The Not-So-Liberal Arts, Part 3

The Not-So-Liberal Arts, Part 3:
Touring Colleges: College 1, the Hyper-Conservative Christian School
Stephen Brown

Touring Colleges, Part 1 Summary/Guide

  • If a school is within a half hour of your house and you’ve never heard of it, there is probably a reason.
  • Tour ALL prospective schools (a virtual tour does not count) so you have first-hand knowledge to back up your decisions.
  • If you tour a private school, ask about their policies and beliefs.  They’ll vary greatly from one campus to the next, but if there is going to be any conflict of beliefs or your personal comfort, it isn’t worth it.
  • Grab a handbook (hopefully they’ll be happy to give you one at Admissions) so you can see for yourself what is expected, required, or prohibited and compare this with other prospective schools.
  • If your school does not have an actual music building, that’s generally a bad sign.  A glorified shed and an old church that has had no structural changes to reflect its current use do not a music department make.  There is either no budget or no interest to provide basic musicians’ needs.  If the school doesn’t take music seriously, no one will take your music degree from said school seriously.
  • If a department won’t put adequate effort into you, don’t put any effort into it.  There’s a big difference between a lack of expensive bells and whistles and a lack of the basic needs of a current musician.  Some schools can improve your musicianship, but not in a way that is practical and marketable for a job post-school.  Remember, you aren’t in college to be a great student musician; you’re there to be a great career musician.  Some of those needs to prepare you for a career in music include:
    • Readily available practice rooms with fully functioning, in-tune pianos for theory and technique building, as well as vocal and instrumental practice
    • Up-to-date computers in a music major/minor-only lab (shared labs prohibit the creativity, access, hardware, software, proximity to instructors, and security of your intellectual property that you deserve).  These should have the following:
      • Access at least from early morning to late evening with card swipe (my first school had phenomenal 24/7 access to the Music Department, but lacked its own computer lab).
      • Professional music composition software (such as Finale) for your classwork and personal composing needs
      • Adequate desk and personal space for laying out books, etc.
      • Quality headphones in each PC/Mac and (ideally) a connected MIDI keyboard for music input and playing capabilities

In this third part of my series, I’ll take you through the trials and triumphs of taking a look at those colleges you’ve selected after streamlining your list based on location, cost, and opportunities.  My quest for the right college took me to places in Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa and was at times hysterical, at times depressing, at times intimidating, and at times brimming with the thrill of potential.  It is my hope that any reader can take this very personal account of a post-millennial college search and generalize it so he/she may have help in his/her own quest.

The first college I toured was barely a blip on the radar (it is only 30 minutes from my home but I didn’t even know it existed until our college fair).  After my tour, I realized why.  YC, as we’ll politely call it, forever instilled in me the vital necessity of physically touring the college and living a day in the life of a student before deciding it’s the school for you.  After all, brochures and websites are designed to entice you; they’re advertisements paid for by the school.  It’s only in experiencing the college for what it really is that you can get a feel for how you’ll fare there.

YC is a private Christian college in a town of about 8,000, which seemed nice, as it was close to home but 2,500 people larger with a few more eating, entertainment, and shopping opportunities.  The idea of a small-town environment was comfortable and the smaller campus was ideal for my preferences and for accessibility (there’s a lot to be said for the convenience and non-existent transportation expenses of a small campus).  Sometimes, however, smaller means smaller and that can spell limitations, or RUN, GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN!, depending on viewpoint.

“Smaller” in this case means under 500 students, which in and of itself reminded me of high school (not a good start).  In fact, part of the campus used to be the public school not terribly long ago and has that unmistakable terror factor that all middle and high schools seem to evoke.  “Christian” in this case means “affiliated with the churches of Christ”.  Thank you, Captain Obvious.  Unless I’m mistaken, all Christian colleges, whether Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, or other, are affiliated with churches of Christ (hence the “Christian” part).  What they mean exactly I still don’t know, as my tour guides (including the admissions counselor) seemed unsure or unwilling to state themselves.  What I can tell you is that it is not affiliated with one of the aforementioned major Christian denominations and in part it means worship is mandatory.  I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in…….Yes, worship is a daily requirement of YC.  As a devout Christian, I feel that worship comes from a desire within to send out praise, not something from forces without, pushing their way in.  Mandatory worship seemed oxymoronic at best and plain old moronic at worst.  Or cult-like at worst.  Or theocratic dictatorship at worst.  Anyway, I gave my Mom (fellow tour buddy) a “Say what, come again?” look and saw an equal “Heck no, I won’t go” look in her eyes as we entered the chapel of this “Liberal Arts” college.

As you’d expect on a Liberal Arts campus, the chapel’s lobby had manned checkpoints.  Oh, you wouldn’t expect that?  Neither did I.  As it turns out, when YC says mandatory, it means it.  It freaked me out so much, if I’d had my essential Exorcist kit on hand, I’d have laced a rosary around my neck, tossed holy water, and backed out ASAP with crucifix at arm’s length, just in case.

That morning like every morning, students filed into the chapel with IDs in hand, ready to swipe in to prove their attendance (and just to be sure they were really there, the scanners are manned, so no giving your ID to your roomie to get credit for attendance).  My tour guide informed me that failure to attend a certain amount of “Chapels” resulted in various consequences, depending on the amounts and reasonings, with the worst being suspension or expulsion.  Yeah…

She went on to say that this was “YC’s way of getting everyone on the same page by starting the day with prayer and getting all daily announcements”.  I guess Blackboard, WebCT, Outlook, campus email, Facebook, et al weren’t practical enough.  This was news you needed to hear with your own ears, ‘cause no one would believe the 1:10 Biology class had been cancelled for the day otherwise.  In the same speech she told me that the school could follow up with absent students to see if they were well and even contact parents if students were sick or unresponsive to phone calls.  I am of the opinion that if I am sick, it is my prerogative to inform my parents if I so choose and not in any way a college’s place to check in on me more often than aforementioned actual parents.  Yet, through sense of duty to see things through and lack of perspective on college life, I continued with the tour.

Things only got worse when I entered one of the guys’ dorms.  Despite it being broad daylight, the guide announced “FEMALES ON THE FLOOR!” as she led us down the hall.  I wasn’t sure what threat my mom and the guide posed, but apparently a warning was in order.  The rooms were glorified closets with little more than standing room leftover after the floor space was claimed for two parallel beds with a third, lofted bed just above them perpendicularly.  Three guys in what appeared to be an 8×8’ cell, practically sleeping on each other with no room left for so much as a chair?  Count me out.  The room was so cramped that, in hearing that I played trombone, one of the residents proceeded to get his trombone down from the only available spot; an overhead cubby—awesome—ceiling storage!  Practical and convenient.  Let me just find my step ladder…

While students were free to come and go as they pleased throughout the day, at some point in the evening (8 PM?) a student employee required you to check in and out (so YC would know your whereabouts and if you were safe, of course—totally normal).  (This led me to ask the embarrassing question “Do we have to check out if we want to leave the dorm?” to the RHD of the school I ended up attending—in front of the entire male population of the Freshman class—making me look like a sheltered loser.)  It was during the explanation of this policy that I was informed of the need for the announcement regarding females.  At YC, the opposite sex is prohibited from entering dorms, with the exception of the front lounges, AT ALL TIMES.  Not just “after hours”, but 24/7/365.  No girls in my room?  Ever?  I think that was the point when I scratched YC off my list permanently.

Finally it was time to see what I really went there for: the music department.  Turns out that consists of a metal Quonset building and a repurposed old church.  Jackpot!  The campus tour had included the brand new and very nice student union, along with some renovations and what I recall to be newer housing, so the glaring omission of an actual music building was quite telling (not only of the school, as it turned out, but Arts budgeting in general in America).  At the time I was an optimistic, hope-filled romantic and saw potential.  Unfortunately, you literally cannot afford potential.  I came to find, many times over, how my optimism would be to my detriment.  It is the onus of the college, not its students, to turn potential into reality.  Your time, talents, money, and future can be wasted on unrealistic expectations from an inadequate program.

The choir director/department chair (who I believe was half of the music faculty) was clearly passionate about music and was, perhaps unlike his school, a realist.  His concern was readily apparent and I could tell he took interest in my plans, apprehensions, and confusion regarding my place in the music world.  Was I a composer?  A teacher?  A traveling singer/songwriter?  A combination?  To his credit, he gave some good advice and a business card so I could contact him until I’d made my decisions.  Also to his credit, I recall the choir (which rehearsed in the old church) being quite good, though small.  Students were attentive and invested, which can’t be overestimated.  Your fellow students should inspire and challenge you to be a better musician.  I’d rather find a passionate, personally challenging environment to hone my skills than a technically proficient, but spiritless one any day.

Back in the Quonset building, I attended my first Music Theory class, also led by the choir director.  The room was a bedroom-sized section of the building which luckily had carpet and a window to diminish the farm implement feeling and one large table for students (and the teacher) to sit at (opposed to separate desks or lecture-style setup).  There was a marker board, but little else and it was more like a morning discussion over coffee in someone’s dining room than a class, which in a way was informal and relaxing, but a little too informal in at the same time.  The room size was matched by its class size: two students.  I was informed that the class was usually larger—one student was out ill.  I’d had small classes, but this was nuts.

In the end, proximity to home, a smaller campus, friendly professors and students, and some of the other benefits were far outweighed by the many shortcomings and it was pretty clear even on the ride home that day that I’d need to look for something larger, more supportive of the Arts, and with considerably less of a chaperoned, Big Brother mentality.  It was time to plan my tour with a state university.

Previous and upcoming articles in the series for more about Liberal Arts education.

The Not-So-Liberal Arts, Part 2

The Not-So-Liberal Arts, Part 1

Tune Core Music Distribution of Your Own Music