April 20, 2012

Universities amp up the arts. But who’s helping whom?

The arts on campuses seem to be entering a period of unprecedented investment and attention, with ‘arts districts’ and strategic initiatives and a new profile even at institutions famous for cultivating the other regions of the brain. Maybe it’s no coincidence that this comes at a time when the value and relevance of higher education and the value and relevance of the traditional arts (especially to young people) are being challenged  from all directions.

Yesterday, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art announced that its new building would be designed by busy art-world architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Nothing surprising there; campus art museums at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin, Michigan State and many others are building or recently opened gleaming facilities, most of them designed by the same architects that have been creating all those new wings and renovations for larger, non-college museums around the country.

What caught my eye was the university’s positioning of the new Hood and other Dartmouth arts facilities as an “arts district.” This centralizing impulse — thinking about the arts at the level of the university rather than the level of individual organizations or programs — is being felt widely these days. 

MIT just announced its new Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) with a founding gift of $1.5 million from the Mellon Foundation and a vision of better integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum. (That’s something Mellon has been interested in, and funding generously, for almost twenty years, with a particular focus on university art museums and their connections to other academic departments and disciplines.)

And new arts initiatives are underway at Stanford, the University of Chicago (including an interesting new center), Harvard, and many other universities, all promulgating the basic idea that the arts (doing them as well as seeing them) are good ways of learning about much more than the arts. Harvard describes the trend succinctly right on the cover of its 2008 “Report of the Task Force on the Arts” [summary here, full pdf here]: the arts must become

an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge.

Behind all this attention is a major shift in thinking about what the arts are and what they’re for. The language of these university arts plans visions puts notions like ‘creativity,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘innovation’ front and center. It’s not about learning the arts, which was the dominant paradigm for several decades. In a sense, it’s not about music or dance or theater or painting and sculpture at all. It’s about cultivating the kind of capacities that we (nowadays) associate with artistic creativity and performance: the ability to start with a blank page and see what belongs there; to improvise; to make intuitive connections; to bring people and groups together; to bridge ideas and feelings in a spirit of playful challenge. ...

That shift is going to have deep ramifications, both for the arts and (as this piece by Steven Tepper and Elizabeth Long Lingo argues) for education. Of course, it’s not confined to universities. Increasingly, the arts are seen on a continuum with other kinds of creativity, invention, and learning — including the scientific kind, as evidenced by the ‘STEM to STEAM’ movement, which seeks to get the arts into the inner circle with science, technology, engineering, and math. But its earliest, clearest expression is in higher ed. Why is that? Isn’t there some irony, or at least miscalculation, if universities are looking to the arts, of all things, to help shore up their relevance and value in contemporary society?

Maybe not. The costs, outcomes, and ideals of a college education are being challenged in unprecedented ways, from new studies showing dismal data on how much undergraduates really learn, to increasing calls for accountability amid the spiraling costs of a four-year degree, to mockery from social conservatives like Republican ex-presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The most stinging criticism is that, while global society is changing fast,  our colleges — including elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford — aren’t doing very well at teaching the skills most needed in the 21st century: creativity, imagination, innovation. We’re great at inculcating facts and formulas, not so good at passing on the spark of originality and discovery that leads to new facts and formulas in the first place. 

Enter the arts, repackaged as engines of precisely those skills. By emphasizing the role of the arts not just in “campus life” but at the curricular and intellectual core of the college experience, universities can demonstrate their commitment to a more holistic, forward-looking form of education that positions students to solve the problems of a new era and (while we’re at it) help revive America’s hopes on the world-economic stage.

I don’t mean to sound skeptical; I like this framing of the arts much more than the modernist l’art pour l’art attitude that dominated when I was in school. I just don’t want to overburden the arts with the job of savior. The arts may have everything to do with creativity, but that doesn’t mean all creativity has to do with, or flows from, the arts. It’s a long way from staging a Hamlet flash-mob performance in the college library to developing cheap ways of purifying water in rural Africa; both can be acts of imagination. Education as a whole needs to become more imaginative, more collaborative, more focused on what isn’t yet understood or still needs to be solved. The arts can help by example, and universities should give them every opportunity to do so.

By the way, these thoughts are kicking around in part because I’m working with Tom Shapiro and the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago on a project exploring the roles that college and university art museums can play in the 21st century. If you have any ideas on that subject, or on the broader question of how the arts fit into higher education, jot a comment below.

Cheryl Slover-Linett — April 22, 2012

It's hard to find anything negative in a greater focus on the arts among our institutions of higher ed. Integrating the arts into our lives at whatever age has great merit. I do wonder whether the universities will get the outcomes they're looking for, though, with precisely the same question that critics are asking universities these days...how much can they actually change in a person in 4 years?

Don't we, as a society, need to start with kids much younger if we want the arts to drive greater creativity, imagination and innovation? I'm a huge fan of Waldorf/Steiner schools for that reason -- arts infiltrate the curriculum from the beginning, with teachers using the arts to teach math, science, humanities, etc.

Tom Shapiro — May 01, 2012

Peter, Thanks for publicly pondering the evolving responsibilities of, and aggressive investment in, the arts on American campuses. I think we can safely say that this is a great thing, and certainly better than less investment in the arts.

The motives for university presidents, provosts and trustees to build infrastructure enabling the arts to be “an integral part of the cognitive life of the university” are as varied as the undertakings at each campus. High among them, no doubt, is the emergence of new teaching modalities, positioning the arts as a competitive advantage among universities. To your point, these investments beg the question of what the implications and opportunities are for the role of arts on campus––and throughout society. Do we need to be alert to the possibility of an unintended result of relegating the arts primarily to being a tool of economic productivity?

This is not an entirely far-fetched concern, given that a good deal of the push to insert the Arts into STEM education, generating STEAM, relies on the argument that this broadened approach better positions America to retain its leadership in the global creative economy. This falls in line with a 2006 DOE study “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of US Higher Education,” (http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hi...) which recommends reforms to help the US gain a “heightened capacity to compete in a global market place.” (The report’s focus on business productivity is highlighted by the factoid that variations on the word “economic” appear nearly once per page in the report.)

The insistence that higher ed is first and foremost a tool of economic advancement was repeated just yesterday (April 29) by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (“The Imperiled Promise of College” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinio...), who bemoaned how inadequate higher ed is in producing employable graduates, making sure to single out philosophy, anthropology, art history and humanities majors as those “least likely to find jobs reflective of their education level.” While this is a fact––though not a new one––his dismissal of the liberal arts as an ineffective economic tool is alarming.

It’s important, therefore, that we pay attention to the quieter and more compelling voices calling for reestablishing the humanities as a pillar of education, such as that coming from Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. In Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum expresses that widespread prosperity can only be sustained in a functioning democracy. Democracy requires a citizenry capable of critical and independent thinking; not just the option, but the obligation to identify and continuously question norms; and above all curiosity about and empathy for people within and beyond our national boarders. The arts in direct service of business ends does not accomplish this higher ambition.

So the question remains what will be the legacy of this renewed investment in the arts. Since outcome follows intention, it is important for us to weigh in now with our hopes for the future.

Sarah Peterson — May 03, 2012

The entrance of campus museums into this conversation is crucial. Getting students out of the classroom and into their campus museum helps clarify the ways art contributes to and participates in all aspects of a flourishing society. It makes real and more tangible the vision universities are espousing in their arts investments.

If faculty from multiple disciplines begin to incorporate conversations about the stories that exist in and around the works of art that live on their college campuses into their curricula, understanding of the role of art to society will grow and spread. Too often the importance of art sounds overly abstract or theoretical, especially to scientific or pragmatic ears. Our students have trouble understanding how the articulated values of art apply to them or where they can contribute to that value or benefit directly from it.

If we can introduce more concrete ideas into this discourse, we could help our students better imagine how they can incorporate the "capacities" arts teach into their lives, studies, and career aspirations. By demonstrating the many and varied ways the arts contribute value to our global world, which we can do most effectively in front of those works that reside in and around campuses, then a broader population will begin to hear the truth in these conversations.

The STEM to STEAM movement, in particular, would be strengthened enormously by bringing more science students into museums. "Creativity, innovation, and imagination" could be cultivated in so many more students if the museums played a bigger role on campuses. But if the museums are not used or their value made clear to students outside art and art history departments, then they are merely a missed opportunity to give art a louder and clearer voice to impact our students and, in turn, their and our future.

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