Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Something for Artists to Consider

An Artistic Utopia?

By Vedran Vuk, Casey Research

Higher education faces many problems, but one issue has been persistent much longer than low standards and watered-down degrees. For decades, we’ve been pumping out too many music, arts, and English majors. Don’t get me wrong – the arts are very important topics. I would hate to see a world without them, but in the long run, America isn’t going to stay competitive with a culture of poets.

Once upon a time, a good, steady job at the local factory was worth looking forward to. The most mind-numbing work was both respected and demanded. Since then, America has shifted to a society where everyone is encouraged to “do what makes you happy” instead of “do what puts bread on the table.”

As a result, arts students are plentiful. No other career avenues as whimsical are similarly encouraged. Think of sports. Who wouldn’t want to be a famous football player, basketball star, or boxing champ? Yet when someone dreams of being Michael Jordan or Brett Favre, with only relatively few exceptions – when real talent is visible –society smashes the dreamer back to reality.

On the other hand, should one wish to be the next Picasso or Mozart, scholarships will be made available and throngs of colleges will offer admission. There’s a lot for the arts to learn from the world of sports – particularly the competitive realism.

In sports, if someone doesn’t perform well during tryouts, he doesn’t get on the team. Further, getting on the team doesn’t guarantee game time – every team has benchwarmers. Beyond the high school level, the selection process intensifies. The best high school players often can’t even get on a community college team. By the time college ends, only a minority will compete professionally.

Though sometimes emotionally cruel, the process serves society well. By limiting entrance, society retains and rewards the best while ensuring others don’t waste their time.

Could you imagine if sports worked like arts? Tens of thousands of students each year would be accepted by football teams around the country as “football majors.” Sure, the majority of them would have no chance of playing, but nonetheless, they would be on the team. And when they don’t get an NFL position, their best options would be a high school teaching job or the Starbucks counter – just like art history majors now.

There are further problems in the arts limiting the job market. Society does not demand just artists but instead only great artists. Most graduates in any field or profession simply become average and mediocre at their craft. But average in the arts practically guarantees unemployment.

Mediocre and average accountants, nurses, and IT techs have a place in the world. However, the mediocre artist rarely does. Either you’re in the top 10 percent of artists or you’re close to useless, much like in the sports world. No one wants to see an average or slightly above-average sports team compete.

Arts education needs more cruelty. If a college sees that a student will become an average or just above-average art student, they shouldn’t let them in at all. Yes, it’s mean – just like not being picked for the basketball team or the football team. But in the long run, the coach or professor making the decision is doing the student a favor.

It’s socially irresponsible for colleges to essentially set students up for career failure. And when students with enormous student loans fail, the rest of society has to pick up the slack.

Of course, there is the argument that some people just love doing the arts, so we should continue lenient entrances. Look, I’m positive that I know people who love soccer, football, and baseball just as much as a music student loves music. But enjoying an activity is no reason to waste human capital and later burden society with ill-advised career choices.

We have to remember that we’re barely out of the jungle. The 80-hour factory work week is not far behind us. America has not reached a new utopia where our careers can be nothing but pure joy. A little realism could go a long way to restoring our competitive advantages through education.