Arts: The Mother of Invention (from The pARTnership Movement)

Posted by Janet Langsam, May 03, 2012 1 comment

Janet Langsam

Every morning, I turn on the treadmill, tune into the Today Show and run until I bank 150 calories to earn a glass of Chardonnay at the end of the day.

Matt Lauer and the NBC crew are usually just eye candy and background chatter, but [April 25] they hit a nerve talking about college degrees that may be “useless” like “fine arts, drama, philosophy, religious studies,” when it comes to getting a job. Lauer quoted a recent poll that said that one out of two recent college grads are either unemployed or underemployed.

Donny Deutsch, one of the Today panelists said, “I never looked at a (college) major in my life in hiring people.”

And a good thing too since the National Arts Index published by the advocacy organization Americans for the Arts, indicates that interest in the arts as a college major is growing. It says that from 1996–2010 more than 1.5 million degrees were awarded in visual and performing arts, with annual graduations growing steadily from 75,000 to 129,000—an increase of 73 percent.

Could all these college bound kids be wasting their time?

Fortunately, according to the Americans for the Arts website, there are a growing number of jobs out there in creative industries that range from museums, symphonies, and theaters to small for-profit film, video, music, architecture, digital games, and advertising companies. So one doesn’t necessarily need to land a leading role on Broadway to use their arts degree.

“Nationally, there are 904,581 businesses in the U.S. involved in the creation or distribution of the arts that employ 3.34 million people. Representing 4.25 percent of all businesses and 2.15 percent of all employees, respectively,quotes the site. In case one is tempted to quibble with these figures, they come from the most trusted of sources, Dun & Bradstreet.

Like any other subject, there are at least two or maybe a hundred schools of thought, and we Neanderthals in the arts believe that “creativity” is a good enough reason to study the arts.

According to Newsweek in a 2010 article entitled "Creativity Crisis": “A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care.”

The fact is that our businesses are crying out for creative employees…and…perhaps some of them learned to think creatively through the arts. The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful says Newsweek.

Steve Jobs said that this wouldn't have had different type faces without the arts.

While the arts don’t have a monopoly on left brain thinking or creative problem solving, they do have a remarkable track record.

So why is Lauer posing the question, “are (college) degrees in things like fine arts, drama, etc…useless when it comes to getting a job?”

Years ago (defined as when I went to college) a liberal arts education was thought to be the smartest and most comprehensive degree to pursue in preparation for a career in any field. Now, in this age of specialization, there is a college degree to be had in every narrow silo that fits a job description that may be “useless” in years to come.

I somehow doubt that such myopia will bring an entrepreneurial spirit back to American business.

Steve Jobs for one gave credit to a single calligraphy course in college, without which he says “the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”

Who knows where inspiration will come from next, so don’t sell the arts short. It is the mother of invention.

(Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Janet Langsam's blog on April 25, 2012.)

This post is also one in a series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts' campaign to to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage. Visit our website to find out how both businesses and local arts agencies can get involved!

1 responses for Arts: The Mother of Invention (from The pARTnership Movement)


Ken Tabachnick says
May 04, 2012 at 9:02 am

Your recent post about Matt Lauer’s recent report on arts degrees (which I did not see) caught my eye. Despite what is reported in the national survey quoted or referred to, there is other data that shows a growing understanding that educating the whole student is really the key to success.

The recent SNAAP(Strategic National Arts Alumni Project) survey has some interesting numbers that are relevant to the comments Matt Lauer reportedly made. Of those who replied (some 13,000+ alumni who graduated with "arts degrees" nationwide), some 63% are currently working in the arts. More tellingly, over 90% of those interviewed who said they want to work are currently working!

Of those working, the skills learned that they assert are most helpful (whether working in the arts or not) are: critical thinking, creativity, and teamwork.

These all sound like transferable skills that would make someone in demand in our economy. This was recently validated by the current biennial CEO study undertaken by IBM. After interviewing over 2000 CEOs worldwide, the single most critical "skill" CEOs are looking for in the employees they intend to hire is CREATIVITY. In past studies, it was complexity, which this year is second.

In a similar vein, a study by Robert Root-Bernstein (and others) documents the relation between artistic capability and scientific invention. The study documents that more than 90% of Nobel laureates in the sciences participate in the arts professionally or avocationally. The study also showed that members of the Royal Society and National Academy of Sciences are more likely to participate in the arts than the public at large. Conversely, there is a large tradition of composers or other artists who are involved in the sciences.

Finally, on a more local note, our most recent study of Purchase College graduates, completed one year after graduation, shows that the vast majority of our students are either working, in graduate school, or both. Of those who graduated with a degree in the arts, these numbers are just as high.

In short, while there are many pre-conceived notions of arts training, value after the training, and success, there is data that presents a picture different than the study Matt Lauer reported on. While the relation between education and success is fairly well documented, it behooves us to carefully consider the less clear connection between breadth of curriculum (or rather the lack thereof) and success.

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