A plea for a lightning update to the arts programs before budget cuts close the curtain on its final show


NEW YORK – Sitting at a coffee shop with a hot, gourmet brew, I found myself accidentally eavesdropping on an interview being conducted in the next table over.

The young woman had just declared herself as a Spanish Literature major. My curiosity peaked when the interviewer asked the woman how many different languages she knew.

I suspected her response would include some French, Italian, and perhaps even some Cantonese or Arabic. And so, I almost lost my cool when she responded with JavaScript, Python, Ruby.

It was a fascinating moment, and it got me thinking.

In light of current attacks on the arts, humanities, and the sciences, it occurred to me that alongside all the woes that come with a crumbling humanities infrastructure in both secondary and post-secondary institutions, we need an action plan. Departments in the humanities need an overhaul in their curriculum.

If we are truly serious about maintaining a vibrant arts curriculum in this country, we can’t rely on persuading politicians to appreciate art for art’s sake. We need the numbers. We need the data.

Recently, the Trump Administration has slashed funding for National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a major organization that funds thousands of innovative public projects in the digital humanities and online learning. Unless action is taken by Congress, the NEH will be left to its last breath in 2018. This is, of course, only one crushing example.

But it’s devastating.

But this isn’t what I was to talk about. Not really, at least.

What I would like to address is one of the reasons why the humanities is being so grossly undercut and devalued on a regular basis—Trump antics, aside.

Historically speaking, poets and writers have always had to write long pieces in defenses of poetry. There’s  Shelley’sDefense of Poetry and Wordsworth’sLyrical Ballads. Consumerism and commercial publications have little patience for art of poetry.  And right now, it subsists as an esoteric form applauded for its fringe indulgence.

To those who like to badger me about why I chose to devote six years of my life to such an “unprofitable” field, such as Literature, I always like to respond by saying that studying Literature is the ideal passport to a host of other disciplines–policy, medicine, psychology, even engineering. As a reflection of society, it demands that any true scholar of the arts have a basic, working knowledge about the different conditions that shape character development in any piece of work.

It’s about contextualizing art within the society that gave birth to it. Without it, society faces a spiritual and moral crisis.

As the Mexican poet, Octavio Paz describes, “We cannot reduce our lives to economics. If a society without social justice is not a good society, a society without dreams, without words, and most importantly without that bridge between one person and another that poetry.”

For instance, a close-reading of Moby Dickopens up a Pandora’s Box of questions surrounding contemporary issues in defining the parameters of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Ishmael’s narration of the horrific events aboard the Pequod could very well provide at least one example of what PTSD looked like in the nineteenth century industrial era.

Why does this matter? Historically, the large bulk of research on PTSD is based on experiences of war veterans. It is only recently that the DSM-5 has been inclusive of the traumas belonging to civilians, women, and people of color. As Moby Dick demonstrates, the warzones of trauma extend beyond geopolitical combat to the boundaries of gender, race, sexuality, and class.

Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love–apart from being a radical text of Christian Mysticism–also reveals a single woman’s resistance against the politics of the Church and State in fourteenth century.

Think about Bartleby, the Scrivener in terms of architecture and civil engineering.

And what if we juxtapose Ecocriticism with Environmental Science and the policies leading to the closure of the EPA?

All of this is to say that literary studies has a lot of untapped potential. The ability of all of us in the arts to flex our skills and thinking to adapt to vastly different disciplines is one that is both unvalued and taken for granted. It is something quite unique to us.

So why not use it to our advantage? English departments nationwide are facing hard budget cuts. And to make it worse, the oversaturated number of graduate degrees in the arts overwhelmingly drowns out the dwindling reality of the job market.

In other words, English departments, with their stubborn (and petty) desire to hold tight to the classical model of postsecondary education, are prepping young, bright students, for a job market that has long passed its glory days.

We’re in dire need of an upgrade.

We need a curriculum that not only encourages young minds to pursue the arts, but also one that encourages such students to make practical use of their interdisciplinary skills to eventually branch into other fields that will provide a source of income, that will contribute to the economic health of this country, that will make a tangible impact in the ways that corporations make decisions in society.

Imagine a workforce where a dual degree in both Literature and Engineeringmay then move on to working the usual 9-5, but with a foundational understanding of the social structures set in place that make space for their job.

Imagine CEOs, wealthy and influential as they are, advised by a crew with a holistic understanding of society, that can influence policy—and thereby, in my own idealistic vision, make the world both a more economically healthy and humane place.

The university curriculum, as it stands now, does not make space for the average student to learn such drastically different fields within the usual four-year timeframe, but it can be done.

The humanities simplycannot keep positioning itself as being intellectually above the rest of the workforce. We need a serious intervention. A reality check.

And in times like this, where the arts seem to be at its final show, at least on a professional level, we need institutions in the arts and humanities to update itself to match the needs of the country.

The reality is that we can cut funding as much as we’d like, but no force can ever stop the production of art. Society needs artists. But we also need them to be insured, paid, active agents of society.

(Jolie is a freelance writer, based in New York City)



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