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The Value of the Arts in Education & Life

Stephanie Milling

Stephanie Milling

As a university administrator and associate professor, I frequently interact with parents who visit our campus with respective students. The one question that is always interesting to field is, “What will my child be able to do with a degree in (fill in your respective arts area here)?”

From a financial standpoint the question is a valid one: parents want to know that their investment in their child’s future is going to lead to gainful employment and prevent him/her from returning home and living on their couch after graduation. However, the assumption that any college degree, regardless the area of study, will lead to a specific job is a misconception.

While a degree does set one on a career path with a specific skill set, it does not guarantee employment in any specific field. The question is also valid because in my experience, the knowledge that a majority of students and their parents have of the opportunities in the arts is limited to practical involvement in their respective art area of study: singing, painting, dancing, acting, etc.

In higher education, I have witnessed practicing an art form as the point of entry that many students take into their respective fields. However, that initial exposure leads them to a variety of careers within and outside of the arts. Therefore, I try to quell the notion that a degree in the arts leads to being a starving artist. Instead, I point them to resources that will help them expand their perspective of the possible career options for those with arts backgrounds and discuss the transferable skills that students learn within the arts.

If someone wants to work in the arts or an arts-related field upon graduation, the choices are numerous and extend beyond practical involvement in the field. Many college arts programs and career centers post information about the careers a person can pursue with a degree in specific arts area.

The Career Center at Boston College and The Career Center at the University of California Berkeley are two just examples of this type that can be located on college and university websites. By directing prospective students and parents to such resources, it enables them to peruse career profiles and their accompanying qualifications. In addition, many of these web pages include links to other websites for internship possibilities, professional organizations, and career finder search engines.

Making the connection between a college major, a prospective job in the field, and the professional networks that exist for various arts-related professions is one way of helping people understand that individuals in the arts do work and contribute to the functioning of industry in a variety of ways.

While there are specific long-standing careers in the arts and arts-related professions, recent discussions in higher education circles and news media have revolved around arts entrepreneurship and innovation.

At the International Council of Fine Arts Deans conference that I attended in October, James Undercofler, Artistic Director of the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland and special advisor to Ithaca College’s new MA in Entrepreneurship in the Arts, spoke about how today’s arts students are inventing their own careers. He frequently blogs for Arts Journal and shares Entrepreneurship in Music and Arts Student Projects completed by students at Drexel University.

The projects demonstrate how the students are able to think outside of the box and create their own opportunities within the arts. “Innovation-ready” students who are inventing jobs are discussed by Thomas L. Friedman in an op-ed piece entitled “Need a Job? Invent It” recently published in The New York Times. In his review of Tony Wagner’s book entitled Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Friedman summarizes Wagner’s argument regarding education reform in the United States.

Wagner believes that students in the United States are getting shortchanged when curricula does not allow them to develop creative problem solving and critical thinking skills: these are the capabilities that he believes will set them apart in a competitive marketplace where employers are expecting workers to do more than possess knowledge of their field and demonstrate innovative ways to use their knowledge.

A similar sentiment was discussed in “The value of a liberal-arts education spurs major debate,” a recent article in The Columbus Dispatch. Creativity is being valued in corporate America, which is demonstrated by a recent example discussed in “Dance troupe markets creativity to cube-dwellers.” This article highlights the efforts of Hewlett Packard as the organization has engaged Trey McIntyre Project, a dance company, to help employees learn about creative process and its potential in the workplace.

There are countless other articles that have appeared in recent media sources, and I am sure that you have discovered similar stories that I encourage you to share. I have begun compiling these resources to use as tangible examples to support the list of careers in the arts to help me I am asked what one can do with a degree in the arts. Perhaps real world stories like these might resonate with skeptics in a way that research cannot and encourage a perspective that values the arts at the center of human experience.