Higher Education

OPINION: The case for a Bachelor of Arts — what Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand about this “Noble Pursuit”

Debunking the common wisdom

Dancers at the University of Texas, Austin, College of Fine Arts.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has praised vocational schools and/or community colleges as “noble pursuits” for low-income people who can’t afford a four-year bachelor’s program.

On its surface, that sounds like a generous, open-hearted argument. But for those about to embark on the critical years after high school, when life missions are formed, and crucial networks of support are established, this argument, and the underlying lack of support for funding of higher education it implies, is not only short sighted. It’s bitterly limiting — and threatening. Especially to students who dream of studying the arts.

As a professor in the Theatre and Dance program at the University of Texas-Austin, I’m used to hearing arguments against the validity of my own program. In 2016, the average student came out of college with an average of  $37, 172 in debt. For those who study the arts, popular opinion seems to dictate that their chosen field of study is leading them straight to a life of unhappiness and debt.

Related: Can testing save arts education?

The common wisdom, including in the business and arts fields, is that employers don’t value an arts degree. My colleagues and I would beg to differ.

Twenty-five years ago, I enrolled in the theatre and dance program where I now teach. I had produced my first play at age 14 at a local community theatre, and felt an immediate calling. The program’s focus on regional theatre of the era – with its hierarchical breakdown of roles (producer-director-designers and actors – crew) — offered little preparation for my first out of college job as the managing director of an arts nonprofit in which I was also a company member.

Within a few years, I was touring as an independent, producing artist. Later, in the wake of those same culture wars, I got into policy, to advocate for artists like myself. My lessons were piecemeal. My teaching, in response, is strategic.  I also believe the students who pursue a liberal arts degree at our university are making a strategic decision.

Related: The surprising institutions that refuse to drop the liberal arts

We know that an arts training is adaptable and can contribute to innovation in many diverse fields. From experience as students and as professors, many of us know that sharing such information can be vital to students’ morale and motivation, especially in the face of naysayers and know-it-alls from other sectors.

In a recent column promoting the business- and tech-oriented website LaunchMyCareerTX.org, business writer Chris Tomlinson cited that Gallup surveys showed that “only 53 percent of performing arts majors say they are deeply interested in their current jobs.”

Interestingly, data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), a longitudinal study of arts graduates introduced in 2010, argues that upwards of 87 percent of arts graduates experience satisfaction in their current work. Satisfaction is measured in creativity, work related to personal interests, work that has meaning and potential for advancement. SNAAP’s data is derived from all arts alumni of nearly 300 participating institutions. As a dancer, turned writer-performer and, now, professor, I’m one of them.

In fact, artistic creativity and know-how fuels more than satisfaction. The tech sector, arguably the fastest growing segment of new work for college graduates, values non-technical liberal arts skills in hiring, especially for creative marketing and strategic planning jobs. In Silicon Valley, the non-profit Zero 1: The Art and Technology Network, places artists in large tech companies to work alongside engineers designing products and software for the future. Forwarding-looking enterprises like FaceBook andMIT/Harvard’s Broad Institute hire artists to create work cheek by jowl with tech innovation teams.

Related: Can the arts get students to college?

Two decades ago, in the wake of “Culture Wars” that vilified artists and resulted in the Congress savaging public funding for artists in the U.S., leaders of the greater arts sector undertook a comprehensive rebuilding effort.

Rather than take public support for granted, researchers began to document what theatre, dance, film, music, literature and visual arts contribute to society and how artists produce reward, economically and socially.

Organizations like the American Assembly, the Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation pioneered the conceptual and empirical frameworks for articulating culture’s contributions.

Innovative capacity-building followed on a national scale. The Ford Foundation supported the launch of a 10-year initiative dedicated to creating new modes of support for the arts and artists Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC). LINC funded groundbreaking research on artists in diverse communities, including the First Nation.

Nurturing local coalitions of artist advocates, they hosted national gatherings where groups could learn from each other on how to build live-and-work space for artists and tailor entrepreneurial training to artists’ strengths and weaknesses. LINC supported social science research on artists’ working conditions and career-building strategies, as well as on how the for-profit cultural industries (motion pictures, recorded music, book publishers, commercial theatre) benefit from artists’ on-the-job learning in the nonprofit arts.

In 2008, the Surdna Foundation, with support from the Houston Endowment, launched SNAAP, a successful national survey of graduates of arts high school, conservatory, college and university programs to explore what they value (and found lacking) in their institutions, how their training has positioned them for their careers, and what arts skills they are using their current jobs.

Related: The push for standards is seeping into arts education

At UT, we recognize that our students will graduate into an economy that offers fewer and fewer traditional jobs. My colleagues and I build good citizens in courses that teach critical thinking, complex problem solving and effective communication, qualities highly sought by employers responding to a National Survey of Business Leaders. Our focus on cultural diversity, ethics and innovation also generates capacities valued by 95% of business leaders in the same study.

I recently read an ad for a job opening at Google requesting that a candidate “possess outstanding communication skills, with the ability to describe potentially complex creative solutions with clear, straightforward and inspirational language.”

We are likely to see many more jobs for college grads stress these capabilities. And we welcome them because they help us structure our lessons in turn.

We advise our students to be decisive about their choices, thorough in their research, collaborative in spirit and articulate about their contributions.  One of our first exercises is to have them research the mission, values and history of local arts organizations, in order to orient them in how they benefit an entire community, providing social, cultural and economic impact.

A worthy goal we hope they’ll aspire to on their own.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez is an associate professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Texas-Austin and a Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project.

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Paul Bonin-Rodriguez

Paul Bonin-Rodriguez is an associate professor in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Texas-Austin and a Public Voices Fellow With the… See Archive