Imagine a world without arts and culture. All of the institutions that provide education and culture, critical outlets for American families, would disappear - there would be no visual or performing arts, museums, galleries, historic sites, or parks. Creativity, which has been the heart of America, would lack the public arenas where dreams, ideas, history, and identity can be shared. Nourishment for the soul would wither.
Fortunately, this is a mere thought exercise, in reaction to President Obama's comment in January at a General Electric manufacturing plant in Waukesha, Wis., that liberal arts degrees do not provide adequate job preparation and "folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." His comment opened a floodgate of discussion about the merits of liberal arts vs. vocational training. Despite the president's efforts to temper his observation with an apology, this critical debate continues.
It is true that a college education is expensive and student debt is increasing, forcing students to make serious decisions about the type of education, if any, that they pursue. While practicality weighs heavily in confronting these choices, there must also be room to follow one's passion.
The goals of gainful employment and a liberal arts education are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, their coexistence is essential to our country's vitality. The president needs to understand fully how important arts and culture are to our society.
In addition to being a source of stimulation and fun through a wide variety of events and outlets, arts and cultural organizations are economic engines.
In Philadelphia, according to a 2012 report by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the region experienced a $3.3 billion economic impact through direct and indirect expenditures in arts and culture - jobs, household income, and tax revenue. Every community and industry benefited both workers and businesses - 44,000 full-time jobs were created. The jobs included paychecks for staff at cultural institutions as well as independent artists, designers, musicians, marketers, accountants, chefs, bartenders, and hotel managers.
Philadelphia is just one example. Research shows that arts and cultural organizations are important regional and local anchors that hire workers and support surrounding businesses all around the country.
A report, "How Liberal Arts and Science Majors Fare in Employment," released in January by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, sheds new light on the value of a liberal arts degree. College graduates with humanities and social science majors generally start out at the bottom of the salary scale, but over the course of a career, the payoff is greater.
Liberal arts graduates with an advanced or undergraduate degree are, on average, outearning their peers by their mid-50s when compared with those who studied in professional and preprofessional fields. This research clearly suggests the president was shortsighted in focusing on starting salaries when discussing education and the value of a liberal arts degree.
We cannot forget that when we consider the "history" in "art history," we learn where we come from, an essential part of being an American, a U.S. citizen, and a well-rounded adult. Nothing teaches history better than art and artifacts, which invite us to travel back in time to the exact moment when they were made and used. The Liberty Bell or Independence Hall, for example, connects us to that special moment in American history and our ability to sustain freedom. Artifacts of an era connect us directly and tangibly to that time period and help us to identify ourselves as Americans.
It is time to recognize the importance of a well-rounded education and not lose sight of our rich cultural heritage, which has added such a critical dimension to life in this country. Without the visual arts, music, theater, architecture, and the like, future generations will have no sense of culture. Liberal arts degrees teach students how to communicate, think, solve problems, and be team players. Understanding the "why" is imperative; we know the "how" and "what."
Let's not strip our schools of arts education or dismantle more museums. As a country, we must decide how we can best integrate arts and cultural organizations into our lives and continue America's extraordinary dedication to them. We have an obligation to educate young adults so they are able to think critically and communicate, not just prepare them for specific jobs.