Is there a liberal arts trap?

Studying for a master’s in music composition left me feeling like the victim of a pyramid scheme.

Illustration by Kali Ciesemier

In July 1999 I sat in the Koussevitzky Music Shed and watched the Boston Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven’s symphonies No. 6 and No. 7, infused with the heady vapor of green grass at twilight. Walking back to my dorm through Berkshire meadows, I got stuck in the pouring rain with a pretty harpist in a red dress. 

These days, whenever I hear the stormy allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I think about that night and my eyes roll back in my head. I was 17, a summer student at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute and utterly powerless to resist the sensuality and grandeur of classical music and the posh and exacting culture in which it is created.

 My parents were seduced as well. When I returned home with a cassette tape of the woodwind quintet I’d composed, they made me play it back in a living room full of their marginally interested friends. If there was any doubt I’d be a music major, it was diluted in a potent cocktail of adolescent hormones and parental pride.


Sure enough, a few years later I was in a master’s program studying composition at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music. But one day toward the end of my last semester, I walked into my department head’s office and accused him of running a pyramid scheme. I’d just spent a sickening share of my parent’s savings and my future income learning how to resolve Neapolitan sixth chords, play vibraphone with a contrabass bow, and draw perfectly tapered slurs freehand. These were all skills for which corporate America was hardly clamoring, even in the comparative boom times of the mid-aughts.

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In fact, I had begun to realize that the only way I could realistically expect to make money with this stuff was to teach it to some other sucker. I could almost imagine myself saying: “Boy, have I got a special opportunity for you! All you’ve got to do is make a one-time payment and recruit some more investors – I mean students.” Instead, I found a job writing news copy at my local public radio station and never turned in my thesis. Of my friends who did, a few are headed to the top of the pyramid, but most lie broke and broken at its base.

My old professors, however noble their intentions, exploited the inebriating effect that music has on the young mind. While I’m grateful for the many gorgeous things they showed me and the skills that ended up being surprisingly applicable to my thus-far-gainful career as a radio reporter (artfully arranging sound is what we do), I still feel victimized. It’s little more than a happy accident I’m not, at this moment, slumped over the piano with a phone in one hand, playing along to Sallie Mae’s hold music with the other as I wait to beg for my umpteenth deferment. 

So when Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, floated the idea of redirecting his state’s public higher education dollars away from liberal arts and toward more directly marketable disciplines in science, technology, engineering, and math,  I could see his point. Part of me wishes society had not encouraged my youthful folly by subsidizing it.

Neither Deval Patrick nor Barack Obama has endorsed Scott’s position outright, but they’ve both acknowledged the same underlying problem. Patrick, in his 2012 State of the State address, bemoaned a “skills gap” separating Massachusetts unemployed from job openings; Obama, in his State of the Union, threatened to cut funding to institutions that produce increasingly indebted graduates.


The truth is that it’s hard – getting harder – to pay the bills making anything that can be copied on the Internet, from woodwind quintets to magazine articles. It’s looking as if people who would have been minstrels in an earlier era must be microbiologists in this one.

It’s not all bad. There’s something to be said for a nights-and-weekends culture of devoted amateurism that can promote a healthier relationship with music and still produce excellent work. America’s first great composer, Charles Ives, founded an insurance company. And I’ve been heartened by the rapid international adoption of Venezuela’s El Sistema, which has a US foothold at the New England Conservatory of Music. The vast system of youth orchestras, mostly in poor neighborhoods, focuses on using music to build strong communities instead of would-be stars. It’s a step in the right direction.

Adam Ragusea is a reporter and producer for WBUR’s Radio Boston. Send comments to