Anyone who even remotely engages with popular culture will be extremely familiar with the trope I am about to describe. You’re watching some mindless television show or move, and a scene takes place in some yuppie-intellectual location that boomers love to hate: a coffee shop, a bookstore, anything with the word “artisanal” in it, etc. The person at the counter looks like they are absolutely hating their very existence, and we come to learn that they went to college for something “useless” like art history, gender studies, or the like. We cut to the sharp, capital-minded main character, and they say something like “Well, that kind of explains it, huh?” Cue laugh track, rinse, repeat. In a very clear way, this cultural trope labels this person working a low-earning job as failed not just because they do not earn much money or have an “exciting” career, but also because they were stupid enough to go to college and study something that so clearly wasn’t going to provide for their financial future.
While we might say that this is just a simple instance of poking fun and that we should have thicker skin (certainly this is a requirement for success in the arts), I would argue that this actually points to a larger cultural problem relating to the way we view the role of academia and the arts in society. Even more, it points to a fundamental issue with the ways in which society attributes value, namely, that it often correlates a pursuit’s value with its capacity to generate wealth or power. In a capitalist society, this should come as no surprise; however, this creates an obvious discontinuity between said society and academic/artistic pursuits: if pursuits which have a high potential for wealth creation are positively valenced from a cultural-capital standpoint, the opposite must be true of those pursuits that do not inherently create wealth. Herein lies the problem.
This problem first presented itself to me a number of years ago as I was reading an editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Douglas Belkin entitled “Many Colleges Fail in Teaching how to Think.” In his article, Belkin rightly asserts that students are often spending 4+ years in college but not coming out with many more critical thinking skills than they enter with. Those of us that have been around academic for any amount of time know this all too well. Unfortunately, he is far too quick to pin this on the universities themselves (evidenced by his title saying the colleges themselves fail). What he misses is that universities have been so culturally pressured to become vocational institutions rather than institutions of higher learning, such that the critical thinking skills he is referring to have no place in the curriculum anymore. Modern culture has become so preoccupied with the university degree as a route to monetary success, and universities have responded to that pressure.
After reading this, I was so incensed that I quickly began typing up a letter to the editor. While I will not recount my entire tirade here, one bit of research that I did sticks out. In his 1873 text The Role of the University, John Henry Newman addresses this issue. He says, “If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society…” Herein lies the value of a university education; it lies in broadening one’s horizons, coming into contact with people and ideas that are foreign to you, and the pursuit of learning and critical thinking for their own sake. The value in a university education is distinctly not monetary; the institution of the university itself was never designed with this in mind. Thus, we arrive at the tension between the intrinsic nature of the university (the pursuit of education) and the cultural shift in the view of the university (as vocational preparation and wealth creation).
So, where does this leave the arts? I think there are two very clear ramifications for the arts that result from this sort of societal and cultural pressure. One is obvious, the other, less so. First, and most obviously, in a cultural context that positively values those pursuits that generate wealth and/or power, the arts is in a bit of a bind in that it typically is not a huge generator for either. (Yes, artists that make it really big tend to make a lot of money, but the proportion of artists that make an above average salary compared to, say, accountants or lawyers is certainly smaller.) Thus, arts programs at all levels of education have to find ways to justify their existence in the absence of a realistic potential to be lucrative. We hear these tropes all the time: “Arts make the world worth living in,” “Kids who are involved in the arts to better in school,” and most nefarious of all, “Highly creative people are highly employable people.” (These are just a few of the many.) In this way, arts programs have to define their value and their success not on intrinsic factors like personal fulfillment and creative experience, but rather as a utility to external forces such as employability and performance in other facets of modern life deemed more “useful.”
There is, however, a second, less obvious issue that arises when we determine value in this manner. Not only do the arts themselves need to justify their own existence, but I have found that artists themselves split into sects and infight over whose pursuits are more marketable. I was very fortunate to attend a university for my two composition degrees that never really concerned itself with the amount of money that a student’s work might generate. Never once did I hear someone say “Well, that’s an interesting idea, but no one is going to buy it.” However, we all know that this is not the case everywhere. Every day, students’ artistic pursuits across the country are guided by speculation of future success as measured by marketability and not creativity. Of course, I can certainly forgive an institution for pushing their students toward more marketable forms of artistic expression when the institution’s very livelihood (and that of the department) rests on their students becoming successful in terms of the culture that surrounds it. It is all too easy to point the finger at the institutions, but the finger should really be pointed at contemporary culture, and ultimately, ourselves. That, out of all of this, might be the toughest pill to swallow. We all, in some way or another, are complicit in this modern system of “university as vocational training.”
This is where the crux of the issue lies: with us. I am guilty of this, without question. For years, I justified my pursuits of experimental and contemporary music by saying things like, “Well, you’d be surprised how much money you can actually make doing it,” or, “I know it’s not the most lucrative career field itself, but I’m definitely learning skills that could get me into something a little bit more secure,” etc. I’m sure you’ve all said something similar; as ashamed as I am, culture is one hell of a drug. However, here is my plea: no more. No more should we have to justify our pursuits by anything other than their intrinsic value. Toward the end of my doctorate, I was often getting the question, “Huh, so music theory…what are you going to do with that?” It took me a while, but I finally started answering, “What do you mean? I’m doing it now.” Those were some of the most empowering words I ever said, and still feel so to this day.
To those of you in academia, the arts, culture studies, or any sort of related field that contemporary culture hasn’t sanctified as “valuable,” I would encourage you to define your success in the self-fulfillment of the pursuit itself. Do not feel pressured to justify your actions in terms of some future or tangential monetary or cultural gain. At the heart of it all, there is honor and value in the pursuit of learning and creative expression of any kind. If you wake up and get excited about the art you make, the words you write, the things you read and study, and the thoughts and feelings that these pursuits stir within you, you are successful.
Ultimately, it is up to the university itself (and those of us involved in academia) to try to reorient the cultural milieu around the institution. We should advocate for these pursuits not because our students will earn high-paying jobs (though they might) or because they will be ensconced into positions of power and import, but because these pursuits are an inherent part of being a good citizen. To return to Mr. Belkin’s editorial, we need to remove the vocational aspect of the university and teach our students and each other to be critically-minded individuals. That, and not the potential to amass wealth, should be the cultural marker of success. In other words, is it the art-historian barista who has found intellectual fulfillment that is the failure, or is it the expression-starved culture that needs to be reassured that they are fulfilled?
Dr. Andrew Selle is a music theorist and composer and is currently a lecturer in music theory at Purdue University Fort Wayne.