By Charles O’Connor
“So what’s your major?”
Ask that question on an average campus, and less than 1 in 10 students will answer something like music, art, theater, dance, film, design, or creative writing. And if they do, the usual reply is, “Hmm … that’s nice,” or “That sounds, um, fun.”
Let’s face it, the ranking of the academic species according to the most popular undergraduate majors goes something like this: business management, business marketing, education, the social sciences, the humanities, and, for math heads, math and then science and engineering. Throw in a few pre-professional tracks like pre-med or nursing. And the arts usually fall somewhere toward the end of the list.
OK, I get it, the business of America is business, and there are many who would like it if universities were more like businesses themselves. A career in the arts is about as crazy a business model as you can find. Call it the Un-Business Plan. Talk about the Hail Mary pass of career choices! And guess what: That’s what makes the arts so essential on college campuses today.
There is a lot to be said for students who decide to major in something in which prospects are so distant and uncertain, simply because they like it, feel destined to do it, and because maybe they’re not half-bad at it. It is, at best, a rough ride learning to play the piano, act, or paint. It’s guaranteed to be fraught with difficult emotional currents, horrendously long hours of practice, memorization, and perfectionism, with few or no assurances that the work will be understood, accepted, or appreciated.
You have to love the guts of someone who wants this for a life. In a world that pays a lot of lip service to innovation and creative thinking, who knows better than arts students how to leap without a net?
Colleges, like all institutions, want some degree of certainty and accountability. So the arts, like all fields, are being asked to answer for what they do, who they are, who they serve, how much they cost, and what standards they meet. It is perfectly understandable in times of decreasing budgets and rising tuition to ask the arts to justify their value. Classes in the arts are generally small. The outlay per student is high. There is no way around that. No one has figured out how to teach piano, painting, or acting to a lecture hall of students. And pianos, foundries, and dance floors cost money too.
But Dear College or University Arts Program:
Please do not get trapped into thinking that you can compete in the standard cost-benefit analysis. Remember that you have a lot of what students need more of—not just arts students, but all students.
Go ahead, assert that the arts make us empathetic and tolerant, draw meaning into our lives, teach us to think creatively, and on a larger scale draw economic benefits to communities. All true—as far as it goes. But that’s looking at the arts as a whole. Each viewer or listener makes up his or her own mind as to what value any particular work of art or performance holds; maybe they find nothing in it, or maybe they find truth or ecstasy. Therein lies the somewhat uncomfortable coexistence the arts have with the current assessment culture that seeks predefined learning outcomes across the board, individual experiences be damned. It’s not just difficult or impossible to articulate what arts students are learning or what audiences are experiencing, it’s beside the point.
You can’t ask someone to be creative and imaginative, then prescribe to them what and how to think. They go places you might not expect. As an arts dean, I love the phone calls, letters, and emails, at least a few every year, from some concerned citizen telling me how depraved that last exhibit was, or asking why we perform such incomprehensibly weird stuff on stage. If I don’t get a few of those letters, something’s wrong either with our students or with our audiences. Of course, the arts needn’t be offensive nor difficult to understand. But ideally, work should show not just rigor and excellence, but originality and daring.
The true value of the arts, the reason why they are essential, is that they are the last bastion of uncensored individuality. They ask students to think fresh and do things well. The arts are not the only disciplines on campus to require that, but rarely is it so explicitly central to the education at hand.
Arts students are used to being outside the mainstream; used to the routine risk, if not the fact, of failure; and used to envisioning and defining success in bold new ways. One is reminded of how Steve Jobs came to work one day after seeing a Cuisinart food processor and directed his staff to start making computers that look like that. Everyone thought he was nuts.
Couldn’t we use a little more unconventional thinking, and a lot less conformity on campus? Isn’t being a little nuts sometimes not just the acceptable, but the desirable, learning outcome?
Charles O’Connor is dean of the college of visual and performing arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.