The Elephant in the Room

For the last few weeks there has been much written about the arts and humanities programs being shut down in our nation’s colleges and universities. Both Stanley Fish, and the president of Cornell University, David J Skorton had articles on the subject in the NY Times. This week the Boston Globe weighs in: “College Leaders Work to Increase Interest in Humanities” – The Boston Globe

The articles and discussions describe how universities, to save money, are cutting out humanities and arts departments – justifying it by saying students aren’t filling these classes. Is it really possible an educated person in the United States doesn’t need to know anything about the arts, literature, history, philosophy, language? Why is it that places like China and Singapore are adding these subjects to their universities if they aren’t needed?

Haven’t we been saying that if we want an innovative and creative work force we can’t all be specialists? That we need flexible educated minds? The Boston Globe article talks about students not signing up for humanities and arts classes. Why? Here’s the elephant in the room. They haven’t had these classes in any comprehensive form in their first 12 years of school. If you cut music, art, language, specialized literature classes, theater, poetry and the like from elementary school to high school and you teach only to the “test”, students will arrive at college without the necessary skills and knowledge to even begin to know what they want to learn. Learning these subjects can enhance one’s ability to function in any profession. I studied at The Juilliard School (a very special trade school) for both my Bachelors and Masters degrees. It’s different today but when I was there our studies of subjects other than music was sharply limited. I realized that if I wanted to understand the many references in the music I was studying I needed to become much better read in both world literature and history. I procured reading lists from several liberal arts colleges and proceeded to read through the lists. It was invaluable to me and became my habit in all my artistic projects. When I became a professor I required the same of my flute students. The point is that if we continue to cut the arts and humanities from our public education system we will inevitably lose students and eventually vital core departments in our universities nationwide. This is something that we can’t afford if we want to remain competitive.

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7 Responses to The Elephant in the Room

  1. Iva Kaufman says:

    This topic is essential – schools need to have fully integrated programs in music and the arts, as well as science and technology, if children are to develop their minds and bodies in a manner that enables them to face the challenges of the future – and multi task and adapt to the rapidly changing environment in which we live. They need exposure to all that will faciliate their social and emotional learning at home, in school, in college and also within the framework of their early work experiences as well.

    • Thank you Iva. In fact the universities are not cutting their science and technology departments, they are bolstering those at the expense of the humanities. Have you read that science is being cut too?

  2. Barbara, I agree with you that we are in essence losing SIGHT of our humanity for the sake of having an earlier vocational success in an increasingly competitive world market. Art and humanities ponder the deep questions of WHY and HOW, when many students feel they need to focus on WHEN and HOW MUCH. Perhaps as a modern society we can only practically focus on reading, art and philosophy when we MATURE enough to realize the importance of these BIG questions. Maybe universities should target potential humanities students in their 30s, 40s, 50s to study after work or on weekends. Perhaps a “sexy” hook on a billboard would be “What’s it all about then, eh?”, “Who ARE you?”, or “What did the Greek say to the Philistine?”
    Why play music that is 300 years old? “Because it still SPEAKS to us” just isn’t a good argument to someone who is not ready to slow down to listen. But we CAN also speed it up, repeat jsut the theme, and add drums and variations! Perhaps we need to offer BOTH ways.

  3. Eric Somers says:

    When I was in grade school the teacher would bring a phonograph to class and play us simple classical music examples, such as “Peter and the Wolf.” Then she (it was always a “she” for grade school in those days) would show pictures of the various instruments of the orchestra and talk about classical music. Although, at that age, I wasn’t necessarily “taken” with classical, it planted in my head the idea that there was something out there I would “grow into” as I matured.

    From grades 4 on for a while I was the biggest fan of country-western music: Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Red Foley, etc. But in 8th grade I was in bed with the flu and my parents put an old TV in my room that could only get one channel (via “rabbit ears”) as it was not connected to the rooftop antenna (long before the days of cable). At that time the major networks had not discovered sports for Sunday afternoon. My TV got the NBC opera workshop which that week did Offenbach’s “La Perichole”. I was incredibly taken with this TV studio opera and wanted more. The following week I was over the flu, but watched “Rigoletto.” Then I was “hooked.” I started going to record stores and buying classical music. Even the clerk would be a little puzzled that this 8th grader wanted classical and say “are you sure this is the album you want?”

    If my grade school teacher (and also my parents, to give credit where credit is due) had not “planted the seed” of classical music when I was very young, I am not sure whether I really would have “taken” to it in Junior High and continued on and ultimately become a classical music producer for public television by age 25.

    Of course, I am pained that there is so little classical music TV today (and that I have had to go into teaching. A good job but one I am less good at than TV directing of music.)

    I am a living example of the power of presenting classical music in the young grades and on major TV networks. Else, I guess I would still be listening to Hank Williams and Red Foley. (Not bad in itself, but limited.)


  4. Bob Bralove says:

    Those of us who have had the luck and discipline to make our way in the arts all know how important these studies are to us as human beings. I often wonder how people who do not play music manage to get through a day. I worry that the digital age and all of its wonders and glory has brought with it the downfall of hierarchical knowledge. (Mind you, I am entering this reply from a jet traveling 512 miles an hour at 36000 feet.) With random access to information we are loosing the model of learning where things are built upon each other. In a discussion I had with the pianist Tom Constanten, who keeps track of how many times he plays any given Chopin Etude, he said “There are things that you learn from them the fifth time you play the etude that are different from the 100th time you play it, that are different from the 300th time you play it that are different from the 1500th time you play it.” People are expected to have five to seven careers in their lifetime. In the digital world what you learn today may not be valuable sixth months from now, let alone ten years from now. At that point you most likely will be doing something completely different for a living. In other words you will never get to play it the 1500th time and learn those lessons. The impact this shift is having on the culture is enormous. It pushes all culture towards a fashion model of culture. Where it should change with the season and essentially be disposable. Of course as in all eras, there are people doing great things with a great deal of discipline. Unless our educational systems support the hierarchical learning model it will be difficult to have a culture that aims for something other than temporary fashion.
    Of course, the flip side of this argument is that the technologies will eventually liberate us from all of these tasks and eventually allow every expression to have the power of a disciplined thought. This may be true, however, I do not think it will happen in our lifetime. The danger is that we may loose the language, which allows it to be created.

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