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Taking a Step Back: The Value of Liberal Arts

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I didn’t apply to Juilliard because of its liberal arts training. I think it’s safe to say that nobody does: It is artistic talent and merit that garner acceptance into Juilliard, not intellectual pursuits. So when I entered, I expected my required liberal arts courses to be, as they are at some conservatories, bureaucratic formalities with instructional quality high enough to gain the School accreditation, and no higher—I didn’t expect them to be any more informative or stimulating than my favorite classes in high school. I assumed that the Juilliard community would place little value on affairs that were seemingly less directly related to the performing arts.

Zach Green

Zachary Green

(Photo by Harrison Linsey)

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However, when I returned home after my first semester and was asked what I learned, I found myself enthusiastically rambling on about my liberal arts core courses—the philosophers we read (Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Marx), the religions we examined (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism), the plays and novels we analyzed (Frankenstein, King Lear, Galileo), and the engaging discussions we had. I would walk around relating things I saw to the new ideas to which I had been exposed, and in doing so I realized that these courses were more than just my favorite courses—as cheesy as it sounds, they had a direct impact on the way I saw the world. While meeting friends for coffee, I found myself silently classifying our friendship in Aristotelian terms. Other times, I would analyze my actions according to Kant’s categorical imperative and question whether I would wish for my actions to become universal laws. 

I began to wonder why the seemingly least important classes turned out to be the most meaningful. What accounted for their quality? How important were they in relation to my intended field of study (composition)? And how did Juilliard come to develop the program into what it is today? 

For answers, I turned to Jo Sarzotti, interim director of Juilliard’s Liberal Arts department and a faculty member since 1981. When she started teaching at Juilliard, the department was very different, she told me. For instance, there were no attendance requirements for what were then called “academic” courses—there might be 10 students enrolled, but only three who would show up with any regularity. That all changed when President Joseph Polisi took office in 1984—the evolution of the department to its current state is a direct consequence of his advocacy. In the intervening years, the Liberal Arts department developed a four-semester core curriculum for all students modeled on core courses at universities like Columbia, improved its resources for teaching English as a second language, and created the Writing and Communication Center to provide free tutoring, extra academic support, and extra classes that assist students in acquiring the skills necessary to function in standard university-level courses. Today, it’s a department where, as Sarzotti put it, “attendance is taken seriously, where students try, and where they feel they have to do the work.” These would seem the most basic of prerequisites for any productive learning environment, but in the conservatory setting, they are conditions that cannot necessarily be taken for granted.

Just as important to the quality of a department is the strength of its faculty. Among the fields represented here are poetry, art history, philosophy, and gender studies, taught by faculty members who have previously taught M.I.T., N.Y.U., Boston University, SUNY-Stony Brook, and elsewhere. 

So what keeps these teachers at Juilliard? Sarzotti admits that there are downsides—for instance, that a Juilliard liberal arts professor gives up the opportunity to teach students who are majoring in his or her area of expertise (in her case English literature—she has a Ph.D. in it from Columbia). The upside is that unlike more traditional academic departments, with their emphasis on publishing and other non-teaching responsibilities, the faculty has more freedom to focus on teaching. 

That freedom extends to the curriculum of Liberal Arts core courses. While there are some texts that are taught by all teachers, a large portion of the texts in a given classroom are selected by each individual professor according to his or her fancy, within a set of guidelines. In other words, the faculty members teach what they most want to teach. This is even truer in elective courses, which are designed and taught by professors according to their areas of expertise—this year’s topics included Norse mythology, metaphysics, and Vincent van Gogh. 

Meeting with Sarzotti took care of most of my curiosity, but there was one question that only I could answer: why did these classes have such a direct impact on me when they were least important to my field of study? After all, you don’t gain technical skills from a broader liberal arts base—Shakespeare can’t teach you to bow your violin better, and Nietzsche tells me nothing about how to craft good counterpoint. But while it is true that the liberal arts curriculum will never teach us the “how” of art or the details of attaining technical mastery, I have come to believe that it teaches us something far more important, which is the relevance of our art and ourselves as artists in the world—that is, the “why” of art.

In a conservatory, most classes function like a magnifying glass for one’s art—they further narrow our focus to a single area of expertise and enhance our awareness of the most subtle details of our craft. The desire for this type of meticulous and detailed training is what attracted us to Juilliard in the first place. But using a magnifying glass on a great piece of art is silly and pedantic if you don’t occasionally put the glass down, take a step back, and take a look at the entire picture. And that’s what liberal arts classes do—they open your eyes to the world at large so that you may understand it, be inspired by it, and ultimately, discover your place within it.

 

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