Dear Future Arts Professor:
In fields such as the arts where it is very difficult to make even a middle class living, we must ask our prospective students, “Is there any other way you can imagine living your life other than _______? [Fill in the blank with writing music, playing an instrument, writing poems, dancing, studying Greek, painting, or sculpting.] If there is, it will provide a more secure livelihood. But if you can’t imagine doing anything other than devoting your life to an art or the humanities, then we should keep talking.”
It will be harder and harder for those in the arts and humanities to find permanent or even adjunct jobs in the future. Someone will always be needed to teach the English language. It is not so clear that we as a society will conclude that we need a clarinet or double bass teacher at all major state universities in the country. While I think the live experience of classical music is the only way to really get it, it is evident that most of society doesn’t agree, and thus in the future it is likely there will be fewer professional orchestras; and thus maybe less of a demand for musicians.
To place this in some perspective, most schools of music only came online in the 60’s, and many orchestras started at the same time only with the major support of the Ford Foundation. Then again most business schools were founded after World War II, with universities seeing returning GIs as a good source of income. For that matter Beethoven never went to a conservatory, Michelangelo didn’t get an MFA, Einstein missed out on a PhD, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen dropped out of college—and they all did pretty well in their respective fields.
So while I consider a university experience important, it should never be seen as a necessary step to make one’s mark on the world. If it is important it must be for other reasons.
Where does this leave you, the graduating arts or humanities student with a PhD, DMA, or MFA?
If you are so lucky as to land a spot in higher education, it is like having found a nice ledge for the night while climbing a mountain. Put up your tent, count your blessings, and think about what you will do when the sun comes up. Which is to say think about your future, and remember that the mountain is not a foe but doesn’t care about the safety of the climber. What will and should keep you going are numerous aspects of your journey.
You may want to get someplace and say some important things along the way. Do so, and always make it one of your top priorities. Forget about the notion of publish or perish. Publish and produce because it is central to your being, or else find another line of work, as you will find yourself spiritually empty at the end of your journey.
You can expect to find a few really good students along the way, and no more. Thus limit your expectations- you will be much happier. Do the very best you can because it will make you feel great, and because it will help you reach those students who just might wake up as to why they are at the university, and more importantly, as to why they are alive.
This brings me to a small question. How do we bring meaning to our, and our students’, lives? This was Victor Frankl’s question in his momentous book Man’s Search for Meaning written after his experiences in the German death camps. It is not a polite question to raise on campus these days. Too bad. It is your job to raise it, and at every kind of meeting and in the many interactions in which you will find yourself.
I have learned a few lessons from my limited exposure to economics—there are tradeoffs to be had; not everyone can have everything and certainly not all at the same time. If a professor offers a course in the sociological implications of Scooby-doo, then there might not be the money to pay another professor to teach a subject of more serious consequence. But with that we hit the politically correct wall. How can you have the audacity to suggest that one area of study might be more important than another? The answer is that it must be done, as you know that judgment matters and not all judgments are equal. You should quietly and calmly decide if you are ready to make your positions known, because it is a, if the not the, central issue in academe.
You can take your time at the start and be rather more circumspect in articulating your positions. But sooner or later, to sustain your own sense of self-worth and to be able to look at yourself in the mirror, you will need to make your views known. And guess what? You will discover that you have more fellow travelers than you thought. You will not be in the majority, but you will be a righteous minority.
While free speech is being suppressed, and a vapid groupthink is widespread on most campuses, we do not live in a totalitarian regime, and we can make ourselves heard without fear of being sent to a concentration camp or the gulag. So it is incumbent on you when in academe to use your God-given and constitutional freedoms to make yourself heard—vigorously, rationally, and forthrightly.
So come join us in a valiant effort. It is not for everyone, but if it
is truly what you want and must do, you could find no greater satisfaction in any other endeavor. In your calling, you will be a light unto the world.
Image: black and white art museum europe by Adrianna Calvo // Usage Rights CC0