A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education prompted thoughts about the role the arts play in a liberal education. The article, however, was not about the arts.
Let me explain. The article reviews a national study by Vanderbilt University sociologists Richard Pitt and Steven J. Tepper that examines the rise of double majors on college campuses. That study finds correlations between double majors and innovative thinking, confirming that study across the disciplines enhances the ability to make connections across subjects, to apply multiple intellectual perspectives to problems and issues, and to integrate knowledge in achieving more comprehensive understanding.
At Ursinus, student interest in the arts is growing. Of 217 students with double majors (the Ursinus rate is 14 percent, while the national rate is nine percent), 24 students have an arts discipline as a second major, and 19 have selected an arts field as a minor. Thirty-two students major in Music, Dance, Theater or Art, and many have second majors in other disciplines. Certainly at Ursinus, mirroring the trend elsewhere, STEM has picked up STEAM as students add Art to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. But beyond the sciences, Ursinus Business and Economics students have embraced music, Media and Communications Studies majors study art, and Politics and International Relations majors have found a passion for dance.
In the past, the arts were considered the finishing touch on a liberal arts education, adding cultural polish. Today we see the arts as integral to liberal learning, representing alternative ways of knowing, cultivating the affective apprehension of life, and emphasizing the performative as well as analytical dimensions of learning.
In writing, there is a difference between literary analysis and composing a poem. Engaging in literary analysis, we understand the whole by taking it apart. A poem, on the other hand, is an exhibit of how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The arts permit us to reconstitute elements into surprising, delightful patterns. The results go beyond aesthetics to entrepreneurial innovation. Students develop imagination as they are trained to look at existing objects and to make things anew. The late Steve Jobs credited Apple and Pixar’s success with being at the intersection of technology, the arts, and the humanities.
The playwright Tony Kushner has long believed in a liberal arts education that includes the arts, but he also contends that the arts need other disciplines as well. (His undergraduate degree was in medieval studies at Columbia University.) In a 2010 University of Chicago interview he said, “Critical skills as a reader will stand you in very good stead as a writer and also in very good stead as an actor, or a director or a painter. Being able to read the text and interpret it effectively, confidently with acuity and discernment is enormously important for the arts.”
How does all this impact the pursuit of vocation? The cellist Yo Yo Ma gave a lecture on Arts Advocacy Day earlier this month at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C. He made the case that the arts embody many of the characteristics employers are seeking in today’s workforce: “What will our graduates need in order to succeed?” he asked. “The experts say we need four qualities in our students and in our workforce: Collaborative, Flexible, Imaginative and Innovative.”
These traits reflect the newest employer survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. The survey finds that nearly all employers surveyed said that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” The employers give priority to skills that will help employees contribute to innovation in the workplace.
Ursinus boasts some young alumni who show enormous promise and innovation in the arts. Roger Lee 2010 recently performed at Ursinus with his own dance troupe. Theater major Drew Peterson 2003, who is involved in theater for young people, was noted in the New York Times for a recent role.
Sometimes the arts can lead to a different career choice. Such is the case with senior Matthew Chorney, an Environmental Studies major with Art History and Biology minors. He attended a Berman Museum symposium co-sponsored with Jefferson Medical College on Robert Frank’s photography and subsequently participated in the Berman student docent initiative on making art accessible to the physically impaired. He plans to attend Cooper Medical School of Rowan University this fall and eventually wants to launch a program for dementia patients, influenced by what he learned at the Berman.
Creative arts give students both depth and discipline. It’s why the arts are an integral aspect of liberal education.