Whatever Happend To Liberal Arts? or... Why Do We Pressure Kids To Specialize So Early?

A guest article by Keith Walker, Band Director at Zeeland High School

So this is the beginning of my favorite time of the year - class sign-ups for next school year have begun.  That special time when the eighth graders get indoctrinated by the powers that be, by their folks, and by society, that NOW is the time to decide on what you are going to do the rest of your life, which college will prepare you the best for that, and what you need to take in high school to achieve those goals.  Then my colleagues and I spend the next several weeks telling them the things we believe, and the poor dears get all confused...


But a couple weeks ago we focused my HS Band class discussion more pointedly: how much does what you do in high school actually prepare you for your career?  See, the question came about because one of the best players and coolest kids in the band, currently a junior, is contemplating not being able to take band next year.  Law school is in his future at this point, and there are a couple classes that he feels would better prepare him for this.  And there is really nothing at all wrong with him thinking that; I once wanted to be a lawyer, as most of my students know from my ranting about not owning a BMW by now.  But here were my thoughts on the matter, in no particular order:


1.  I know far too many people who are not doing anything close to what they thought they would be doing when they were in high school.  One of the best and brightest stars of the ZHS Performing Arts Dept. in the late 90's is now an attorney at Varnum in GR.  That big glass building that you see as you approach downtown from Holland.  He was in Madrigals, on stage as an actor, and played French horn in Symphonic Band and Tenor Sax in Jazz Band.  Named to the MYAF Jazz Band as Lead Tenor his senior year.  Went to WMU as...  A JAZZ STUDIES MAJOR.  Hardly a pre-law track.  And certainly nothing in high school prepared him for his career.  Or did it?  More on that later.


2.  Another amazing musician received a music scholarship to Hope College, where her undergrad studies were pre-med.  She is now a doctor in Cincinnati.  Talks to me frequently about how her med school interviewer talked an awful lot about BAND and MUSIC in her interview.  Not her grades; not her aspirations for medicine.  Her CLARINET.  Even today she gets introduced to folks and they are told about her musical talents.


3.  Student #3?  About to graduate from Purdue this spring with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering.  Literally Rocket Science.  From Purdue, the same place that gave us Neil Armstrong (who, incidentally was a baritone player in the Purdue band).  This kid spent a year in the Purdue marching band and ALL FOUR years in jazz band.  As a non-major.  Which he had to be - you can't major in music at Purdue, yet there are over 1,000 students in the music programs.  How does that work?


4.  Last school year I was so amazingly proud to see TEN former students on the field at the Big House when WMU played Michigan.  TEN kids between the two marching bands.  Music majors?  Two.  How on Earth will being in marching band at college help you with your major?


And there sits the big question: what exactly is band worth?  I once thought it was a good idea to tell folks how it will help them in Math or English.  Of course, so will taking more Math or English classes.  Or that it was good teamwork experience.  But since there were tons of athletic teams, that bill could be filled elsewhere, too.  Higher test scores?  Study more.  (Or the Mozart Effect was flawed research; take your pick.)


So here's the thing: high school, and especially experiences like band, prepares you for LIFE.  Band specifically gives you experiences you can't get anywhere else.  My Symphonic Band is playing Bach's "Fantasia in G Major" for the concert coming up next month.  And they are geeked.  They love this piece.  ("American Overture" they're still not sure about, but that is for another rant.)  You can't get a Bach experience anywhere else.  Performing that music gives you something unreachable in virtually all other areas of life, far more than reading about it or listening to someone else play it.


 But we don't worry about that any more.  Nope, now it is all about academics, getting into a good college, and being what you are going to be the rest of your life.  And why?  Competition.  We have to be BETTER than everyone.  Always.  Japan outscores us on everything.  Answer?  More math and science.  We need to raise test scores to prove that Michigan is a great state to live in.  Answer?  More testing, and more four-year requirements.


I called Notre Dame last fall.  Asked about a hypothetical kid that maybe didn't have the three years of language required for entry into that fine institution, but had four years of band.  I was told that although no one gets rejected out-of-hand, it was quite likely that the kid with the language classes would beat out the band geek in a dead heat for the last position in the incoming class kind of thing.  Kind of hurt to hear that, truth be told.  


Even the Michigan legislature, in all of its infinite wisdom, only requires one year of Visual, Performing, or Applied Arts.  And you can get out of that by adding another year of virtually ANY of the other required classes, i.e. taking a fifth year of science, or adding a foreign language.


 And why, really, do we think that turning out kids with more math, science, etc. will prepare them any better for their careers?  Preparing them for careers is not my job.  Preparing them for LIFE is.  How to use their critical thinking skills.  How to work together for a common goal.  How to appreciate the sublime beauty of a passage of Bach, or, for that matter, a passage of Dylan Thomas.  To get them to appreciate art for art's sake, as in, "wow, is THAT a cool painting.  That makes me feel..." and they fill in the blank based on their life experiences.


We had a faculty meeting a few years ago in which a certain student was mentioned.  This young man is now married and a graduate of U of M in Engineering of some kind.  We were discussing the fact that this guy should "be able to go to Gentex and shadow an engineer, or go to Herman Miller and see their R & D folks in action" or other similar things that would "help" him become an engineer.  I said, "no way.  He'll be an engineer the rest of his life.  Right now he needs to have PE, Band, a social studies class, or whatever, so he can do things like carry on a conversation or enjoy the things that make him healthy or just be able to be a member of society."  (He was a four-year band kid, by the way.)


So am I biased?  Absolutely.  But with good reason.  I hear from folks so often about the great experiences that they have had on the marching field, or that they are now playing a piece in college that they heard or played while in high school, or just that band or similar classes/activities meant so much to their lives.  Facebook has not only afforded me the opportunity to semi-publicly rant on this topic but also to re-connect with former students from my earliest days of teaching.  And more than one of these folks has told me that they were so glad to have the experience that band gave them that they wouldn't trade it for anything.  At least two former students are lawyers.  Several engineers.  A doctor.  Many teachers.  A submariner (graduate of the Naval Academy).  Moms.  Dads.  A mechanic/service station owner.  A pharmacist.  Another who will be a coroner some day.  An orthodontist in the making.  And NONE of those careers were helped by taking band.  But I firmly believe that ALL of their lives were.  Or I wouldn't be doing this.


5 responses
Undergraduate music majors have the highest admission rate (66%) of any other undergraduate major to medical school.

You know the Japanese girls band we were all captivated by at Midwest? This thinking is an outgrowth of that philosophy. To be good at something, you need to hit 10,000 hours. To hit 10,000 hours, you need to focus on one thing.

So, it looks and sounds great when it makes a great band. Feels different when it is something else...........

WE all place to high of time demands on students in high school. Why is it that kids get to college and remark how much easier it is? Because they don't have to spend 8 hours a day facing 8 segments of unconnected learning, three hours of after school activity, 4 hours of homework, go to bed by 10 PM. Up at 6 AM for early bird class. How is that fun?

Glenn you should start a blog.
Really, no REALLY enjoyed this article. I am sending this to our high school directors to read, as well as my middle school band parents. Thank you.
I am SO with you on this, Brian! As a music teacher and the mom of a band geek, I see the pressures of "engineering" education here in the Houston area and this is the path that is required. There is an excellent band program down here, however, and the kids in the bands are dedicated, well-rounded, and connected kids. But, because they are required to keep up with the "extra" academic requirements to be competitive for college, there is a lot more on their plate. But, they stick it out because they love it, and we KNOW that it will benefit them into their lives long after they have found their "career" -- whatever that may be!

T.K. Goforth

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