Have a heart for the arts

With classes starting soon, some local college students may be in the process of sorting through the classic dilemma presented to every student: “Should I pursue what I love, or just do something that makes money?” I went with my passion, but every day I face critics who think I made the wrong choice.

Years ago I made the mistake of cracking a self deprecating joke about being a broke writer to a family member. Their response was less than empathetic.

“Well, that’s what you get for choosing to do something artsy.”

Unfortunately, this anti-humanities sentiment is not uncommon, but it’s really starting to make my blood boil.

While there are some groups who have always dismissed the liberal arts, the greater shift probably started after the 2008 recession. I was part of the generation that was told to work hard, go to a good school, just major in anything, and it would all work out. By the time I graduated the game had changed completely.

Companies used to value psychology, English, philosophy, anthropology and communication majors for a number of jobs because their general degree indicated that they were trainable. Businesses sought out the critical thinking and comprehension skills of these alumni. But suddenly the entry-level positions were either changed to unpaid internships or cut completely, and even administrative assistant jobs seemed to require five years of experience despite zero promise of advancement.

This is when America began the great introspection over what a college degree actually means, and whether or not it is worth the investment.

As kids who had spent the past four years explicating Russian poetry languished in their parents basement, their neighbors who went to community college or schools of technology used their applicable skills in jobs that paid as much as some starting salaries for lawyers.

To be clear, I think it’s wonderful that we as a country have grown to respect and appreciate these skill sets. I think everyone has something unique to offer and it’s about time that we started noticing the abilities of those who have been overlooked. But did it have to come at the expense of dumping all over the humanities?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields are extremely important. Not everyone is cut out to be a nurse or an engineer though. The reality of someone eschewing their creative talents and dreams just to go into a career that they have been told they “should” do instead is heartbreaking.

What is even more upsetting is that some people consider a young person to be entitled if they seek a fulfilling career. We all have to do what we have to do in order to pay the bills, but to be overtly complacent with the idea of a world in which everyone must settle is akin to some sad dystopian novel in which everyone climbs into their hamster wheel each day without a shred of protest.

Study after study has suggested that settling for a career is bad for your health, and can negatively impact your relationships with close friends and family members. You have one life, and you will spend most of it employed for an average of 40 hours a week. Is it really worthwhile to do something you don’t enjoy just to sustain a life that is mostly spent doing that very thing you don’t enjoy?

Let’s also consider the potential consequences of herding all of our youth, even the ones who favor the humanities, into the STEM fields. Can you imagine a world without art, music or writing? What if there was no one left to study the thoughts and interactions of people? What if there was no one left to keep our history alive, or to teach these things to our children? What does it say about our society that people such as social workers who take care of people for a living are barely paid a living wage themselves?

It’s also reasonable to predict that if everyone rushes to take shelter in STEM fields, that the career opportunities for those approaches will become overcrowded. The basic law of supply and demand might become problematic if there are suddenly twice as many welders as there are welding jobs.

The dismissal of the humanities in favor of STEM fields has also disproportionately affected our young women. A higher proportion of girls graduate from four-year colleges with liberal arts degrees each year than from trade or technical schools. It is great that we are rewarding the men who build things, but we are leaving out the high proportion of women who want to contribute ideas.

If you are considering going into the arts or humanities you will be told that the field is extremely competitive and the pay is lousy. This is true. As a result of our society’s neglect of the arts, we’ve stopped funding creative jobs.

I’m simply saying that just because the arts are struggling, it doesn’t mean that we should avoid or abandon them. Our response to low paying creative careers shouldn’t be to give up on them. If we want to continue living in an enriched culture, then we must value the hardworking individuals who have not only dedicated their lives to designing, contributing and inventing, but deserve the opportunity to continue creating. It’s great that people who excel in science, math and trade skills are able to pursue their dreams and make a living doing the things that they were born to love. Shouldn’t someone who inherently loves the humanities be able to do the same? !