Defending arts and humanities is a hot topic among college presidents. Those of us who lead small liberal arts colleges pay homage, as we should, to the life and career advantages of a broad education in which Shakespeare resides compatibly with Steve Jobs.
Despite evidence that points unmistakably to the workplace advantages of a well-rounded education, disciplines in the arts and humanities still lose ground in the national battle for curricular relevance.
A June study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, reported in Inside Higher Ed, notes that “the proportion of all faculty members who are in the humanities — crucial not only to their own fields but to general education at many colleges and universities — has been flat amid substantial gains for the health professions.”
The report adds that humanities faculty position listings “are at least 31 percent below” those of eight years ago.
Does this mean that arts and humanities are no longer relevant for college students? Of course not.
It does point, however, to the effect of converging forces of economic uncertainty, heightened competition for attractive, entry-level career positions, and student preference and choice affecting traditional disciplines of literature, history, philosophy and the fine and performing arts.
Funding for arts organizations suggests diminishing interest as well. A report published in late 2014 by Grantmakers in the Arts, a national association of public and private funders of cultural activities, noted that “public arts agencies have experienced long-term cuts over many years, and the cost of doing business for artists and arts organizations has continued to rise. The result has been decreased grant budgets — and diminished leveraging power of those grants.”
All in all, for students considering careers in arts and humanities fields, the news may seem less than encouraging. Although majoring in classical liberal arts disciplines is out of fashion at some institutions, no one can discount the awakening of the human spirit they inspire.
As my friend and colleague E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, comments, “The arts, quite simply, nourish the soul. They sustain, comfort, inspire. There is nothing like that exquisite moment when you first discover the beauty of connecting with others in celebration of larger ideals and shared wisdom.”
The arts and humanities still enjoy loyal audiences, even in an age of shortened attention spans and reliance on personal technology for entertainment. At Virginia Wesleyan, we plan to build a new fine and performing arts center that will benefit our campus community and complement the vibrant cultural offerings of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Old Dominion University just announced its largest gift ever — $35 million for a new art museum.
Our region already enjoys an exciting mix of concerts, festivals, exhibits, performances and presentations. Venues abound. There’s the Virginia Ballet Theatre, the Virginia Arts Festival, the Virginia Stage Company, the Chrysler Museum of Art, the L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center, the TCC Roper Performing Arts Center, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach, the NEON arts district, the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts and so many more.
Nearby are the historical riches of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. Add the cultural events of area colleges and universities, and we can truly say we are a destination for the arts and humanities.
My hope is that the higher-education community will continue to partner with arts organizations (as Virginia Wesleyan does with the Chrysler) to strengthen students’ appreciation for creativity, and to foster stewardship of this dimension of the human experience.
The result may not immediately be an influx of majors in arts and humanities subjects, but the value of these disciplines will be affirmed.
In the frantic, social-media-fueled frenzy of daily life, the arts and humanities ask us to pause, reflect and enjoy — and, yes, to learn. That is one of the best lessons we can impart to our students for whom the splendors of the arts are often an undiscovered source of adventure and lifelong enrichment.
Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach. Previously, Dr. Miller served as President at Bethany College in West Virginia (2007-15), Wesley College in Delaware (1997-2007) and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee (1991-97).