I’m guessing that a lot of you have already seen these little North Korean kids, who are about half the size of their guitars, play better than most adults and have these smiles on their faces that are there either because they genuinely love what they are doing or because teacher is backstage with a ruler, ready to whack them if they don’t both perform and look like they’re having fun. And this is the fascination, I think, of these videos – the fact that they’re from North Korea makes us suspect the worst, while the kids are undeniably talented and seem to be having a really good time. We can’t fully enjoy watching these kids, because in the back of our minds we’re wondering if they’re being forced to practice for 14 hours a day, like some Soviet-bloc athlete.
I studied and lived in the Soviet Union back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I have no illusions about communist states. But I always found it fascinating that where they seemed to get everything else wrong, communist countries generally did a great job in education, access to health care (and I stress ‘access,’ given the quality of some of that care) and the arts. I know that that’s a loaded statement, since many think that education in communist countries was/is more along the lines of indoctrination (and some of it was and is), but by and large I found the average Soviet citizen was better read and had a better grasp of science and math than most American college kids (myself included), and that was as true of cab drivers as it was of intellectuals. As someone who still sees the US as a model in many ways it’s always upset me that we don’t guarantee a better education to everyone. (Though I’ll readily agree that our Universities do a better job of encouraging academic curiosity and the open debate of ideas).
And then we come to the arts. Where Western countries (and stage parents) seem great at identifying innate talent and supporting that, a lot of the communist countries seem to have done a better job at encouraging everyone to appreciate or take part in the arts in some way, and the result was a more culturally literate population and a lot of kids, like the ones in the videos, who started at a really early age.
Now if the Soviet Union was a not-fun place to grow up, my sense from everything I’ve read is that it was a paradise compared to Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, so it’s hard to look at these kids and not imagine the worst (like that they are forced to practice for 14 hours a day to prove the superiority of the communist state). But they’re really young kids, and I can’t help seeing some genuine love of what they’re doing in their faces. And while I’m not going to give the North Koreans any kudos for teaching their kids to play the guitar while starving their people, I do see a tiny rebuke in their performance – maybe our kids could be doing this, too, if we prioritized arts education, or just plain education.
That said, I’d rather have the Matt Hinsleys of the world teach our kids. Matt’s totally not totalitarian. We just need to get more money into programs like his so we can win the next child-guitar Olympics.
p.s. My apologies for the preachiness – For some reason I just couldn’t help it.
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