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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Friday, November 29, 2013

On general education and the liberal arts

*originally published on my website, at popesax.com*

This letter is in response to an opinion column in the JMU student newspaper entitled,
“General Education Classes Waste Time and Effort”

October 28, 2013

Dear Ms. Williams:

After reading your recent column in The Breeze, I am strongly compelled to offer a response to your thoughts regarding the value of JMU’s curriculum in general education.  While I disagree with your assertions, I should start by expressing an understanding of where you are coming from.  I attended a large, comprehensive university, similar to JMU.  I remember not being thrilled about my GenEd requirements.  Many of the classes were frustrating and some of them felt pointless at the time.  Many years later, I can honestly say that I am deeply grateful for my strong background in general education.  Some of those classes had an unexpected impact on my life.  I owe much of who I have become to a broad education in the liberal arts.

You make some assertions that I find surprising.  For example, you use "cashier" as a sample career because it is supposedly the second most common job in the United States.  Is this the second most common career for someone with a bachelor’s degree from a comprehensive university?  Is that what you are training for?  I doubt that anyone has come to JMU, or any similar institution for that matter, to prepare for a future as a cashier.  Furthermore, to say that there is no point in training to be a Renaissance man (or woman) is a failure to grasp what a university is.  You write that "College is supposed to be a place where students can study what they want to."  That is simply not true.  University is not summer camp.  You could study "what you want" by taking private lessons from a teacher, or attending a trade school.  The very word university infers "whole," as in universal or universe.  If you want to simply study whatever you want, and to work on your resume, you have come to the wrong place.  Our country was founded by Renaissance men like Thomas Jefferson and yes, our beloved James Madison.  You accuse JMU of aiming too high, but I fear that you are setting the bar far too low.

My required studies in math and science were sometimes tedious, and certainly not a priority while I was primarily studying music, but I have come to use math and physics to better understand the way that my saxophone works, and the way that sound travels.  My students will surely tell you that this has made me a more effective teacher.  Furthermore, I have used algebra to calculate the proper capacitor values for loudspeaker crossovers, and geometry to know if my piano will fit around the corner in the hallway. (It won’t, which is nice to know without breaking my back and getting the piano stuck in the door.  Hooray, math!)  I even use numbers, and good old Pythagoras, to explain to my students how to play in-tune.

I was recently reminded of the richness of my liberal arts training while preparing for a concert at JMU, given through a conference of the Africana Studies program.  The presentation was called “Freedom in the Air,” and it combined images relating to the civil rights movement with jazz improvisation.  As I was mentally preparing, I remembered a short story that I had read in my creative writing class as an undergraduate.  I pulled my old anthology down from the bookshelf and found what I was looking for: “Going to Meet the Man,” by James Baldwin.  This is a devastatingly brutal story about a racist sheriff, and a gruesome depiction of a lynching.  As a young musician, I had no interest in reading something like this, and I was basically annoyed that my creative writing course required so much reading.  Reading that story changed me.  Reading it again, as an adult with twenty additional years of life experiences under my belt, I was glad that I have been carting that book around for twenty years.  It is important to me, and it has shaped my thoughts about music, race, and the power of great writing.  It added to the emotional power of my musical performance that evening, and I want to emphasize that I would have never read that story if I had not been required to do so.  I wouldn’t even know who James Baldwin is, or why I should care.  It’s only a few pages long, but it shaped who I am.  It was not a waste of time, effort, or money.  It was a part of my liberal arts education.  It was the best money that I have ever spent.  Ever.

I am sorry that you have such a negative feeling about your GenEd requirements, but I assure you that not all of your peers agree with you.  I read your column aloud to a group of my students, and they recoiled in horror.  They quickly started to talk about all the GenEd classes that they have valued, and the ones that they look forward to taking.  They named GenEd professors that they admire, and subjects that have struck up new interests for them.  I have wonderful students, but they are not unusual, at least not in my experience.  They are hungry for knowledge, eager to be pointed in new directions, and grateful for the opportunity to be at a place like JMU.  They don’t expect to love every single class, but they see value in the curriculum overall.

You write about JMU’s mission to create “productive citizens,” but that isn’t quite correct.  We are not aiming to make “worker bees.”  We are preparing students to be educated and enlightened citizens who live productive and meaningful lives.  That mission statement gives my career purpose, and frankly, it gives me goose bumps.  I am a benefactor of such an education, and I live a life that is rich with meaning.  Yes, I am valued by my university for my somewhat deep and narrow expertise, but my performance skills would be empty if I didn’t have something to say – something worth saying.  I owe the depth of my intellect to a comprehensive education in the liberal arts.  I didn’t fully appreciate the totality of my education when I was a young man.  Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.  In fact, I am grateful to find myself teaching at a public, comprehensive university, completing the poetic circuit that I began so many years ago.  I strive to be a model for my students, and to demonstrate what it means to be an educated and enlightened citizen who leads a productive and meaningful life.  I hope that you will reconsider your thoughts about your GenEd requirements.  If you happen to find yourself stuck in a narrow hallway with a sofa that you never should have tried to get around that corner, I hope that you will remember Pythagoras, James Madison, and me.  I wish you a productive and meaningful life.


David Pope
Professor of Saxophone (and aspiring Renaissance man)
James Madison University

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