You can learn a lot about a person by asking them the following question: If you had to choose to give up your sight or your hearing, which would you pick?
In my case, the answer is always hearing. With the alternative, sight, I fear I’d lose so many of my favorite things: seeing new places during travel, the exhilarating feeling of looking at a mountain seconds before flying down it on skis. Skiing, for that matter—I doubt I’d be able to do that blind.
Yes, it’s a silly game without a right answer. But it does shed light on your priorities.
The most common retort to my response to this either/or dilemma is this: “But what about music?”
I like music. There are musicians I love, in fact. But I am in no way musically inclined.
My mother gave it her best shot. Piano? I refused to practice and banged my head on the keys. Violin? I got so frustrated that I threw the instrument against the wall. (Yes. I was THAT child. Sorry, Mom.)
I think my mother was relieved when I finally picked up a pen and developed some other form of artistic talent.
In that vein, I wasn’t looking forward to Music Humanities. No, there isn’t any actual music-playing in the class. But you have to understand at least the basic concepts like meter, rhythm, and pitch.
Initially, my fears weren’t far from reality. I could understand what the professor was saying and the words’ significance, but I couldn’t conceptually translate them to the music. But a few weeks of frustration later, something changed. For some strange, unexplainable reason, I started hearing the abstract concepts I’d been struggling with. And I started hearing them everywhere: in the repetitive sequences in pop music, in the tone color in different artists’ voices. Even when students used “polyphony” as a descriptive term in literature seminars.
I’m not suggesting that I’m now any kind of expert, or that these revelations are at all novel to the general public. If you asked me right now, I’d probably still be unable to recognize any Beethoven aside from the opening notes of his 5th Symphony. All I’m saying is that before this semester, I knew nothing—and didn’t have any inclination to learn about it either. The experience of taking Music Hum has been the most pure form of learning I’ve had in college: I literally walk into the classroom as a novice, and leave pondering ideas I’d never known to exist.
In nearly every other class, it would be impossible to experience such a clean slate. As it should be: At any college, a student specializes, devoting most of their time academically to one field or one historical period.
But it’s moments like these that make me reflect on the so-called rigidity of the Core Curriculum. Because for all you hear of the breadth of a liberal arts education, were it not for the Core I certainly wouldn’t ever have taken a music class. And I doubt I’m alone in that. Higher education is about finding your niche academically, distanced from the mandatory general studies of high school. But it should also require the uncomfortable, frustrating experience of learning without context.
I’m not convinced that the broader requirements of the majority of liberal arts schools accomplish that. It’s relatively easy to cheat a distribution requirement by choosing to fill it with subjects that you’re already familiar with.
In his book “College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be,” Andrew Delbanco describes the ideological struggle between Princeton president James McCosh and Harvard president Charles Eliot in the late 1800s. McCosh defended the study of classics and, in his words, the “Trinity of Studies”: language and literature, physical science, and philosophy. Eliot had the more modern view: “A well-instructed youth of eighteen can select for himself a better course of study than any college faculty.”
Eliot’s model is what you’d find at most liberal arts schools. If there are any distribution requirements, they leave students a laundry list of options to chose from. Indeed, fellow Ivy Brown University’s “open curriculum” is the epitome of Eliot’s plan. In the words of Brown’s former president Francis Wayland, a student should be able to “study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose.”
In that respect, Columbia is a relatively old-fashioned institution: A set of professors and administrators has decided that there are certain important things that we should learn.
But it’s worth questioning whether total academic freedom should be the norm in an undergraduate education. Because despite Eliot’s assertion, I’m skeptical that any incoming student knows what to get out of college.
As difficult and stress-inducing as unfamiliar topics can be, facing your own ignorance is essential to becoming the informed citizen a liberal arts education purportedly strives to create.
Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life’s a Mitch runs alternate Tuesdays.
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