The dying arts

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” — Francis Bacon

The term humanities, in the context of higher education, refers to a broad range of studies that is separate from Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). It is a subcategory of Liberal Arts, and includes studies in art, philosophy, literature, history, music, cultural anthropology, linguistics, and more.

Essentially, the Humanities are concerned with the nature of man, our cultural and intellectual development, and how we interact with the world around us. Those of us who engage in the humanities strive to take part in the ongoing mission of trying to make sense out of the human experience.

We are also the target of much disillusion and cynicism these days, as the trends in higher education strongly evidence. A study from The American Academy of Arts and Sciences indicates that the percentage of graduates with degrees in the humanities has declined for 10 consecutive years, and now represent less than 12 percent of the American academic pie. Colleges traditionally reliant on student interest in the humanities, like Fredonia State, struggle to retain students. Beyond what is obvious — that young people want to enter the job market with skills that guarantee a career — I can think of a few other reasons for the trend away from the humanities.

The first stems from America’s failure to keep up with the educational progress made in other developed countries (this according to the 2017 Brown Center Report on American Education’s assessment of PISA testing results). To keep America competitive and safe in an increasingly unstable world, there is a top-down government push to improve our human resources, especially in the field of technology with respect to national defense and security. The humanities, with their much less urgent agenda, have been pushed to sidelines and funding has been reduced.

The decline might also have something to do with the immediate experiences students are having in those humanities classes that are required for graduation. Many career-oriented students resent having to take them, and have come to regard such classes as the frivolous, over-valued, theoretical indulgences taught by elitist, out-of-touch, self-serving professors who dwell on the past and have risen to their positions through a kind of academic nepotism.

Moreover, this is a generation marked by unprecedented and unabashed narcissism. In the age of “selfies,” along with shallow and noncommittal personal relationships engendered through addictive social media, there seems to be a dearth of cultural interest. The importance or quality of any idea regarding culture or art is determined by the number of “Likes” it receives. It is no wonder the clarion call for exploring the meaning of existence falls on so many deaf ears: too many of these students don’t even know what a trumpet is.

Educated boomers might remember the days when colleges were hotbeds of rebellion, controversy and culture. In the classrooms and campus hangouts (for me UB’s Rathskeller — “The Rat”), it was assumed that you had some degree of aesthetic sensibility. It was cool and even sexy to be able quote Camus or Castaneda or Dylan Thomas, or to point out the intense dissonance in a Wagner symphony, or the twisted reality of Van Goh. Some of our most poignant memories are of concerts, plays, art exhibits, poetry readings, and theatrical performances that were often free. We got our degrees, and much more. We got to know people who were not “like” us, who came from different worlds and walks of life and career paths, and our personalities became imbued of those relationships. The college experience was both challenging and enlightening.

Today, I see TV and internet ads promoting various private colleges that offer streamlined curriculum for degrees, especially in business and technology. Of course, these schools are not concerned with the humanities. Their ad strategies focus on bee-lines to success through streamlined curriculum and on-line convenience. In one TV ad, we are greeted by student in her pajamas touting the utter comfort of her private college experience. Apparently, learning should be fun and easy.

The idea behind a broad-based American public education system was, in part, to ensure that citizens grow well-rounded in their understanding of our society. I would argue that, for a democratic society (or a republic) to survive, a well-informed, critically thinking voter base is essential. Public ignorance is a bigger problem now than ever before, and it is apparent that many of our leaders regard us as very gullible as they go about their business of fattening frogs for snakes.

If the trend continues, it will guarantee several changes. First, in the fine and performing arts, because there is less chance for reward, there will be less competition among artists, and ultimately a lowering of the bar for what qualifies as art and artistic ability (witness popular music today). For the non-profit art communities in cities across the country, public interest will wane, resulting in fewer displays and performances. Art will become something esoteric.

For America and the world, the decline of cultural awareness will result in a disconnect from the past, a dimmer view of the future, and a present that is less inclusive, less ambitious, less ingenious, and far less mysterious.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident, writer, musician and teacher. FOCAL Point strives to make insightful social commentary through the integration of Facts, Observations, Compassion, Awareness, and Logic.