aspects. You discount them to some extent by referring to them only as correlational. The question is whether we could do, or there has been done, something more akin to what one would call a closed experiment, if for no better reason than to drive a more compelling argument.

The questioner asked a very seductive question. I made the argument about the transferability, which is (in my judgment) not a matter of scholarship but a matter of intuition. I would prefer to ride a train with a musical individual than someone who’s tone deaf. It’s just intuitive. Now, it doesn’t make musical people better. Stalin was musical, and Hitler was a great music lover, and the Nazis were notoriously enthusiastic about music. So the link between music and ethics is a very tortured subject. I would like to think that musical activity has some relationship to ethical judgment (I would hope so), but I’m dissuaded from thinking that is the case. So the question is better narrowly focused on the cognitive and social skills. There have been some controlled experiments. There was a cognitive study (a long-range, longitudinal study) of the young people who were in the choir in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. That’s the same boys’ choir from Bach’s time that is still in existence, a great boys’ choir, and they showed real correlative results. A similar finding occurred (the same longitudinal study, I think) with the Sängerknaben in Vienna, where children in a boys’ choir were followed to see how well they do in school. And there are a lot of neurologists and neuroscientists working on this. But that’s not my field. I’m a little cautious because I don’t think we yet know enough about mental function.  I’m reluctant to suggest a causal argument. But a social adaptation argument, which isn’t totally causal but simply experiential, seems very worthwhile. And I think there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that can’t be dismissed. For example, Csikszentmihalyi, a tremendous social psychologist wrote a very interesting book called Flow, and he did a longitudinal study of adolescents in Chicago and showed that adult performance is correlated with the amount of time the person was able to concentrate on something without being connected to clock time. You know what happens when you practice.  Rehearsal’s really boring. Time just creeps, and you think an hour has gone by but only ten minutes have gone by. The other experience is the opposite: it’s so engrossing that you wake up and you realize, “Oh my god, I’m late. An hour has passed and I just thought it was ten minutes.” So the distortion of concentration of time through the process of concentration on music is correlative to discipline. The ability to do that in adolescents is correlative to adult achievement. That’s what we musicians train people to do: to concentrate intelligently. So there is some social psychological evidence that we are on solid ground here, and because music is analogous to a language, it breeds good habits. And unlike painting, it’s social. It’s not about creating an object and someone else buying it. You have to do music in real time as we live in real time. (We have to work together in real time. We have to travel on the subway in real time. We have to do everything in real time.) Music is done in real time. It’s not about connecting to recordings. It’s about musical experience in real life and time. So there’s so much correlation (parallelism) to other facets of life and work that the argument for music is very persuasive. And what Venezuela shows is that they have real results in this way with El Sistema alumni over 40 years. There’s no reason we can’t have real results her in the US, and Lord knows, we need to have them. Thank you very much.

The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music

The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music

Ticket sales are up, orchestra revenues are growing and there are more concerts than ever. As the fall season gets under way, classical music is secretly thriving. 

This article was published in the Wall Street Journal on October 3, 2008. Read online here
by Leon Botstein

In Vienna this past June, I went to a thrilling production of Richard Strauss's "Capriccio." The next morning, in a 14th-century Gothic church, I was swept away by the reverberant beauty of a performance of a rarely heard Haydn mass. Both the opera house and church were filled to maximum capacity. The depth of the sound, its material sensuality and the allure of great music that has not been overplayed lent each listener an intimate sense of the human imagination that could be shared with hundreds of anonymous companions.

Nothing can reproduce the sonic and emotional power of live performance. But looking out at the audience at most classical music concerts in the United States, one sees a crowd that is largely middle-aged, verging on the geriatric. This has set off alarms within the music community, whose members are quick to blame the loss of a younger generation of listeners for the sorry state of classical music, waning ticket sales and a record market that has all but disappeared.

Memories are deceptive. Classical music has never been the passion of the young. It is an acquired taste that requires both encouragement and education, like voting or drinking Scotch. And in fact, more young people today are playing classical instruments than ever before, according to conservatory enrollments. More surprising, the classical music world has never been healthier; since the early 1970s the growth has been robust.

The heralding of the demise of classical music is based on flimsy evidence. The number of concert venues, summer festivals, performing ensembles and overall performances in classical music and opera has increased exponentially over the last four decades. There are currently nearly 400 professional orchestras in America, according to the League of American Orchestras, while 30 years ago there were 203. There are up to 500 youth orchestras, up from 63 in 1990. The number of orchestra concerts performed annually in the U.S. has risen 24% in the past decade, to 37,000. Ticket-sale income from orchestra performances grew almost 18%, to $608 million, between the 2004-'05 and 2005-'06 seasons.

The widening of interest in classical music isn't limited to our shores. The Asian embrace of Western musical traditions took off in earnest after World War II. It first rose in Japan, then spread to Korea, and is now making its way throughout China, following the path of economic progress. The result: There are more young Asian instrumentalists and audience members for classical music than anywhere else in the world. In Venezuela, classical music training has become a powerful tool in the improvement of primary and secondary school education. When a nation backs music education, as in Finland, a new cadre of world-class young performers emerges and audiences grow accordingly. We are in the midst of a global classical musical renaissance marked by a new vitality and higher standards of virtuosity and finesse.

So why all the hand-wringing? Much of it stems from another false assumption: that classical music was once profitable, but is now failing financially. This distorted expectation is rooted in the peculiar experience of the last decades of the 19th century, after the rapid extension of literacy in Europe and America. Before recording became commercially viable in 1902, when the Columbia and Victor companies joined forces and issued discs, sales of instruments (particularly the piano), concert tickets and sheet music were thriving businesses. With the advent of recorded music -- first the player piano, then the radio, the 78 rpm record, the long-playing record and the digital CD -- novel, albeit brief, opportunities for making money followed. These circumstances do not represent the broader historical norm. Classical music never held the promise that it could enlist a mass audience. From its birth as a secular and church-based art form, classical music has depended on patronage and philanthropy, not on income from sales either at the box office or in record stores.

The euphoria about the potential of recording and the electronic transmission of music reached a fever pitch during the mid-20th century. Glenn Gould, the legendary and eccentric Canadian pianist, was the most articulate proponent of a vision of the future in which recordings would replace live performance. He believed the only way to realize classical music's full potential was in the pristine and minutely controlled recording studio. Listeners would then enjoy the recording by using high-fidelity equipment in an isolated environment.

Mr. Gould was wrong. The success of the iPod has demonstrated that while some connoisseurs find its compression annoying, most classical music lovers value freedom and mobility over high fidelity. And thanks in large part to the pioneering strategy of the Naxos label, today's public is blessed with an inexhaustible archive of recorded performances. Each unit costs less than $10 to purchase or download, less than recordings from some better-known companies. And that's before considering the file-sharing, streaming and downloading that are all at hand.

Unprecedented easy access to the recorded treasures of classical music may have put an end to the commercial viability of recorded music, but there is a silver lining: It has inspired more people to go to live concerts. Recorded music now does what all reproductions should. It inspires the desire to experience the real thing, in real time and space.

The real attraction of classical music is the power and sensuality of the live sounds. The excitement that ensues from the unpredictability and drama of live performance is comparable to watching spectator sports. Following a game on television is enjoyable, but to be cheering at the stadium or sitting courtside is incomparable.

The world of classical music still faces serious challenges. The competition for patronage and philanthropy has become increasingly intense, as the private sector is now asked to shoulder responsibility not only for the arts but also for education and many social services once the exclusive province of government. There are few cost-saving measures at hand when operas and orchestras require over 100 professionals to realize a single performance of Mahler's Third Symphony or Verdi's "Aida."

The explosive world-wide growth of popular music has created a competitive tension between classical "art" music and popular music that performers and composers in that past would not recognize. With this new chasm come smug defenders who delude themselves that allegiance to classical music is a sign of some sort of superiority. Musicians of note have rarely held this view. Consider Haydn, Liszt, Copland and Stravinsky, composers who used popular and folk material -- or Leonard Bernstein, whose music bridged both worlds, and even the 20th-century violinist Jascha Heifetz, who wrote popular songs. Until recently classical musicians and their audiences have remained eclectic and catholic in their tastes.

Classical music has always appealed to older adults who, with the passing of years, tend to contemplate the kind of daily life conundrums that are freighted with ambiguity and complexity. The average classical listener has historically hovered around middle age. This is encouraging, as there is no shortage of baby boomers on the horizon. The challenge facing classical musicians is to persuade adults to listen, even those who have no experience with classical music. It would be swell if there were public investment in music education, but since that is unlikely, musicians and arts organizations have to assume leadership.

If classical music is in trouble, it is because its advocates are behaving as though it were terminally ill. To survive and flourish we need to stop playing the same repertoire in concert and in the opera. Would we run a movie theater by screening the same dozen films ad nauseam, never showing any new releases or reviving old classics? There is so much more to be listened to in the history of music; yet judging from the repertoire that has become standard, it is as if all but two rooms in a museum were closed.

And how to explain why some orchestras are getting into financial trouble and suspending operations, as appears to be the case in Columbus, Ohio? Because crises crop up when inertia and excessive caution set in. To thrive, managements need to innovate and learn from the enthusiastic embrace of Western classical music around the world. Success will be found by adapting better to local circumstances and by looking beyond our borders. Los Angeles, Atlanta and Minneapolis are promising examples where orchestras have become more important to civic life by making their programs challenging and relevant, reaching out -- particularly to schools and colleges -- beyond the confines of a concert hall. Above all, let's abandon politically correct notions about how ethnicity and class constitute barriers to the appreciation of classical music, a universally admired dimension of high culture and the human imagination.

Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.