Friday, October 23, 2009

The Practical in the Impractical

According an article in the current edition of The American Scholar, the number of young men and women majoring in English has dropped dramatically; the same is true of philosophy, foreign languages, art history, and history.

Meanwhile business has become, by far, the most popular major in the nation’s colleges and universities with more than twice the majors of any other course of study.

William M. Chace, the article's author, argues that changes in the teaching of humanities are largely to blame, but he also lists that the rising cost of a college education as a culprit:

In an educational collapse of this magnitude, other forces must also be at play. The first of these is the surging growth of public higher education and the relatively slower growth of private colleges and universities.

During the most recent period for which good figures are available (from 1972 to 2005), more young people entered the world of higher education than at any time in American history. Where did they go? Increasingly into public, not private, schools. In the space of that one generation, public colleges and universities wound up with more than 13 million students in their classrooms while private institutions enrolled about 4.5 million. Students in public schools tended toward majors in managerial, technical, and pre-professional fields while students in private schools pursued more traditional and less practical academic subjects...private schools have until now been the most secure home of the humanities. But today even some liberal arts colleges are offering fewer courses in the liberal arts and more courses that are “practical.” obvious external cause: money. With the cost of a college degree surging upward during the last quarter century—tuition itself increasing far beyond any measure of inflation—and with consequent growth in loan debt after graduation, parents have become anxious about the relative earning power of a humanities degree.

Our cultural trend towards measuring the value of education almost entirely in terms of earning potential is something I have discussed in my sister blog dedicated to my ballet business. Last September, in an article titled A Question of Arts Education, I wrote:

One of the arguments that is often put forward for arts funding is that studying the arts improves performance in other academic areas. For example, music increases math proficiency. Why do we resort to this argument instead of arguing that arts education increases art proficiency?

We are, perhaps, used to making economic arguments for educaton. Go to school, get an education, and you'll make more money over the course of your life. We're hard pressed to argue that years of focus on ballet or poetry will increase someone's earning potential.

And why is a philosopher, poet, musician or dancer likely to have a lower income? Here we get back to the Rand study (Cultivating Demand for the Arts), which argues that we don't fund arts because we didn't learn their value in school.
As I noted in an article in that blog last December, Former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Bill Ivey told the Utne Reader, that he is concerned that Americans have become consumers of art rather than creators.

"We feel that sports are invigorated when many people can play at many levels. While we understand that amateur basketball players are not going to be as good as a superstar, there’s no sense that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. But in the arts, around the fourth or fifth grade, we find people who have special talent, we separate them, give them special attention, and create some terrific artists who serve society—but we tend to denigrate the amateur."

Ivey, for one, believes that artists could be a much more important part of the economy. "If we’re talking about a new sewage disposal system, there should be an artist on that panel; there should be artists on school boards and neighborhood commissions, not to make the project look pretty, but to bring a unique approach. Artists are very good at metaphor, at seeing less-obvious links, at right-brain thinking that might not be linear but that gets you to a good result by making an imaginative leap."

What do you think? Is the decline in enrollment in humanities courses a problem and, if so, what are the potential solutions? By seeing the arts as "impractical" are we missing out on practical applications of artists unique perspective in our communities?