When I was in graduate school in Illinois—one of a few “token Canadians,” a classmate and friend from India and I determined to organize a campus club for expatriates. We had two objectives in mind. First, to offer a place where we could get to know the other “expats,” compare experiences, and support one another, as we were far from familiar people and places. But my friend and I had a second objective in mind: to expose other expats to the very best of American culture, as well as the pop culture of music, television, movies, spectator sports, and mass marketing that so dominates the American experience.
So, we organized trips by car and van from downstate Illinois up to Chicago. We visited the Art Institute of Chicago (with a collection that ranged from La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat’s pointillist tour de force, to Grant Wood’s American Gothic) and the Museum of Industry, attended performances at the Civic Opera House and the Chicago Symphony, and spent evenings at a downtown jazz club and a Lincoln Park blues joint. In between, we fit in Christmas shopping at Marshall Fields, and walks along Navy Pier in late spring. In so doing, it quickly became clear that we expats were getting more of an exposure to America’s cultural best than nearly all our “fellow American” classmates!
Exposing oneself to the best of the arts—as well as the latest blockbuster flick or download from that breakthrough band—should be part of what the neocalvinist philosopher of aesthetics Calvin Seerveld called the “tensed leisure” of being a student. And students are better positioned than perhaps any other demographic group in western societies to find that exposure.
When I was an undergraduate student, the Calgary Philharmonic offered seats in the choir loft behind the orchestra at a deeply discounted rate. Many major orchestras and performing organizations offer access to their dress rehearsals for free or for a nominal charge. They might even be combined with a lecture or commentary about the work. Major music conservatories regularly stage student recitals and concerts, including the Royal Academy of Music in London and Julliard in New York City, with heavily discounted or free tickets.
Many of the best galleries and other museums have a “free day” or evening: for example, the National Gallery of Art (Ottawa) and the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto). Many, the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, offer discounted admission to students, and some—as with Washington’s National Gallery of Art—are free to all, every day.
If one looks around, especially on a university campus, the arm-and-leg ticket prices for live theatre can be avoided. I once found a fine performance at the University of Toronto of the stage play on which the movie of the same name, A Few Good Men, was based for five dollars . . . Canadian! A few years ago, I found an “off West End” performance at “the Old Vic” in London of Eugene O’Neill’s marathon, four-and-a-half hour play, The Iceman Cometh, headlined by Kevin Spacey, for five pounds Sterling, or about ten American dollars. Major summer theatres including Ontario’s “Shaw Festival,” specializing in theatre by Shaw and his contemporaries, and the mainly Shakespearean “Stratford Festival” offer special rates for students.
Attending performances or visiting a museum is one thing, but student life offers the opportunity to participate as well—to join a serious choir or student orchestra (whether or not you are a “music major”), to audition for a part in a stage play or musical theatre, to sign up for guitar or piano or voice lessons, or to take a class in sculpture or painting or art history. Failing that, there’s the on-campus libraries that offer a veritable treasure trove of the world’s great literature. Learn firsthand from the literature of Charles Dickens why a difficult predicament is described as “having a Dickens of time,” experience the joy of discovering Mrs. Wilcox’s phrase, “Only connect,” in E. M. Forster’s novel castigating self-satisfied, middle class, Edwardian society, ponder the allusive use of deeply biblical metaphor in the poetry of William Blake or W. H. Auden, attend (or, even, organize) a reading affording the opportunity to say and to hear the words of Shakespeare’s comedies or tragedies. To read great literature can be to learn more about human nature and the human condition than is surfaced in many “Psych” or counseling classes. To read great literature is to learn about others and oneself.
There’s a wonderful moment in John Hughes’s otherwise irredeemably irreverent film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” when “Ferris” and his cohorts in skipping school visit the Art Institute of Chicago, among other things. The three ne’er-do-wells make their way through the gallery, but when they move into the next gallery they freeze in their tracks, confronted by Seurat’s nearly seven-foot by more than ten-foot masterpiece. The camera work does the rest, with an alternating zoom and freeze frame, until in the last zoom-freeze we see a painting composed of dots or “points” of paint. But having seen it in the gallery, I can attest that zoom-freeze film is no substitute for seeing and appreciating “the real thing.”
Up close. In person. And stop. Breathing.