August 11, 2014

"My Music"

One time I started listing what Leonard Bernstein meant by "hardening of the categories": rock, classical, pop, country-western, jazz…. A long list, maybe an artifact of recording-era catalogs. 

Some of our patrons come for only one concert each summer, the one in their category.

One determinant of your category is when you grew up. We can predict the age of the audience at Gretna Theater's "retrospectives: music of the '40's, '50's," etc. (disregard the roaring '20's background at intermissions), and maybe those attending our August 30 Tierney Sutton sings Joni Mitchell (music of the '70's, '80's; category: "pop/rock/jazz"). That's because, according to psychologist Dan Levitin, 
Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes. You’re in the ninth grade, confronting the tyrannies of sex and adulthood, struggling to figure out what kind of adult you’d like to be, and you turn to the cultural products most important in your day as sources of cool — the capital of young life. Musical tastes become a badge of identity in social contexts framed by pop culture.
I don't know the science of that assertion but it held true for me. As a child I raced through categories. Home sick from first grade I called in a request to local AM radio for a gospel song, Up Above My Head. Next I marched to the Cities Service Band of America every Monday night after we finally got FM. I liked broadcasts of Marian McPartland and the Oklahoma City Symphony and the Boston Pops and Leroy Anderson. I wish my parents had listened to the Met Opera on Saturday afternoons.

At about age thirteen, after hearing my father play them since I learned to walk, I invaded his collection of "78's." Schubert, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Sibelius were his badges of identity, and thus became mine. An identity like his was my goal.

Millennials speak of "my music." If it fits into a category ("genre" on iTunes), they may not know which, but they can easily find the most popular songs, the sources of cool. Many avoid the classical genre ("your music," they say), as some parents, schools, and even churches have. What will they will listen to when they mature?

Like arteries, categories start hardening early in life. I try to keep mine open. 

"Music, Mr. Gershwin," said Alban Berg, "is music."





July 27, 2014

Music vs. Alzheimer

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

"I hope (with no evidence) that playing the flute (actually practicing hard and thoughtfully) every day improves my physical and mental health and may delay (for how long?) Alzheimer's or vascular disasters." (CAN MUSIC HEAL? July 6)

That hope made sense to me in several ways partly because music is a language and multilingualism has been found in studies to delay Alzheimer's Disease.

My hope is also supported by a study I just stumbled upon by psychologists at the University of Toronto. After testing middle to older-age adults, they concluded:
Musicians outperformed non-musicians on [several transfer tasks] and on a composite measure of cognitive control. The results suggest that sustained music training or involvement is associated with improved . . . cognitive functioning in older adults.
("Transfer" means the transfer of skills learned in one task, like playing the flute, to others like, say, building a birdhouse, though they didn't test those particular tasks.)  

The article is understandable by anyone without specialized training. It reviews evidence supporting other benefits of playing music at all ages. It is a good example of what I said (July 6) about the difference between hopes, aims, claims, programs, unequivocal beliefs, ultimate goals, and evidence-based science--when you talk about the reasons for playing and listening to music. 

It isn't, however, the 'final answer' to any question, just one small piece that needs to be confirmed in the mosaic of understanding music in the brain, which is one only aspect of brain function. It points in the direction of more experiments.

Even more accessible to the general reader is Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasen in The Atlantic (July/August). In a wonderful article she mentions a 2007 study that found that orchestral musicians have a more active Broca's area of neocortex, one of the areas associated with language. Creative people more likely have mood disorders and families with schizophrenia.

July 14, 2014

Welcome to our 2014 Festival of Russian Music, Pt. II

(to Follow Pt. I, June 29)


The first great Russian composer to import native Russian music traditions into the realm of secular classical music was Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), who composed the early Russian language operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila (listen to Anna Netrebko’s 1995 recording of that opera.) They were neither the first operas in the Russian language nor the first by a Russian, but they gained fame for relying on distinctively Russian tunes and themes and the vernacular.


Russian folk music became the primary source for the next generation composers. A group that was inadvertently named by a journalist and called itself "The Mighty Little Band" (moguchaya kuchka) of talented musical mavericks and autodidacts, headed by Balakirev and including Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky (July 6), Borodin and César Cui, proclaimed its purpose to compose and popularize Russian national traditions in classical music. Glinka and the kuchka (A.K.A. "Mighty Five") based their works on Russian history, folk tales and literature and they are now regarded as masterpieces of romantic nationalism in music. Tchaikovsky (July 6 and 20 Aug 9,) was the first Russian composer to rise beyond nationalism and gain international fame, benefitting from the French ballet industry seeking patronage in Russia as its support dwindled in France. He participated in the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891.

The lives and works of twentieth-century Russian composers, in particular Stravinsky (Aug 9 and 31), Rachmaninov (Aug 3, Sept 7), Prokofiev (July 6 and 20), and Shostakovich (Aug 9), all intersected the World Wars, the 1917 Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. They and others were strongly influenced by these collisions.

Stravinsky found refuge in Paris early enough escape persecution and to benefit from collaboration with the celebrated (Russian émigré) dance impresario Serge Diaghilev. He burst onto the world stage at age 28 with three ballets between 1910 in 1913 including Le Sacre du Printemps that caused a riot. He later emigrated to New York.

Emigrating on an open sled with his family to Helsinki in 1917 at age 44 Rachmaninoff also escaped persecution and wars and embarked on a busy career in the US managed by a concert agent as pianist and conductor. His burden was the feeling, shared by others, that he left his inspiration behind, in Russia and also in the 19th century. He wrote Vespers (All-night Vigil) in Petrograd in 1915 (to be performed Sept 7).

Prokofiev and Shostakovich became literally prisoners of Joseph Stalin. Lured back from the US to Russia in 1936 (the year he wrote Peter and the Wolf) hoping to rescue a faltering career, Prokofiev was largely disappointed—and then the exit doors closed. Unhappy, he left his wife Lina for a student, and shortly afterwards Lina was imprisoned for 8 years in the gulag. Prokofiev died in 1953, literally unnoticed because Stalin also died that day and Russians flocked into the streets for days of ceremonies and parades. After her release Lina spent the rest of her life, 33 years, as her former husband’s cultural ambassador.

In 1936 after walking out of a command performance Stalin threatened Shostakovich’s life in a ‘review’ in Pravda. The opera, Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District, like the musical plays of the skomorokhi, threatened the dictator (a “formalistic” work that justifies murder of a tyrant: “a muddle instead of music”). The threat could not escape notice of all Soviet composers and some sided with the regime. Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony--a musical prediction of the horrors to come -- and offered the (apparently) less ‘formalistic’ Fifth Symphony, “a composer’s response to justified criticism.” Oblivious to the irony in the subtitle and the ‘forced rejoicing’ in the music, a cheering audience gave a 30-minute standing ovation at the premiere. The Fifth may have saved the composer’s life (but not the lives of some of his family and friends). Thereafter arose the tendency to look for hidden messages in Soviet art and especially in Shostakovich’s music.

After WW II The Soviet Ministry of Culture convened in 1946-8 an extraordinary series of conferences at which charges were brought against deviant artists in literature, film and music. All were charged with “formalism,” writing works that were “against the people,” a code for elite modernism, something that the doctrine of socialist realism expressly forbade (as Aaron Copland was persuaded to tone down the end of his ‘modernistic’ Third Symphony on the US side of the cold war). Shostakovich’s works were banned, he was fired from the Moscow Conservatory, and that is when he wrote the “antiformalistic rayok,” to the tune of Stalin’s favorite song, Suliko, satirizing the regime and echoing the medieval skomorkhi. Conscripted to write music for Stalin’s self-congratulatory films Shostakovich felt that assignment may have actually prolonged his life, at least until Stalin died. After the dictator’s death the Fourth Symphony premiered in 1961.

On a rare visit to the West in 1958, according to Isaiah Berlin, “Shostakovich looked like a man who had passed most of his life in some dark forbidding place under supervision of jailers…his face would assume a haunted, even persecuted expression and he would fall into a terrified silence.” The humor of the student concerto we will hear on August 9 eventually turned more dark and sarcastic. He was clearly affected by the horror of repression during the war and the Soviet era and most compositions reflect that. Shortly after he was diagnosed with ALS he dedicated his String Quartet No 8 in 1960 "to the victims of fascism and war." His son, Maxim, interprets this as a reference to the victims of all totalitarianism, while his daughter Galina says that he dedicated it to himself and that the published dedication was imposed by the Russian authorities. Shostakovich's friend, Lev Lebedinsky, said that Shostakovich thought of the work as his epitaph and that he planned to commit suicide around this time. We remember the bird in the rafters of the Playhouse that, contrary to the score, continued singing after the final quiet cello solo ended.

The death of Stalin brought a liberalizing trend--freedom from the “accessibility,” “transparency,” and affirmative public statements demanded by the Soviets. Students were no longer expelled from the Moscow Conservatory for possessing scores of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and Soviet musicians came into previously risky and forbidden contact with the music of the European avant-garde, Pierre Boulez, for example. Twelve-tone music began to flourish.

But in the 1970’s Alfred Schnittke abandoned serial technique in favor of eclecticism that he called “polystylistics.” His works, clearly those of a resentful marginalized artist, were still prohibited by the regime until the glasnost’ of Mikhail Gorbachev. Then all hell broke loose with 22 concertos, many for an outstanding generation of late-Soviet soloists, abandoning any limits. (Schnittke “undressd in public,” one critic said). His music contains “plush romantic lyricism, chants and chorales and hymns (real or made up), actual or invented ‘historical’ flotsam (neoclassic, neobaroque, even neomedieval), and every make and model of jazz and pop” and “tackled life-against-death, love-against-hate, good-against-evil, freedom-against-tyranny, and I-against-the-world” (Taruskin) much as Shostakovich had tackled evil-against-good.

Schnittke began to command Shostakovich’s immense following. By the time the cold war ended in Europe (with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991) not only Schnittke, but practically his whole generation of Soviet composers--including Sofia Gubaidulina (Aug 31)-- were living abroad...the result of a mass migration or “brain drain” that paralleled the one that attended the beginning of Soviet power in 1917. Of actual “Tatar” or Mongolian descent Gubaidulina’s predilection for religious subject matter has been considered a mark of political dissidence in the waning years of Soviet authority that deemed her music “irresponsible.” Shostakovich encouraged her to continue down her “mistaken path.”

It is always fascinating for me to ponder how the lives of artists affected their work. That is an easier, but frequently a very sad task, when it is about Russians. 

Our Russian Festival continues next Sunday, July 20, at Ware Center in Lancaster at 7:30. Pianist Claire Huangci will play ballet scenes from Prokofiev's Cinderella and Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty. You can use all the same tickets there you usually bring to the Playhouse. Buy more here.
Спасибо за прибытие,
Карл Элленберджер

July 6, 2014

CAN MUSIC HEAL?

Byron Janis is a magnificent pianist. I admire his recordings and treasure my old vinyl disk of his Strauss Burleske with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. So I was intrigued when a board member asked me as Gretna Music's "resident" (not "renowned") neurologist to comment on Janis' "A Healing Art" in the WSJ (May 8). 

Almost immediately popping into the cloud above my head was an image of a pot of chicken soup, still considered ‘therapeutic’ for just about any ailment. Indeed, sometimes it is -- when you need hydration, nutrients, electrolytes, warmth, loving care from friends and relatives. 

Janis’ pot contains a variety of good stuff: broad generalizations, aims, and assertions like, “the ancients’ drums, rattles and digeridoos--had huge diagnostic and healing properties,” or music “enhances the brain’s ability to facilitate healing,” or “music is believed to recruit uninjured parts of the brain to compensate for parts that have been injured, and help those parts that are injured recover.” 

And Janis throws into his pot anecdotes like “music brought back all the joys the house had known,” or “slowly brought back her ability to speak,” and “many told me how much music had helped their recovery,” or “patients went from being catatonic to fully functional.”

Janis describes a program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where, according to the hospital, "working with actual instruments, patients learn, play, compose and record music." The program "aims to enhance the healing process . . . enrich the lives of patients, visitors and staff and help relieve the stress often associated with a hospital setting." Novel idea. Good aims. Maybe we could (hoho) try it in schools?

'All of the above' are good intentions and maybe some will take off. I have no doubt that music can help some people sometimes feel better. Music can soothe or boost emotions. For many people it provides instant comforting familiarity. It can trigger memories and bring to mind forgotten words or verses. Like William Styron (Darkness Visible) I turn to music sometimes when I feel sad. And I hope (with no evidence) that playing (actually practicing hard and thoughtfully) my flute every day improves my physical and mental health and may delay (for how long?) Alzheimer's or vascular disasters. 

Some Parkinson patients can move or walk better to music. And we think that teaching music in early education is more effective for developing young brains than trying to teach statistics or philosophy to pre-kindergartners. And it seems self-evident that teaching children to play the violin in a small group is better education in the long term for some of them than busing the class to a symphony concert. I am all for having a piano, Yamaha or Steinway, in every home, all children learning music, and hope that we can eventually prove that music heals in many ways.

As he disclosed in the WSJ, Janis serves as Presidential Advisor for the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute (YMWI). Associated, I presume, with Yamaha Corp, manufacturer of musical instruments, YMWI states its "ultimate goal is to enable individuals of all ages, regardless of prior experience, to discover the joy and personal benefits of playing a musical instrument" (for sale by Yamaha). YMWI president, the actual "renowned" neurologist referenced by Janis, Dr. Barry Bittman, has been among a group of authors who published a small amount of "peer-reviewed scientific research focusing on stress reduction from psychosocial to genomic levels utilizing novel creative music expression strategies."

But whether, and how, music may be therapeutic is a huge, complex, daunting challenge. What modes of therapy in what conditions? There are far more hopes, aims, claims, programs, "unequivocal" beliefs, "ultimate goals," articles like this--and apparently conflicting interests--than science bearing on the issue. 

Most medical and "alternative" therapies are used for decades before anyone thinks to test their effectiveness, many enriching the therapists more than the patients, at least after their hope wears off. In previous centuries people fervently believed in the efficacy of leeches, phlebotomy, tonsillectomy. These therapies are still used--but only in specific circumstances, not as universal cures, of everything for everyone. We need to learn the specifics of music therapy too. That's the "challenge" Julene Johnson refers to in a recent PBS Special Report. 

The field or Discipline of "Music Therapy," taught in universities, is "the evidence-based use of music in clinical situations that help people reach desired health outcomes." What actually happens too often is application of the term "music therapy" to any attempts, rarely "evidence-based" to improve lives using music. (Warning: What qualifies me with an ancient board certification in Neurology to pronounce judgment on the entire new discipline of Music Therapy that I know little about? Answer: Not much! But I know what "evidence-based" means.)

The questions must be specific, far more so than "Can Music Heal?" Scientists are working, each with a very narrow piece of the puzzle. Among dozens or hundreds of variables, you must isolate one (say starting piano lessons at age 5 vs. age 8), level all other variables, study large enough groups for valid statistics, and carefully measure the outcome. (Doing so they have found that the earlier age group developed larger corpus callosums in their brains. Note that is not evidence that proves a larger corpus callosum is a good thing or therapeutic, just that early experience can influence the structure of a developing brain.) 

Despite the fact we all think music is good -- err, what kind of music?  Schubert? Phil Dirt and the Dozers? Pit Bull? digeridoos?  -- its therapeutic potential is not self-evident and must be studied and proved in each instance. 

We don’t even know the relative contributions, to musicianship or appreciation, of nature vs. nurture. Are three generations of the Preucil family outstanding musicians because it is in their genes or because all were expected to start practicing at the age of 3 years? (Ans: It's likely that both are necessary, neither alone is sufficient. See * below.)

Yes, we need cheerleaders, like PBS reports, to engage more people and stimulate more research, programs, efforts, etc. All that should come---if the planet survives. 

I do think an easier armchair argument can be made that music (of most kinds) and early music education promote a better (and healthier) humanity than do some sports, especially American football, or the gratuitous violence in films.

* Wonderful example of good brain science anyone can understand.

June 29, 2014

Welcome to our 2014 Festival of Russian Music, pt 1

Добро пожаловать на наш фестиваль русской музыки! 

My first Russian experience came in college when I helped my roommate, Bob Horick, put on a “Russian Arts Festival” a few years after the launch of the world’s first satellite the Russians called Sputnik (спутник). Among other effects, that caused a spike in enrollment in Russian courses. Our music headliners were The Yale Russian Chorus, a group that imitated the Red Army Choir, undoubtedly penned up in Russia at that time (1960). We also screened Serge Eisenstein’s classic 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky, to which Prokofiev contributed his brilliant first film score that was part of the drama, not background accompaniment. A bassoonist then, Bob went on to earn a Ph. D. in Russian and study at Moscow University.

As our Russian theme began to materialize for this summer, curiosity led me to ask Bob, “Why is Russian Orthodox church music a cappella?” (without instrumental accompaniment, as you will hear in the performance of the Rachmaninov Vespers, Sept 7) Another Russian scholar, the great Richard Taruskin who wrote the entire five-volume Oxford History of Western Music, asserts that the last verse of Psalm 150 forbids using musical instruments in worship: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!  That seemed to me ambiguous because the preceding verses (promptly recited to me by Emi) call for praise with trumpets, harps, flutes and every other instrument you can think of. 

Bob’s answer: “A single word, “Tradition,” as Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof. Orthodox writers on music in the church trace back to ancient times the fact that "singing" was how Christians worshipped from the very beginning. In particular the Orthodox Liturgy (primarily the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) probably travelled from Byzantium via Bulgaria to Russia as singing. In fact, there is nothing spoken in it: everything is chant or penie (pesnopenie): ie, "singing" (song-singing).” In the words of Joseph Kerman: Throughout human history, “heightening by singing has provided words with special emphasis, force, mystery, even magic.” (I think Schubert; others think Billy Joel.)

Bob continues: “When the subject of what we would call music comes up in the Orthodox world, it is "singing." The word "music" (музыки) is a foreign word in Russian (like the French word “ballet” in English). Instrumental music did exist in eastern Slavic lands since ancient times, of course, but it is associated with dissolute behavior, especially dancing, drunkenness, sex, etc.  After old Rus' was Christianized in 988 the priests engaged in relentless purges of all native religious beliefs and especially of the wandering bands of musicians called skomorokhi.  

Skomorokhi were medieval East Slavic harlequins, actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances. They appeared in Kievan Rus before the mid-11th century, appealing to the common people and usually opposing the ruling groups, the feudalists, and the clergy, and reached their peak in the 15th–17th centuries. They sang mocking songs, dramatic and satirical sketches called glumy (глумы), performed in masks and skomorokhi dresses to the sounds of domra, balalaika, gudok, bagpipes or buben (a kind of tambourine). Usually the main character was a fun-loving saucy muzhik (мужик = peasant) of comic simplicity. Skomorokhi performed in the streets and city squares engaging with the spectators to draw them into their play. They would sometimes combine their efforts and perform in a vataga (big crowd) numbering 70 to 100 people. 

Skomorokhi were persecuted in the years of the Mongol yoke when the church strenuously propagated ascetic living. A monk chronicler denounced the skomorokhi as devil servants. The Orthodox Church railed against the skomorokhi and other elements of popular culture as being irreverent, detracting from the worship of God, or even downright diabolical. 

In the 18th century the skomorokh art gradually died away; passing on some of its traditions to the balagan (a scene of chaos or fiasco, as in the opening scene of Stravinsky’s Petrushka) and rayok (“small paradise,” a fairground peep show accompanied by lewd rhymed jokes viewed through a magnifying glass.) Shostakovich wrote an “Antiformalistic Rayok” mocking Stalin (see below).


“So,” continues Bob, “you can see that instrumental music had a very bad reputation among the dominant classes, who were obliged to support the Church's policies.” Because of the resistance by the Orthodox church against secular music Russia was a late starter in developing a native tradition of secular 'classical music.' The country, says Taruskin, “emerged as a musical power at about the same point in its history as its emergence as a political and diplomatic power.” Beginning in the reign of Ivan IV, the Imperial Court invited Western composers and musicians to fill this void and by the time of Peter I, these artists were a regular fixture at Court. While not personally inclined toward music, Peter saw European music as a mark of civilization and a way of Westernizing the country; his establishment of the Western-style city of Saint Petersburg helped foster its spread to the rest of the upper classes. A craze for Italian opera at Court during the reigns of Empresses Elisabeth and Catherine also helped spread interest in Western music among the aristocracy. Giovanni Paisiello (Aug 3) was among the many long-term musical visitors to Catherine’s court. His opera, The Barber of Seville (based on the play by Beaumarchais), premiered in St. Petersburg in 1782, 34 years before Rossini’s opera based on the same play, is one of Paisiello’s more than 80(!) operas.

Stay tuned for pt. II.

June 13, 2014

Eye Music

On Sunday July 20 at Ware Center in Lancaster we will hear two great classical ballets, but without the dancers. You might wonder if maybe that's like listening to the Met Opera on a kitchen-table radio, or MTV without the picture. No "visuals," the kids would say. But I assure you that Claire Huangci, the pianist, though a small person, will more than make up for a full orchestra in a pit. And the music is so good you could enjoy it on a bandoneon.

Rough estimates hold that at least 40% of the neural machinery of our brain participates in the processing of visual images focused on the retinas of the eyes. Evolution has adapted these vision-related regions, many of them in the posterior parts (back half) of the cerebrum, to receive the visual information and integrate it with other sensory information (touch, hearing, etc) and other functions of the brain--language, emotions, a wide range of spatial functions, memory, and "theory of mind" (look it up on Wikipedia). Years of normal seeing during an average human life enhance these abilities and connections because of the brain's "plasticity." 
But sight is not necessary for many of our abilities. Take for example language or music. Congenitally blind persons can speak languages and also play and sing music, substituting their ability to reproduce what they hear for their inability to read words or notes. Blind pianists substitute non-visual sensory cues to depress the right keys for their inability to actually see the keys. “Substitute” is a key word.
A group of researchers* has used a “sensory substitution device” (SSD) to help people blind from birth, or blinded later in life. They call it “EyeMusic.” Their work is based on the principle that when information is delivered to the visual machinery of the brain, that mechanism may utilize it as if it were visual information. But instead of visual images they delivered musical sounds, produced by natural instruments. It is astonishing how quickly blind people could begin to describe a visual scene or object or movement and even color, after they have learned that certain musical sounds have been designated as codes for certain visual characteristics. 

You might wonder whether a blind person's previously idle visual machinery is especially receptive to getting a job and 'welcomed' the input. Just as you might wonder whether Ray Charles called upon parts of his idle brain visual mechanism to enhance his music.

This ‘translation’ could prove in some ways like learning a second language. At first we translate word by word from English to French, for example, but eventually (say, if we move to France) the English recedes and the French prevails and we not only speak but think in French. Music, a very complex language with many variables -- rhythm, tempo, pitch, harmony, timbre, intensity, volume, etc -- is the type of sensory stimulus that comes close to the complexity of a visual image, even closer perhaps than spoken language (at least as used by an average non-novelist). While these changes, examples of brain "plasticity," take place, modern imaging techniques (like fMRI) can show them in progress by displaying the changes in the regions of the brain that are active.

You may think of this when you listen to Claire Huangci play 'scenes' from two famous ballets d'action, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, on the piano at Ware Center, July 20. A fuller experience of  the ballets may depend on your imagination residing at least in part in your estrastriate and other nearby areas of visual cortex. Or you might contend that the music, some of the best by both composers, 'speaks' for itself.

*Amir Amedi

June 3, 2014

LIBERAL THIS, LIBERAL THAT

When commenting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as Under Secretary, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: 
“He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” 
Education is for producing a "competitive workforce?" 

How sad.

Though others might, I'm sure neither President Obama nor Secretary Duncan believe that education is only for getting a job. That attitude could herald another "Great Leap Forward" or a surge in enrollment in classes on diesel mechanics at community colleges! 

Many current college grads don't find jobs, anyway.

As an old fossil, if I would start again by heading for a modern version of a medieval university to study the trivium: logic, rhetoric, and grammar (how to think, speak, and write) then the Quadrivium outlined by Plato in The Republic: arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, the four "sciences" comprising the liberal arts. 

That "Liberal" has nothing to do
 "with those designer labels 'liberal' and 'conservative' that some so lovingly stitch on to every idea they pull off, or put on, the rack."
And, as Bart Giamatti also noted, "liberal" modifying arts, is not necessarily the same "liberal" that can modify education,
"unless one studies . . . in a spirit which. . . seeks no immediate sequel, which is independent of a profession's advantage. If you pursue the study of anything not for the intrinsic rewards of exercising and develop the power of the mind but because you press toward a professional goal, then you are not pursuing a liberal education but rather something else." 
Burdened by heavy reality in American life--to have any value at all anything must have a price tag--Secretary Duncan spoke almost three decades after Bart's extraordinary Presidential address to incoming students at Yale College. 
"A liberal education is defined by the attitude of the mind toward the knowledge the mind explores and creates. Such education occurs when you pursue knowledge because you are motivated to experience and absorb what comes of thinking."
When I offered this view of college at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Medical Society to evaluate the "pre-med" curriculum, I was quickly marked as wacko: "there's too much information to stuff doctors' heads with, you dummy." (That was before Google. Medical education may be changing.) 

But you too may ponder Bart's rhetorical question:
"That is very touching . . . but how does someone make a living with this joy of learning and the pleasure in the pursuit of learning? What is the earthly use of all this kind of education later on, in the practical real world?" 
A recent answer inspired these thoughts: last week's 2014 Commencement address by Fareed Zakaria at Sarah Lawrence. I have collected earlier answers, by Bart Giamatti, William Cronon, and Stanley Fish (pdf's in my Dropbox). See also the exquisite Joyce DiDonato's Juilliard commencement address, an extraordinary artistic variation on Bart's passion.

Meanwhile, I'll be reading Bart's The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. So far as I know, Bart was the only Commissioner of Baseball (he finally got a job) to write about the Renaissance.