|Student work: Kevin Boyko, "Chicken Toss"|
The new Pool Arts Center soon to take shape on the eastern edge of Drury's campus is a much-anticipated facility for students. But more than that, it's the latest addition to Drury's legacy of belief in and support for the arts. From its earliest days, Drury has held that the arts are an integral part of a quality education. The new facility backs up dogma with dollars - $1.6 million, to be exact, raised from donors who recognize the value of fine arts. Such substantial support is increasingly rare.
According to a February 2001 national survey, 91 percent of people consider the arts important to a complete education. But according to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), support for liberal arts education is eroding as some universities respond to market pressures and shift resources to vocational courses and to departments that attract greater research dollars.
When the budget belt needs tightening, too many institutions save the science and abandon the arts. Even those who keep arts programs often relegate them to second-class status. In 1996, fine arts scholars' average annual salaries lagged more than $25,000 behind those of their peers in other disciplines.
There's a domino effect, too, from a decline in arts offerings before college. As fewer students are initiated into the arts at an early age, interest at the undergraduate level is waning. While majors in areas like computer sciences, health professions and business administration increased up to ten-fold, only 9 percent of students claimed interest in the humanities on preliminary SATs, according to W.R. Connor, president of the National Humanities Center.
At Drury University, however, the arts are thriving. Theatre professor Ruth Monroe reports an increase in student participation, and other arts programs also boast continued growth. Arts majors and non-majors alike are getting involved as they embrace the holistic approach of a liberal arts education.
Strong Support for Arts Education
While some statistics show a decline in the arts, there are many who hope to reverse the trend. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige advocates considering music and the arts core subjects. The PCAH calls liberal arts an essential component of higher education and urges colleges and universities to "resist the over-professionalization of the undergraduate curriculum by strengthening the liberal arts."
Strong arts programs also benefit the economy. In their 2000 report The Role of the Arts in Economic Development, The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices reported that the arts generate $36 billion in business and support 1.3 million full-time jobs.
Recognizing the importance of liberal arts education for a thriving society is not a recent development; it's rooted in ancient Greek and Roman culture. The word liberal comes from the Latin liberalis, meaning "suitable for a freeman." Liberal arts were skills considered to require superior mental ability, as opposed to manual labor which was relegated to slaves. Freemen were expected to learn "arts" or disciplines that would equip them to lead society. Liberal education was believed to be inextricably linked to freedom itself.
Producing Global Skills for Today's Global Community
|Christiane Martens |
As we enter a new millennium, and at a time when we are newly challenged by terrorism and violence, inspiring and creative leadership has never been more crucial. Society is increasingly global in scope, and to thrive, we must be able not only to understand but also to appreciate other cultures, traditions and ways of thinking, and to integrate other approaches and philosophies with our own. A liberal arts education, especially as practiced at Drury, produces individuals with a multicultural perspective, a respect for diversity and an understanding of the need for a global community.
Today's economy - and thus the professional world - requires global skills as well. Just as the survival of small, local farms and businesses was threatened when corporate farming and "big box" retailers found new ways to dominate the market, so the survival of today's companies is at stake. Only those who can think independently, pioneering new solutions and adapting them quickly, will be able to capitalize on markets now opening around the world.
Beyond economic buoyancy, new moral and ethical challenges are pressing upon us as well. What are the implications of human cloning and stem cell research? How can we maintain current lifestyles and preserve the environment? According to e-business company Bowstreet's chairman, Frank Moss, "We need not just scientists who say what we can do, but people with broad intellectual and liberal arts backgrounds who say what we shouldn't do."
Making those decisions wisely means knowing who we are, what we value, what we believe, and why. Dr. Charles Ess, director of Drury's Interdisciplinary Studies Center, believes college is the place where much of this personal and ethical development occurs. "For the individual, liberal arts education is a process of growing up - of taking responsibility for one's own beliefs, rather than relying on the authority of tradition and the forces of social conformity. For the larger society, liberal arts education thereby contributes to social progress."
Equipping Students for Success
|Drury Orchestra - 1900|
While universities must prepare global citizens, they also must equip students for individual success. Experts predict that people entering the work force now will change careers four or five times in the course of their professional lives. Since no one can predict what turns a career path will take, today's students need an education that provides each with the ability to think and adapt - to synthesize and apply knowledge in new situations. This is the strength of a liberal arts education.
The disciplines of a liberal arts education provide students with a solid base of knowledge. At Drury, students are urged to develop a versatile set of skills: thinking critically, planning and executing research, managing information, communicating effectively, setting and evaluating values and knowing one's self.
These are transferable skills. In fact, USA Today found liberal arts degrees were common among current Fortune 500 CEOs - tied for second place with business administration. Executives whose college major seems unrelated to their current careers are not unusual - and not apologetic. These CEOs don't consider their non-business degrees irrelevant. They draw on the knowledge gained in their courses of study when making daily business decisions. And in some cases, their liberal arts degrees opened doors that an economics or business degree may not have budged.
Drury University has its own stories of liberal arts education providing individuals with the flexibility to switch career tracks. Robin Schraft, the chair of the theatre department, studied to be a podiatrist. When he realized that wasn't for him, he turned to theater. When he decided he didn't want to tour, he chose to teach. "My teaching was anchored," Schraft says, "not on what my major had been, but on all the things I had gotten out of the liberal arts as a process." Schraft's life experience has made him a strong supporter of diverse learning: "I don't really think you can truly study outside of the liberal arts."
Drury graduate H. Haden Yelin is another example of how liberal arts education provides career flexibility. As a pre-law student, Yelin joined the Drury Lane Troupers acting club. She went on to finish law school and land a position in a large firm - which she later gave up for a job as a cruise director that would also allow her to perform stand-up comedy. Yelin then turned to writing and today is an award-winning screenwriter. Though she never took theater classes, Yelin's experience at Drury gave her the tools she needed to find her own path.
Arts Fulfill an Educational Mission
If the humanities and sciences are the flesh and bones of a liberal arts education, the arts are the spirit. And as the body is dead without the soul, so education is hollow without the affect and meaning the arts provide. But for those who value the tangible and practical, there are some surprising findings to consider about the influential role the arts play in our lives.
Individual Link to Academic Success
|Drury theatre: Antigone, 1897|
Several research projects have shown that studying the arts significantly improves learning in other areas. Because the arts engage students intellectually, emotionally and physically, learning experiences become more effective. And while learning in most disciplines focuses on only one area of skill, studying the arts helps develop cognitive, personal and social skills.
The Arts Education Partnership, in its report Champions of Change: the Impact of the Arts on Learning found that students "with high levels of arts participation outperform 'arts-poor' students by virtually every measure." Analysis of their database of 25,000 students showed that consistent involvement in music and theater corresponded with success in math and reading.
Music especially seems helpful in academia. When 7,500 university students were tested in reading, music majors boasted the highest scores, outranking all majors, including English! The fractions, proportions, ratios, and time-space factors involved in music also make it a discipline that increases aptitude in several scientific fields. Among medical school applicants, 66 percent of music majors were admitted - more than any other group, including biochemistry majors, of which only 44 percent were accepted.
Impact on Our Lives
As they work through the intensely personal task of creating, students become more fully engaged and invested in their education. That sense of involvement carries over into improved attitudes toward each other.
Drury's Dr. Ess believes that the point of art is to help us examine our lives and live more freely and humanely. Examples of this ideal are not hard to find, and include Sherman Alexie, who used writing to break free of poverty on the Indian reservation where he grew up. As a poet and novelist, Alexie has won a PEN/Hemingway award, and was identified by The New Yorker as one of the top writers for the 21st century.
"What Can I Do With an Arts Degree?"
|Student work: Sarrita Hunn, "Selissa, 2000"|
Though many parents and students worry that an arts degree won't help them in a tough job market, evidence is to the contrary. "Many corporate executives understand that today's competitive international marketplace demands workers whose education develops their critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, creativity and interpersonal acumen. The arts are essential to cultivating these attributes," the PCAH found.
Professor Ruth Monroe agrees, stating that theater "is perhaps the best training students can have in developing skills for working in interdependent situations. Theater production demands that live performance before an audience (acting) be interfaced with visual art (scenic, lighting and costume design), practical skills (building scenery and costumes), auditory art (sound design), business skills (advertising and selling tickets and box office management) and providing for patrons' comfort (house management). All of these tasks must be done well and in cooperation to create a good production. Thus, students in theater must learn not only skills for doing the creative work, they must also develop a high degree of skill in interpersonal relationships. There are few careers in which persons do not have to work interdependently with other people."
Stephen Good, Drury's vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, notes that literature gives us the benefit of considering complex moral and ethical issues in a safe environment so that, when we face real dilemmas in life, we are better prepared to deal with them intelligently and with a broader context of knowledge. A graduate in a new career has "a whole host of experiences" from which to draw insight.
Such certainly seems to be the case with Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Rather than taking business courses, Eisner spent his college years studying English and theater. Far from feeling this left him lacking in life skills, Eisner argues that "literature is unbelievably helpful, because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships." He has encouraged his three sons to study liberal arts as well.
Compatibility of the arts and the marketplace also are affirmed by the Champions for Change findings: "The world of adult work has changed ... Ideas are what matter, and the ability to generate ideas, to bring ideas to life and to communicate them is what matters to workplace success. Working in a classroom or a studio as an artist, the young person is learning and practicing future workplace behaviors."
Similarly, an ArtsConnection study showed that the arts help students "develop the capacity to experience 'flow,' self-regulation, identity and resilience - qualities regularly associated with personal success."
Reflecting the Past
English reformer John Ruskin believed that "great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last."
We have perhaps no better window into human history than the arts because they are shaped by the times in which they are produced - the contemporary political, economic and social climates. Cathedrals communicate the ethos of 12th-century Christians. The changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution inspired much great 19th-century writing. The works of Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair speak vividly about each writer's times. Napoleon's reign and the French Revolution heavily influenced that nation's art. Norman Rockwell's paintings are icons of rural America in the early 20th century. Artists interpret and preserve the beliefs, struggles, styles and ideals of their society for future generations.
Enriching the Present
|Student work: Ben Bunch, No title given|
While many will concede the value of the arts for historical context, some have relegated arts involvement today to the category of "optional." In a culture that prides itself on efficiency and values the bottom line, setting aside the time and money needed for the arts seems increasingly difficult. More immediate needs demand our resources and attention. But President John F. Kennedy spoke against this trend: "The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose - and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization."
One fact many people don't realize is that the arts are a good investment. The Cultural Affairs Commission in Dallas, Texas, found that each dollar spent on cultural programs made a $298 impact on the economy. New York state has reported a staggering 700 percent return on arts spending.
But the arts do more than support our economy. President Ronald Reagan held that "the existence of strong music and fine arts curricula are important to keeping the humanities truly humanizing and the liberal arts truly liberating." A brief scan of history affirms this truth and reminds us that only the most unhealthy societies devalue or attempt to quell the arts.
The arts also are recognized, notably by the US Department of Education, as a key element in developing skills for lifelong learning. In a written statement, former Secretary of Education Richard Riley said that "America is in transition. If young Americans are to succeed, they will need an education that develops imaginative, flexible and tough-minded thinking. The arts powerfully nurture the ability to think in this manner."
Perhaps the most humane effect of the arts in our modern society was noted in the study by the PCAH: By unlocking our potential creativity, involvement in the arts "lifts us beyond our isolated individualism to shared understanding. The arts offer lessons on the human condition that connect individuals to the community and overcome the social fragmentation that many Americans feel. To remain a robust civil society," the committee concludes, "our democratic systems need the arts."
Dean Good believes that as art helps us develop empathy with and appreciation of people and cultures different from our own, it ranks among the most significant contributions we can make to our world.
Events in Sheboygan, WI, display a microcosm of these benefits of the arts. During the Vietnam War, many Hmong people migrated to the United States from Thai refugee camps, where they had fled to escape severe persecution in their Cambodian and Laotian homelands. Though now safe in Sheboygan, the unique Hmong culture isolated them. But their rich heritage of visual and performing arts opened the doors of community fellowship and opportunity for the Hmong.
Intrigued by Hmong folk art, curators at a local arts center arranged what became the best-attended show the center had ever presented. That success sparked a national tour, but perhaps even more meaningful were the far-reaching effects in the community. Sheboygan's largely German population saw the patience and seriousness with which Hmong artisans approached their craft, and appreciated the immigrants' job skills. Vue Yang, a Hmong community leader, reports, "This exhibition really helped our unemployment rate."
Imagining the Future
|Drury theatre: Fool for Love, 1999|
Perhaps the most crucial role of the arts is to prepare us for the future. If we require no more benefit of education than trade skills adequate to sustain a myopic existence, then perhaps the arts are an unnecessary diversion. But if the goal of a liberal arts education is to produce empathetic, dynamic individuals; if the goal is to prepare our nation's - and the world's - next leaders; if our desire is for a peaceful and free global community, then the arts must hold a valued place in our universities.
"It is absolutely necessary in a democracy that people be given a safe venue to try out concepts freely," says Tom Parker, professor of art at Drury. "If you can get the kids to do that, to take risks, they can effectively pursue an unexpected agenda." And life, as we realize more clearly each day we live it, is full of the unexpected - both triumph and tragedy - that we must be prepared to face.
Science and technology have brought us and will take us far. The question is, in which direction? Technical skill was enough for terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center, attack the Pentagon, and murder thousands of innocent victims. Biological engineering is all too evident in the anthrax scare that followed the attacks. Only a heightened sense of understanding and the ability to find creative solutions will enable us to successfully address the problems that threaten our society.
What we want for the future can be created today through involvement in and support for the arts.
Dawn M. Brandon is a writer and editor who lives in Springfield, Missouri.