The importance of music in a liberal education

Vincentian Voice

Father Patrick J. Griffin CM, Special to the Torch

In an election year, we hear some words thrown carelessly about.  The word “liberal” can be used as the opposite of “conservative.” That is not the meaning of a “liberal education” or a “liberal arts college” at St. John’s. 

The intent contrasts a liberal education with one that emphasizes technical/vocational teaching and professional skills. Sometimes, one can find the liberal arts courses positioned as distinct from, but not opposed to, those found in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. 

Of course, science and math also find a place in the Liberal Arts’ curriculum.

Clearly, one needs to get a good education in one’s chosen field and the specialized courses, which contribute to that education, are worthwhile. But, I want to make an argument for other kinds of choices leading to a “liberal education.” 

I am not going to speak about theology or philosophy, though I think that they are very important for well-rounded growth. I am not going to take up the importance of languages, though I would insist that one cannot truly appreciate another culture without knowing something of its language. Finally, I am not going to discuss art or literature, though I am a fan of both. No, I am going to offer some thoughts on music in a liberal education.

In college, I had one course in music appreciation and one in art. Perhaps, I have had two in literature. Like many of you, I can say that I may not be able to explain different kinds of music or a particular style of art, but I know what I like. I find that courses in the arts are not so much to teach me that my tastes should be broader, but to help me to understand something of the artistry in another type of composition. 

At least, that is the effect it has on me and the contribution to my “liberal” education.When I took my one course in music appreciation, it was the most general one available. 

 It ran from classical music to the Beatles, with stops along the way for country and jazz. I had little appreciation for classical music, but I did not reject it. In the course, I was guided to a particular way to listen to a piece to hear movements and instruments. It enabled me to be more understanding of the effort and intent involved.

 I am still not a great classical music fan, but I am more than willing to go to a concert because I love to watch people play. Recently, I went to a harpsichord concert of Bach and modern music, no kidding. It was a pleasure just to watch the person play. I did not rush out to buy the album, but I enjoyed the experience. I will never be converted to opera, but it cannot be said that I have never been to one.