Why study anything? Given the contemporary whirlpool of debate that engulfs the methods of institutional education, both public and private, in America, one would think that we as a nation would already have defined collectively, albeit broadly, the purpose that such methods aim to serve. While indications of consensus are detectable and many institutions offer statements of their mission in education, a more clear articulation of our shared vision of the role of school in our lives seems lacking.
In my experience teaching economically and socially empowered high school boys over nearly the last two decades, most students and parents imply with their shared anxieties over classroom performance that the primary purpose of high school is to win admission to a “good” college. The good supplied by such a college, in turn, seems predominantly measured in direct proportion to that school’s ability to win for its alumns positions in “good jobs.” Popular opinion holds that the best jobs are those that provide the most money, that is, the means by which we afford ourselves the most options for leading the type of life that we deem worthwhile.
While this acquisition of personal freedom via capital has long been a function of education that has proven essential to the survival of Western society, the subordination of the studies themselves to the notion of successful advancement has undermined the more practical values of a liberal education that history has handed down to us.
The primary purpose of the liberal arts curriculum long-embraced by the West has been the humanizing of its adherents. Subjects like language, the arts, history, mathematics and science have proven over the course of roughly 1,500 years to be the best tools for cultivating in students those values that ensure the longevity of a society through its stability. Self-sufficiency, altruism, and an understanding of the justice that helps balance the intersection of these potentially incongruous endeavors, were the fruits of a life devoted to liberal studies. The study of language demands self-discipline at its early stages, a discipline that is ultimately rewarded with access to the practical wisdom of literature. The study of history generates humility and a sense of enduring human community. Mathematics and science foster respect both for the laws that govern us all and for the ingenuity employed by humans to determine these laws.
School considered in this light seems all but impractical; it offers young citizens the intellectual and emotional tools as well as the time to begin to discover for themselves their role in society. The presupposition that school is just another rung on the ladder to financial success perverts this process of discovery. School ought to be the time for a student to discover for himself what constitutes success, that is, what manner of living best benefits the individual and the community in which he lives. Graduates of “good” colleges with “good” jobs seem to me often ultimately dissatisfied with their lives since they have spent their school years fixated on a particular life course instead of contemplating through their studies what that course ought to be.
Music has long been counted among those subjects most effective for humanizing students. Both Plato and Aristotle advocate for the Pythagorean belief in the indelible effects of music on the souls of its devotees. Ignatius of Loyola trusted language and music as the tools fundamental for instilling in Jesuit novitiates the disciplined thought and imagination necessary for tackling the rigors of theology and thereby living a life of service to others. For Bach, music was the pinnacle of human aspiration, an art where emotion is most faithfully expressed through the rigors of reason.
Throughout my own life I’ve experienced the transformative power of music. Soon after a guitar’s chord first lured me, my eagerness to learn the next set the hook. I worked hard on the rudiments because they improved my playing, and playing was all I wanted to do. Listening, nearly as exciting to me as playing, became an evolving experience of discovery that has exposed me to times, places, cultures, and aesthetics alien to my suburban American upbringing. As I improved I won the self-confidence to play with others, and here I learned about community and the compromise necessary to create with a group. In teaching tunes to band mates I learned the importance of giving of myself to achieve a shared goal. As I began performing publicly, my need to improvise with comfort pushed me to explore myself and learn to embrace and develop the phrases that seemed to appear in my mind. While self-contentedness seemed a requirement on the bandstand, egotism proved corrosive. I must trust a player to support me when I solo, but I in turn must support him in his own solo. Though these are surely substantial lessons, music’s greatest gift seems to me the boundless world it offers for exploration. I’m as eager to play today as I was when I began nearly 30 years ago because I’m on the frontier of my own journey, a constant search for a more polished manner of self-expression.
So, why study music? The value recurrent in my own musical experiences listed above seems to be that of balance, both within oneself and in one’s interaction with others. Practice is work, and, like all work, runs the risk of becoming obsessive and misdirected, a goal in its own right. Music, though, by virtue of its inherent attraction to humans, rewards our efforts with such regularity that it invites more practice. Music allows for a healthful balance of toil and pleasure: we work to play better because the act of playing pleases us. By playing music in group formats, we must balance our own voice with others in order to create the music most pleasing to the band. Musical performance is in this manner an exercise in community, where individuals give and take for a creation that transcends the group. I propose that a life spent cultivating a skill that generates self-confidence tempered by an understanding of one’s role within a community will likely be one of contentedness. The study of music provides the opportunity to attain such happiness.
Professional Jazz Musician and Guitar Instructor
Teacher of Latin, Greek, and Music