Parties at Julliard are undeniably awesome for guys. With an average partying demographic in which maybe 80 percent of people are girls, 60 percent of guys are gay, and a major proportion of all attendants have exhausted their school’s potential mates, the chances of any guy “getting lucky” that night are quite high. (Equally high is the chance that any person turns out to be some international touring soloist).
More than that, though, Juilliard parties are awesome because the students are extremely special. Almost everyone I’ve met there has an incredibly mature awareness of the space they occupy, both mentally and physically. Unlike what you’d expect from ones so deep into their art, I’ve found little dogma in most of them and, in fact, wind up mostly talking about science or philosophy.
Here’s why I think this is. In the music world, there’s a fairly clear and binary measure of failure. So success means a different thing: It means survival. In order to reach a level of musicianship necessary for success, students have to approach art from a very analytical angle. There is nothing in Juilliard’s curriculum that lets the student doubt that it’s ultimately sweat—and lots of it—that will carry them forward. Thus, six or seven hours are spent a day in the practice room concentrating on effectiveness and efficiency of technique. And this, as a result, imparts a meditative maturity to everything they do.
In general, the theme is fairly similar with work in the hard sciences. Most of Duke’s hard science majors have lower GPAs than their counterparts; success and failure are easily quantifiable. I’ve often heard the “Oh I could never do math, I’m not smart enough.” Never have I heard the corresponding cop-out: “Yeah, I had to do chemistry. Couldn’t wrap my head around gender studies.”
And so the feminine theorists reading this will perk up in agitation. “Yeah, some of our ideas are complex!” I beg to differ. I’d bet that any physics major here could hold their own in a beginning feminist theory class. But the reverse holds as well. All of the eventual women’s studies majors got into the same Duke as the physics majors. If they applied themselves in an effective manner, any women’s-studier could do well in Intro to Electromagnetism. People in all majors are intelligent and capable. Some just have not been taught analysis and deliberate thought.
See, the science majors really have humility handed to them. They learn to abandon dogma and think analytically, or lose points. Instead, in the humanities, I’ve found all too much of the “no question is stupid” mentality. What certainly is stupid is this notion that masters of the arts rely solely on some mystical inner inspiration. In reality, any subject can and should be approached analytically and systematically. This is never required or emphasized in a humanities course, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be.
Who’s to blame for this? To start, humanity students themselves. Most should abandon notions of internal gifts and rethink the amount and quality of work they do. Think like the Juilliard grad. Focus on technique. Deliberately practice. (For instance, I don’t know why English majors seeking additional practice do not overrun editorial positions.) Edit. Annotate so much you annotate annotations. And don’t take throw away natural science requirements. What cultural anthropology major wouldn’t benefit from being able to approach things statistically? Or what women’s studies major couldn’t benefit from an additional biological understanding of sexual difference? (Or perhaps a biomedical engineer’s ability to bio-engineer implants and thus dominate men for good?)
Second, Duke. I think the declaration of one’s major should be bi-directional. The English department should be able to reject those they think are not qualified. In classrooms that are especially dependent on class body constitution, unmotivated people will drag courses down. Curricula should also prioritize deliberate practice (like, “Here, write a 500-word essay. Now make it 300 words. Now 200.”)
Third, society. It certainly does stigmatize science and romanticize the work done by artists. And so students and curricula are hence romantically structured. But this is silly: There’s nothing romantic for most Duke students about cashierdom at McDonald’s.
Where I really care about this issue is in the environmental science department. I see so much good intention not being optimized. Students think that the environmental science major is the best way for them to maximize their impact. I argue that it’s one of the least effective ways for them to do so. It’s four years of wallowing in the pleasure derived from learning about nature. Instead, one should be learning computational or experimental tools to make an actual difference in these issues.
When it comes down to it, Duke, like Juilliard, seeks to fill vacancies in its classroom and not vacancies in the real job market. But Juilliard students prepare like their lives are dependent. Most of Duke’s humanities majors need to recognize room for quantitative growth in themselves. They need to see the requirement for deliberate, technique-driven labor—that’s the only way we change and grow as intellectuals. And, once this is realized, that sorely needed practicality will be found.
Lucas Spangher is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Friday.