Academic Priorities

On a recent trip to Minnesota’s North Shore I picked up a local paper in Duluth and was struck by the following headline: “UMD plans $2 M in academic program cuts.” Now, UMD is the large branch of the University of Minnesota in Duluth and the fact that it was facing financial hard times is not new. I taught in one of the universities in the same state and same athletic conference for years and all of the institutions in that group are increasingly facing financial struggles. It is a sign of our times when costs are skyrocketing and more and more students are “taking their degrees” online.

What was of greatest interest to me about that story (which I read hastily) was that the cuts will come in the academic programs. Not in the athletic program, of course. That never seems to be an option. Bear in mind that this university is considerably smaller than its fat cousin in the Twin Cities and except for ice hockey which is a NCAA Division I sport it is small potatoes as far as its athletics programs are concerned — NCAA Division II, the same as our small university in Marshall where I taught and coached tennis.  So, one would think, some cuts in the athletics programs when faced with a $2 million deficit would appear to be in order. Like so many other colleges Duluth (as we call it) has a plethora of athletics teams. Cuts in some of those programs would appear to make a certain amount of sense. But not so. The cuts will come by reducing faculty in the academic programs.

And guess which programs are to be cut? . . . . (wait for it). The liberal arts, the fine arts, and education. In each case it is because students are not enrolling in those programs as they did in the past. Education is on the block because there simply aren’t that many teaching jobs these days and public education is a political football. As is common around the country students are taking more practical courses of study where they think there is certainty of finding employment after graduation. The largest major program in our university, for example, is “Sports Science” which brags a successful placement strategy after graduation.

There are several problems with this scenario. To begin with, the successful placement of graduates in jobs after graduation is a bit of a farce. Many of the employment opportunities in Sports Science, for example, are minimum wage jobs handing out towels at the local athletic club: decidedly dead-end. Further, graduates of liberal arts programs with majors in such things as English, history, and philosophy are more successful in the long run than those who follow their practical instincts. That is to say, those graduates are able to change jobs more readily if they discover that they had been mislead as eighteen-tear-old Freshmen into thinking that the “sure thing” would make them rich and happy. Moreover, they make more money in their lifetimes than do those who major in the more practical fields. The figures don’t lie.

What is happening around the country is that parents have become convinced that their kids need to take the practical majors and avoid esoteric majors (as they see it) like art history or English literature, which they regard as a waste of time and money. And while it is true that those students will find it easier to find the initial job it is also true, as noted, that they often find themselves in dead-end jobs with no chance of making meaningful career changes later on. And, typically, they won’t make as much money in the long run. In a word, it is short-term thinking.

This type of thinking is typical in the business world where profit is placed highest in the list of priorities. Best Buy, for example, is making draconian cuts this month in order to convince share holders that they are serious about making huge profits. This reasoning is blind to the fact that those cuts will force remaining employees to work harder and less efficiently thereby providing their customers with poorer service and thus ultimately affecting the bottom line. But, more to the point, the fact that academic programs are being cut at UMD is simply more evidence that the business model is driving education as well as so many other human endeavors. And the business model has no business providing a paradigm in education where the focus ought to be on freeing young minds and putting young people in the best position to be successful and happy adults.

There are serious problems in our education system up and down the grades — just think about the thousands who follow Donnie the Trumpet! I write about those problems I know about first hand and as a result of the research I did in writing my book about education, Recalling Education.

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The Eye Of The Beholder

After forty-one years of trying to open the minds of college undergraduates to the possibilities of fine art, several things finally dawned on me. To begin with, in the end it is a matter of taste. The fine arts, including painting, poetry, sculpture, literature, and dance, are immensely complex and there is no argument (that I have come across) that will make a person appreciate what they find dull and uninteresting. That’s the first thing, though things are not this simple as I shall try to explain below. The second thing I have learned is that the sensibilities of the spectator, whoever it may be, vary immensely and since no two people are alike, reactions to the same object will vary proportionately.

There are three things to consider when talking about the fine arts. There is the object itself, say, the painting in the gallery. Next, there is the spectator who is gazing at the painting with varying degrees of attention. And finally there is the interaction between the two — which some insist is the actual “work of art.” But we will ignore this third thing entirely (which gets us into metaphysics) to focus attention on the first two. Let’s talk about the object itself, the painting on the wall. There are objective factors that all can see — the canvas, the paint, the arrangement of the figures in the scene, for example — and there is also what some would insist is the tendency to evoke a certain response, say, fear, delight, rage, or perhaps calm. These things can be pointed out and an “expert” is the one to do this because she has had the training and is probably a painter herself.

But when it comes to the spectator things get very complicated indeed. The supposed “tendency to evoke a particular response” may fall on deaf ears (as it were). The spectator may be color-blind, inattentive, or bored. He or she may never have looked at a painting before and doesn’t know how — which may sound strange, but it takes sensitivity,  attention, and concentration to appreciate the many complex factors that go into a single painting, musical composition, or piece of sculpture. Not everyone has these abilities. Indeed, in our age it becomes increasingly difficult to get young people, in particular, to stand and look at a painting that is simply hanging there and not moving and/or making noise. It takes work, in a word, and a great many people simply don’t want to make the effort or have diminished attention spans.

The last thing I have learned is that the quick response to fine art, that it is (just) a matter of taste, is a sign of intellectual laziness, the same sort of laziness that makes it difficult, or impossible, for a person to stand before a painting and open himself or herself to the many qualities that are there for all to see and appreciate. It is easier to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “who’s to say?” This translates into: “don’t bug me. There’s a party Thursday night and I have to get the keg. I have more important things to think about than this damn painting (class,problem, issue, etc. etc.)

Thus, while art IS a matter of taste in the end, there is much that can be said before we reach that point. And taste can be affected by having features of the work pointed out and increasing one’s experience and sensitivity to the things that “go on” in the painting. It can be “improved” as we say — which doesn’t mean “more like mine,” but more aware of what is going on in the work itself. Think, for example, how much more complex is a Beethoven sonata than, say, the latest hit on the top 40. There’s more there for the mind to get ahold of, and it takes an effort and willingness to be open to the new and different. The same complexity is present in all works of fine art and it takes an effort to appreciate this complexity. The unwillingness or inability to open oneself to these complexities results in a flattened world that is devoid of the many features that surround us and can make our world a richer and more exciting place to live. Not only in the fine arts, but also in the world the artist is revealing to us.