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Liberal arts education… without the arts?

New artistic studies and practices on American university campuses

The United States: home of the Statue of Liberty, Hollywood, and a liberal arts education. This last defining characteristic qualifies a non-professionally focused system of higher education offered at the undergraduate level. Though the aura of classical antiquity still hovers over American universities, there is a growing divide between the humanities, the sciences, and the arts, all of which were embraced by the Ancient Greek curriculum. Indeed, the arts, which were to figure as prominent learned disciplines in liberal arts studies, are now struggling by the wayside as economic reality ushers students into more lucrative endeavors.

‘Liberal arts education’ remains a catchall expression, for the broad studies it promises are attractive to the undecided high-school student.  However, the term has become arguably inappropriate, as the arts are no longer placed in the forefront of higher education. As recent graduates in drama, fine arts, and graphic design face unemployment rates averaged at 7%[1], fewer incoming freshmen are enrolling in art departments. Instead, they respond to the magnetic pull of disciplines that ‘matter most’ according to a Forbes study[2] led in 2012, namely engineering, computer science, and economics.  Indeed, the numbers are adding up and some liberal arts universities are shifting their artistic majors to minors, forcing willing and ambitious students to couple hard science or social science studies with their chosen artistic field.

Though this change would appear crippling in the eyes of those advocating for the “STEM to STEAM[3]” movement, students and universities might actually be doing the math correctly. The shift seemingly responds to the demand of majoring in disciplines that will put the job market on the student’s side, all the while allowing him or her to contribute to the creative economy championed by STEAM yea-sayers. Consequently, the following question naturally arises: as artistic expression is adapting to the ‘new normal’ in American universities, what are the platforms onto which the arts are surfacing as a result of this shift?

Academically burdened students lighten their load by striking a healthy and constructive balance to their studies with extra-curricular activities. For example, upon entering the Princeton University Activity Fair during the first week of classes, it is impressive to observe the 300 plus student-run organizations represented, all supported by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, and over a third of which celebrate a cultural practice (arts, languages, heritage). All dance and theater associations are huddled under the umbrella organization called the Princeton Performing Arts Council, which works in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts, an academic unit that cultivates experimental productions in the creative and performing arts.  Hence, there is a dynamic connection between the university as an academic institution and student-run initiatives in the arts. Undergraduates can pursue a physics major while delving into dance, or clad in a thespian throw.

These activities remain independent of academic pursuits and thus allow students to pursue artistic practices out of pure pleasure and for the sake of the art. Student groups contribute over 100 performances, events, and encounters in the course of an academic year, turning the bustling intellectual hub into a dynamic bastion of creative endeavors. These productions are also open to the Princeton community; the arts thus act as a bridge between the university and its local context. These efforts are openly recognized and lauded by the university, as did Princeton President Shirley Tilghman, who congratulated the 2013 undergraduates on “[filling] the campus with the glorious sound of music, the splendor and exuberance of dance, and the power of theater to both enlighten and entertain.”

Along with the liberal arts tradition the US inherited from the Greeks, the nation also absorbed Aristotle’s concepts of placere et docere, as applied to classical tragedies. These notions of pleasing and instructing an audience have been directed to a university setting, where students actively seek an equilibrium between their academics and their leisure time. Projecting oneself into the future job market is a daunting thought that at times detracts a student’s ability to satisfy present happiness. Artistic practice can answer to the third - and oft forgotten - concept expressed in Poetics: movere, the ability to evoke a viewer’s emotions. The arts, whether studied as a major, minor, or pursed as an extra-curricular activity, provide the greater sense of aesthetics needed to mold and move the world of tomorrow.  A liberal arts education may not guarantee a job immediately post-graduation, but it ensures a lifetime of humanity. 


Madeleine Planeix-Crocker


[3] STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics