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The Case for Dabbling
Opening illustration
by Carla Golembe
When I was a junior in college I played the krummhorn. Now, I'm sure that in the hands of a virtuoso player, this Early Music instrument would have emitted the melodious tones it was intended to emit--the kind that carry listeners blissfully back to the Elizabethan days of yore, when men were men, women were wenches, and boars were the culinary centerpiece of every good feast. Unfortunately, in my hands, the krummhorn ended up sounding like a cross between a dying goose and a really bad kazoo. But you know what? That really didn't matter to me, or to the other equally inexperienced members of the Early Music Consort with whom I practiced and performed. As fairly accomplished woodwind musicians (of the more modern clarinet, flute, etc.), we reveled in this opportunity to explore an unfamiliar genre. To make mistakes without feeling silly. To play for enjoyment, rather than toward any particular end.

In effect, we were dabbling, something we'd been doing since childhood. Like many middle-class children growing up in the 1970s and '80s, I had interests and activities that were all over the board: ceramics, piano, co-ed basketball, flute, a course on birds, violin, African mask-making, chess club, handbell choir. And that was just elementary school.

Now I'm the mother of two young preschool boys, and I worry that for them and other youngsters today, dabbling has become a lost art. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "dabble" as "to undertake something superficially, without any serious intent." But what self-respecting parent today can afford to admit that her child is taking a "superficial" approach to anything? The stakes seem just too high. We are living, after all, in a time when college applicants who score a perfect 1600 on the SATs routinely get rejected by top colleges like Hopkins. As parents, we believe our kids will need an edge--to get into a good college, to land a great job. And so we fall into the trap of pushing them to specialize early. And we push them to pursue, seriously, only those activities for which they show early talent or promise.

Grade schoolers don't just play soccer in their backyards. They vie for coveted spots on the "traveling" rec league teams to compete against the region's other top players. Public school administrators tout their "magnet school" systems, with elementary schools designated as "laboratories of science and technology." Even summertime--with its computer camps, and language camps, and gymnastics camps--offers no reprieve, no chance for kids to sample a smorgasbord of activities. Focus, work hard, accomplish, achieve, we seem to be telling our children. Undertake everything you do, even in your down time, with "serious intent." But at what cost?

In this environment, I was heartened--and a little surprised--to learn about the "fun" classes offered by Hopkins during the January Intersession ("Winter Escapes"), and I think you will be, too. Students have the chance to learn the art of wine tasting, to try their hand at origami, or pick up the nimble-footed dance moves of West Coast swing. There are no grades. There are no tests. There are no certificates of accreditation to work toward. And you know what? These hard-driving Johns Hopkins students let loose and have a ball. Even if they never see an acupuncture needle, or a hammered dulcimer mallet, again--and chances are they won't (I haven't touched my krummhorn since 1987)--I'm confident that their "superficial" dabblings will add an unquantifiable richness to the tapestries of their lives. And perhaps, in the end, that's the best thing we can wish for them.

Turn to the back of this issue and you'll find that our Alumni News and Notes section has undergone a transformation. Working together with our colleagues in the Alumni and Development Communications offices, we've come up with an attractive new design and added more alumni information: profiles, a books column, chapter updates. Of course, the mainstay of the section-- the personal and professional news you want to share with your fellow alums--is still there. The section will continue to evolve, and we value your feedback. So please, drop me a note or an e-mail ( with your suggestions and critique.

With this issue we also welcome a new member to our staff: assistant editor Mary Mashburn. Mary is a seasoned journalist and graphic designer who has worked at New York's Newsday and run her own design firm. She's also familiar with the Johns Hopkins community, having worked most recently in communications at the School of Public Health. We feel extraordinarily fortunate to have added Mary to our editorial and design team.

-Sue De Pasquale

Return to April 2001 Table of Contents

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