Defending the Arts. Again.

When I was a Master’s student a decade ago at the University of Virginia, someone had posted on the department office wall a cartoon in which a young boy described his dad’s new girlfriend. She seemed really smart and motivated, the boy explained, because she talked about getting her “M.R.S. degree.”

“I think it’s something in the art history department,” he quipped.

The arts have, of late, been a punch line, if not a punching bag, in debates about the role of higher education. Frank Bruni points out that it’s not that new a phenomenon, but maybe it was President Obama’s dig at my field of art history in a 2014 speech that made it feel fresh.

The standard line of defense for the fine arts these days seems to be that they foster critical thinking, which is problematic. It’s not that it isn’t true.  The argument is that exposure to methodologies that question conventional approaches to knowledge – say, feminist theories of art history – is beneficial in the creation of good citizens, which is undeniably true. But it’s beside the point.  After all, biologists and physicists challenge conventional wisdom and push the envelope too. (Check out a compelling critique, from a slightly different point of view, of the critical-thinking argument here.)

The arts are not important solely because they do what other disciplines in the humanities can do.  Rather, they’re important because they do what other disciplines cannot.  They are crucial because they are our humanity. As Alissa J. Rubin wrote, the destruction in Aleppo, Damascus, and countless other cities, and the looting of countless archaeological sites, including Dura-Europos (which I routinely teach in art history survey courses), means the loss not only of buildings, mosaics and frescos but also of the knowledge that different religions coexisted in this now war-torn space. And losing that history only enables those who’d wish to marginalize or eliminate groups with whom they differ. It’s about a lot more than buildings.

Are the arts a luxury? Maybe. Do your students ever ask you this? Friends outside of academia? If you are in a STEM field, what is your opinion of the arts and the purpose of the academy? How have the humanities impacted your work? It seems utterly silly to me that the humanities need to be defended at all, or that they’re derided as luxuries. We couldn’t do without them.

Author: Rebecca Shields

Art historian extraordinaire, would-be travel diarist and professional Anglophile.

One thought on “Defending the Arts. Again.”

  1. I went to a liberal arts school for my undergraduate degree but majored in biomedical engineering. I loved my experience at the school and the education I received from my required liberal arts classes. I even picked up a minor in Theology. With that being said there are two main reasons to pursue a degree.

    1) Education to increase skills and economic value
    2) Education for personal fulfillment and joy.

    Although not mutually exclusive, before deciding to spend money and time obtaining a degree, we have to reflect on why we want to get the education. Will the degree actually increase marketability and the chance for employment? Or is it solely for self-enrichment?

    First let me say that I am not trying to bash humanities degrees or the people who pursue them. I just want to present facts. Hopefully we can agree, that an Art major coming out of college will on average make less than an engineering major ( This has to do with how the economy values different professions, not their importance in society or the personal value one receives from pursuing the profession.

    Currently there is a myth floating around our culture that a degree in any subject will come with a guaranteed job after college. This is simply not the case. Economically speaking, all degrees are not the same. Graduates figure this out when the job offers don’t come flying in after they get the degree, but instead of thinking that the field of choice is not marketable, they assume more education is necessary… so they go to grad school. This usually comes at a great cost.

    This myth is fueling one of the greatest financial epidemics in American history: The student loan crisis. With the total owed at over $1.2 trillion and a default rate approaching 20%. ( Clearly there is a disparity between the amount paid for education and the salary received after graduation. I’m not saying that the loan crisis is only caused by humanities majors because it surely is not. I am saying that we need to teach children that it is utterly absurd to go $80,000 dollars in debt to pursue a degree that will only make them $30,000 a year.

    All education is valuable to the soul but we can’t ignore the cost or the potential economic rate of return.

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