What is the purpose of higher education? Why should one attend college or graduate school? In the months before school resumed for many students, I found myself pondering just that, as I read articles about frivolous masters degrees, listened to an NPR discussion titled, Is college education worth the debt? and sorted through the comments that followed. Do we seek education for knowledge or to become higher earners?
Remember how, four years ago, in his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink declared that the MFA is the new MBA, to the delight artists and arts educators everywhere. He argued that, as technology automates many jobs, rendering them obsolete, and many of the remaining jobs in technology move to Asia, creativity is what will drive the success of the American economy. “Whole minded aptitudes, ” or an integration of both logic and creativity will be rewarded. Those of us pursuing graduate degrees in creative disciplines, so often questioned as to why we were pursuing a “useless” degree felt vindicated: our time had come!
It seems that moment has passed. Indeed, as students returned to school earlier this month, many came back to universities with shrunken arts curriculum. To be fair, many schools were forced to make cuts across the board; it wasn’t only arts programs that were affected. But, many argue that arts programs were disproportionately affected. This is in part, because of the structure of many programs. It’s often not possible, due to space and materials, to expand a studio course from 16 to 24 people, so, if a section of a course is cut, many students who would like to take it are simply unable to. A lecture, unlike a studio, could more easily take on more students. And, although smaller seminars are ideal, a seminar with 24 people as opposed to 16 is certainly not impossible in the way that a studio course is.
What’s more, arts programs rely more heavily on part time or adjunct professors than other programs do. Many schools, including UCLA explain that this is so that they can attract artists who are “in the thick of their careers.” This may be true, but it also means that most art professors are not protected by contracts or tenure. It also means that schools can simply not renew a professor’s contract, and it isn’t reported as having laid someone off. In short, it’s an easy way for schools to cut costs without having to appear as though they’re cutting costs. The heavy reliance on adjunct professors by arts programs is a separate and complicated issue that I have mentioned in previous posts, and plan to devote a post exclusively to, but, for now I will just say that I wonder why more universities refuse to equate artmaking with original research. That is, why wouldn’t the university support an artist with a studio and time to make work in the way that it grants, for example, a physicist a lab, and time to conduct experiments. If creative disciplines were valued equally to other disciplines, then the university would support an artist “in the thick of” his career, or even, support an artist so that he can reach a summit in his career, rather than let others sustain him, and then give him a couple thousand dollars to teach a class each semester.
Higher education is, indeed, an investment, but it’s problematic that we measure the value of this investment in money, rather than knowledge. Knowledge is deemed valuable based on its connection to earning potential.
Thus, what one learns as a major in Sports Management, which remained at Washington State University as Theater Arts and Dance were cut, is judged more valuable than the creative knowledge– including choreography and directing, that comes from performing arts curricula. In fact, the lack of support for creative curricula and programming in the universities is simply a reflection of the nation’s values: America does not value making. Our economy is not a production based economy, but instead based on an abstract system of exchange and investment. We don’t make things; we just make money, and that is, in part, what led to our economic collapse. Indeed, Pink was right when he advocated the rise of creative thinking; he just was wrong to think that it would be embraced. The irony is, had we recognized the value– creative, informative, AND financial– in artistic pursuits, perhaps we would not find ourselves in our present economic state.