In the late Eighteen Hundreds Harvard decided to add an “art appreciation” course to its offerings and thus began a recognition by higher education that knowing about and, later to come, engaging in the arts was a good thing for students in American colleges and universities. Centuries before, the University of Paris had established music as one of the major subjects of study but that effort, of course, was driven by the University’s interest in mathematics, not aesthetic sensibilities.
By the 1940’s and 1950’s American higher education was steeped in both required arts courses as well as the blossoming of full-fledged programs of study in the arts. By the end of the Twentieth Century music, theatre(er), visual arts, and dance were acknowledged members of the academy. In most places, respected; in some, only tolerated.
From this admittedly brief and over-generalized history it is clear that the arts were increasingly enjoying a place of acceptance, even respect, within the academy. Those good days seem to be passing as the nation tightens its fiscal belt and increasingly questions the value of higher education, gravitating now toward a valuing system that focuses on careers and income potential (e.g., check out this naïve post to Yahoo! Education, Don’t Let your Kids Study These Majors. Business practices are dictating the course of higher education and the arts are being forced into a box lined with expectations that tend to minimize the “real” values of the arts and ignoring the “real” contribution the arts have and continue to make to our system of higher education. Squeezed into submission, American colleges and universities are scrambling to parasitically survive by attaching themselves to STEM or giving lip service to career development or just giving up and eliminating arts programs.
It would be foolish to suggest that we must resist these trends, rallying to the cause and fighting against the business model. We are too insignificant within the academic community to influence the direction of higher education; costs are rising, revenues are shrinking, expectations are changing. For the arts to survive (in a form of which we in the arts can all stand proud), however, requires that we accept the inevitable but we must invest our creativity and resolve to find ways to fit within a new infrastructure while retaining our passion for the magical power of the arts in our lives.
We do not have to compromise our values in order to accommodate the new directions that on the surface seem to be transforming academe into economic and social engines that deliver a workforce to this nation. To protect that which we value, all we have to do is quietly and intentionally commit to preparing graduates who have the skills, knowledge, and creative acumen to excel while also acquiring the experiences and spirit to ensure lifelong success in art and design. We can and must do both!