The Arts in Higher Education: New Meaning for a New Decade

  • PDF:

Higher education is embarking on a particularly difficult journey as it approaches the 1980s. Its role as a vital force in society is being challenged, and the arts as well as other academic areas and services provided by the postsecondary community will be subject to some level of examination.

It may be helpful therefore as we enter a new decade to identify some fresh approaches to the arts within the system and then plan offensively to advance our programs accordingly. I make no apology for talking about offensive planning since I am not at all convinced that the arts will continue to receive the kind of commitment necessary for their survival without some innovative endeavors.

One must always exercise caution when making generalizations about any issue, and much of what I am about to say has been dealt with before. However, in order to investigate further possibilities for the arts, it is necessary to assess as objectively as possible our current position. Many factors have contributed to the present climate in higher education. This article will attempt to present some of the more significant issues which I feel affect the system as a whole and then, after identifying those issues, I will attempt to relate how they may directly or indirectly affect the advancement of the arts on our campuses. The discussion of fine arts and higher education will come from the perspective of one associated with a state agency charged with responsibility for the planning and coordination of public postsecondary institutions, a perspective which is admittedly somewhat different from one which I held as a faculty member in a department of music of a state-supported institution some years ago.

The four factors which, in my opinion, will bear most heavily on the support of the arts in higher education during the next decade are: (1) The climate of the entire postsecondary system, (2) The established priorities of the individual institutions, (3) The establishment of viable values which promote the arts as a relevant part of the postsecondary curriculum, and (4) The changing concepts relative to the purpose of higher education.

To understand fully how the climate which currently pervades the higher education community will impact on the arts, one must recognize that the arts are, first of all, only a small component of the vast and complex system of higher education, a system which embraces not only academic programs but research and public service as well. The arts programs of the various institutions are affected, therefore, either adversely or positively, not only by political, social and economic influences at the institutional level but at the state and national levels as well.

Currently within the arena of higher education, a climate of impending disaster has become so commonplace and familiar that few administrators give much energy or thought to how disaster might be averted, but busy themselves instead with survival strategies designed to prolong life. This climate exists primarily as a reaction to economic conditions and a projected decline in student enrollment.

Our postsecondary resources and facilities were expanded during the 1960s and early 1970s to accommodate an elevation of social consciousness which dictated that all those wishing to avail themselves of the opportunities provided by our system of higher education, and who could benefit from those opportunities, could do so regardless of race, sex, social background or physical limitations. Those resources and facilities are now requiring fiscal support in excess of amounts that most legislative bodies are willing to appropriate. Our lofty ambitions have been costly, and predictions for the maintenance of this vast system of educational opportunity over the next decade appear more often to be bleak rather than encouraging. From a state and national perspective 1979 was not a banner year for the economy, and forecasts for 1980 are not optimistic.

In addition to the economic picture, the period of rapid growth in enrollment which characterized higher education in the 1950s and 1960s is coming to an end. The postsecondary community therefore is forced to overcome yet another obstacle, that of declining enrollment. According to a recent study by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE),1 every state will suffer a projected decrease in high school graduates between now and 1984-1987. Most states will face a decrease of 10 percent, and nearly half will experience decreases of 20 percent or more.

The impact of increased inflation and expenditures for the support of higher education, coupled with decline in student enrollment and shrinking budgets, have caused all but the most naive at the state and national levels to take a hard-nosed look at what the educational system is providing, what it will be willing to provide in the future, and who should be willing to bear the cost.

The arts are influenced not only by conditions on the national and statewide scene, but are also subject more immediately to their respective university or collegiate administrative priorities which are established daily if not hourly. Internal politics and financial allocations play no less a role here than they do on the state and national level. The only difference lies in the total amount of resources being manipulated. We must recognize that individual institutions during the 1980s will be forced to set priorities without the benefit of growth projections. While administrators and faculty members may agree that cutbacks are necessary, they tend to concur on little else. The recent crisis at Temple University bears this out most graphically.2 Nevertheless, it is in the collegiate environment where faculty members, department heads, and deans of the arts exert the most influence; and it is here within the institutional walls where the battles for the survival of the arts will most often be won or lost.

Since the need for expansion has ceased, institutional administrators are already being forced to make hard choices relative to internal allocations of resources. Curriculum planning and development have become a matter of paramount concern, and decisions are being made as to whether or not the fine arts will be supported as a vital part of the curriculum or relegated to a position of what James Ackerman refers to as an "expendable and isolatable luxury commodity."3

Observers of American life might assume that the large numbers of state and local art councils, municipal symphonies and museums, community theaters and other performing companies are testimony to a rich and well-established tradition of the arts in our institutions of higher learning. Such is not the case, however, and while we may applaud ourselves on the enormous strides that the arts have made toward becoming an established part of curriculum offerings in higher education, and that the human and physical resources amassed by our institutions contribute significantly to national cultural needs, I am not as optimistic as some of my fellow artists on the faculties of postsecondary institutions who maintain that the civilizing role of the arts will automatically defend their position in the academic community.

The fine arts, as we know, have been relative newcomers to higher education. Even though dramatic arts appeared in the curriculum of Harvard at the end of the seventeenth century, the arts as an established part of academic offerings did not occur until after World War I. There was a pronounced escalation in the growth and involvement of the arts on campuses following World War II; this may be attributed to two primary factors. It occurred first of all as a natural by-product of the overall expansion and interest in higher education during the late fifties and throughout the sixties.4 Secondly, it is often attributed to the leadership, drive and concern of top institutional administrators, usually the president of the university. Since that time few would debate that the arts have had something to contribute and that even a minimum amount of exposure to the products of the creative spirit has been of some value. Regardless of the relative importance many have attributed to the arts, they have continued to be assigned in the majority of instances only a peripheral role in the higher education system, and we are forced to admit that for the most part evidence reveals that the arts do not as yet enjoy a status of preferred priority on all campuses.

This perimetric role may be ascribed in part to a general lack of understanding and a failure of some educators to acknowledge that the significant contribution the arts have made to society warrants an emphasis in postsecondary offerings. The community of higher education, in spite of its reputation for being on the cutting edge of creative and intellectual pursuits, has been somewhat slow to recognize those values in the arts which leaders of business, industry and government have long understood to be vital to the enrichment of the individual and the nation. The Rockefeller Brothers Panel Report on the future of theater, dance and music in America stated for example that the arts were not for the privileged few but for many; that their place was not on the periphery of society but at its center; that the arts were not just forms of recreation but were central to our well-being and happiness. Goldwin A. McLellan, president of the Business Committee for the Arts, Inc., supports this position and considers that the contribution the arts make to business are a "prudent investment in survival and growth."5

Another determinant of the peripheral role delegated to the arts may be traced to the overall emphasis in postsecondary education during the past two decades. Since the advent of sputnik, the educational system has been preoccupied with producing skilled and well-informed specialists, primarily in the fields of science and technology. Unfortunately, and to the anathema of many members of the academy, this process has now too often become synonymous with the acquisition of facts, skills, certificates, and degrees. We are forced to recognize that many influential leaders of federal and state government, our students, and some members of the academic community consider higher education little more than an avenue for career preparation. While some of these individuals may support the arts in the curriculum as a necessary adjunct to an expansion of the comprehensive educational enterprise, they frankly reject the arts as being worthy subjects for serious pursuit. Music is referred to as an "activity," and far too often the only program in this field of study with which the top administrators are thoroughly familiar is the marching band.

According to the results of the 1968 survey by the American Council on Education, a majority of our students go to college to acquire a marketable skill and to make friends; few of them see the arts as related to these goals. It was also interesting to note that over two-thirds of the freshmen surveyed stated that one of their reasons for attending college was to seek a philosophy of life; yet relatively few students, in proportion to those who as freshmen stated such a goal, enrolled in fine arts courses during their four years of study.6 One cannot avoid speculating at this point on the influence or the substance of the faculty counseling provided these entering freshmen. Additionally, some alumni of our institutions are only mildly enthusiastic toward the arts in the curriculum. Another study by the American Council on Education in 1971, American Graduate Students: A Normative Description, revealed that the majority of postsecondary graduates thought it fairly unimportant to have a firm undergraduate foundation in the fields of art and music.7

Given this background, it is difficult to focus on the external constituency that may be responsible in the coming decade for the advancement of the arts on our campuses. What we may depend on, most assuredly, is that the decision makers will demand an even more exact accounting for the raison d'être of the fine arts mission. To a great extent, if there is to be a survival and advancement of the arts in higher education in the eighties much will depend on priority decisions rendered by well-informed institutional administrators and boards of trustees. If we in the arts are to impact on the decision-making process, it will be necessary for us to formulate and establish a set of marketable and viable values which will promote the arts as a necessary and relevant part of the curriculum. A failure to do so may seriously erode the progress we have already made.

There are commonly acknowledged values for the support of the arts in society as a whole which, in addition to training future artists and teachers, are generally used as the rationale for the preservation of the fine arts in the curriculum of higher education. We speak of the commercial value of art, the social prestige its acquisition at times insures, and its study as an interpreter of history. The arts are acknowledged as a vehicle for the study of aesthetics and ultimately for their absolute value. The question before us is not whether any of the above values has relevance to the fine arts curriculums of higher education, but whether they are marketable for the continued support of the arts.

There are not many who would debate the commercial value of art and the attendant social prestige the products of artists bestow upon their supporters. Today's large corporations have replaced the Medici as the arts' contemporary philanthropists and have become not only the avid supporters of the performing arts, but have also acquired handsome collections of paintings, sculpture, and other objets d'art. Private collectors continue to be the benefactors of our museums, and wealthy patrons have been responsible for building and subsidizing our art centers and programs.

Since historically the arts have been supported by the learned class of society, the relationship of the commercial and social values of the arts to higher education is reasonably clear. It was the aristocracy who had the educated sensibilities to appreciate the arts and the leisure time to pursue them. In a sense our present educational system has capitalized on an élitist philosophy by including within faculty ranks artists-in-residence by budgeting for the continuing support of performing ensembles and university museums. The artists and museums in turn lend considerable prestige to the academy while at the same time they contribute to the education of tomorrow's professionals and teachers.

There is some merit in this exchange, but in my opinion its value to the future development of arts in higher education is limited. Relegated to this role the arts will continue to be little more than an extension of the entertainment industry, and as such will continue to remain on the periphery of serious educational consideration. One reason for this may be that the arts are not wholly dependent upon higher education for the training of their professionals. Many private institutes and academies do the same, and there are those, such as the artist Ben Shahn, who seriously question whether a high caliber of professional training can be achieved in the climate of detachment which so often characterizes universities and colleges. It was a fundamental aspect of Shahn's philosophy that total withdrawal from the contemporary scene usually brought about art's suicide, a philosophy clearly revealed when he spoke of Goya.

I am plagued by the exasperating notion: What if Goya, for instance, had been granted a Guggenheim, and then, completing that, had stepped into a respectable and cozy teaching job in some small—but advanced!—New England college, and had thus been spared the agonies of the Spanish Insurrection? The unavoidable conclusion is that . . . the world would not have been called upon to mourn for the tortured woman of the drawing inscribed 'Because She Was a Liberal!' . . . Neither would it have been shocked by his cruel depictions of human bestiality, nor warned—graphically, so unforgettably—that fanaticism is man's most abominable trait.8

In addition to the commercial and social values of the arts, their historical value is easily documented and its relevance to higher education readily understood. Musical iconography, for example, has been recognized as a valuable tool for today's musicologists in the research of ancient musical instruments and performance practices; frescos and murals reveal the character of their eras; dramatic literature has been a source of historical thought. On the other hand, Barbara Hampton Renton in a recent article in SYMPOSIUM cites the hazards encountered in taking musical iconography too seriously.9 Other writers remind us that the accuracy of the information conveyed through art was always suspect, for artists in capturing history were not photographers of events but used their mediums as vehicles of expression. The analogy to the world of music is clear when we encounter the difficulties associated with notation, text underlay and performance practice.

While the commercial, social and historical values of art are certainly relevant to higher education and provide a rationale for their continued support, the vision of arts on campus must be expanded beyond the perspectives embodied in those values. The arts, I feel, will reach their greatest potential within the academic community only if the understanding of their aesthetic value, their value as a source of intuitive or expressive knowledge, is clearly perceived and understood.

Recognizing that the "Art for art's sake" doctrine is rather unpopular today since it supports art as a virtue in and of itself and suggests an ivory tower philosophy that we in education tend to avoid, nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the intangible properties of art and the fact that there is a power in its essence which exists in and of itself. This power, in my opinion, is related to the compositional language of the arts, a language which is international and metaphysical, and which, with the exception of linguistic art forms, needs no translation in order to be understood.

The arts, as vehicles of nonverbal communication, have the ability at times to clarify and define concepts in more graphic terminology than the written word. In fact, some studies go so far as to show that verbal terminology actually interferes with the creative process. Musical compositions in particular and works of contemporary visual artists such as Jackson Pollock demonstrate this type of communication most vividly. "The modern artist," says Pollock, "is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical way of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, therefore, is working and expressing an inner world—in other words—expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.10

Ultimately, of course, it is impossible to comprehend this language and the essence of the absolute value of art if one is not comfortable with the aesthetic process of the creative act. The aesthetic value of art is the wrestling ground of philosophers, but if we in the arts are to fully understand the power of artistic imagination and expression and, after understanding it, orchestrate this power throughout our higher education system, we must be willing to share this arena with the philosophers, unfamiliar though it may be.

Our world is one of complexity and change, but higher education leaders such as Earl McGrath are not convinced that the postsecondary community has been able to produce a citizenry sufficiently informed about the universe in which it lives to react constructively to the personal and civic problems confronting it.11 Education, although successful in producing skilled and well-informed specialists in the formal sense has become too often narrowly defined and limited in scope. A rigidity of thinking among faculty members and administrators has ossified the education process, rendering it ineffective in a climate of organized impermanence such as that which pervades contemporary society. Our scholars on the one hand acknowledge that solutions relevant to today's needs will be outmoded tomorrow, and yet educators have been content to design curriculums which stress the instruction of skills and facts rather than those curriculums which emphasize creative processes that may lead to new paths of discovery. There is not only a pressing need to differentiate between training and education in the coming decade, but there is also a need to rediscover the educational process in its broader and more meaningful scope, a process that addresses not only techniques and skills but one's ability to address moral and spiritual issues.

There are emerging, however, changing concepts relative to the purpose of higher education which may give the arts in the coming decade the impetus they need to develop curriculums which speak to this broader concept.

Our university system has acquired a reputation for being the central agency for the advancement of knowledge. The current popular emphasis on lifelong learning and the need for a better educated work force has legitimized the continued quest for this knowledge. While we as educators must be aware of the economic needs of our students and the attendant necessity for career preparation, at the same time we must be equally cognizant of the broader educational goals of the individual. The current emphasis on lifelong learning meshes the two objectives quite beautifully, I think, for it promotes a strong incentive for the individual to expand into many diverse areas. The continuous learning ideal will be less meaningful, however, if we attempt to approach it within the traditional instructional system. A concept of education that concentrates primarily on the teaching of a discipline or preparation of a career is too limited. Education in a broader sense emphasizes an acquisition of intellectual skills that are transferable. Within such a concept it is the process of learning that is vital, not the subject matter.

This is where the arts come in.

Creativity is what we are about—it is what we know best. All we need to do is recognize that this creativity is not limited to the arts, but that it spills over into all other areas of human existence, and that through a teaching of the arts we have an opportunity to promote creativity in a very special way.

As individuals are given the opportunity to explore different interests—indeed, encouraged to pursue two or more careers during their lifetimes—the arts have, through an acquaintance with the creative process, the ability to expand one's awareness, to open horizons, to become a catalyst for discovery in the challenge of life's pursuit.

Familiarity with this creative process will ultimately direct one's attention to that which is not readily apparent. The development of ear and eye to interpret experiences of hearing and seeing equips one for an inward journey, the purpose of which is to search for knowledge apart from that which is transmitted through external means or that which is usually taught in the classroom. There are those who postulate that knowledge is acquired solely through the intellect and is devoid of feeling and intuition, but most artists would object. Michelangelo is reputed to have said that one paints not with the hands but with the brain, and Leonardo emphasized that "All knowledge originates in our sensibilities."12

Through an application of the creative process one may become more in tune with the fluctuating environment, become comfortable with it, and eventually be stimulated to participate actively in the change. The creative process embodies this principle. Jazz musicians, for example, in order to capture the essence of the improvisational style, must develop the ability to conceptualize endless variation. We also know that although technological advances have enabled us to reproduce music and drama through recordings and film, we have not been able to reproduce totally the artistic event. These media can only capture the fundamentals of the art product. The listener or observer brings to each new viewing or listening experience a fresh approach and in doing so is unable to relive a work in precisely the same manner previously experienced. With this active involvement, art becomes a moving, constantly changing experience; and the individual, by experiencing new moments of sensibility or awareness, engages in the creative act.13 By conveying an understanding of the creative process to those who matriculate in our institutions, we may be able to contribute significantly to an educational philosophy appropriate for a changing society.

In summary, it seems to me that the credibility of our educational system can only be properly advanced through the establishment of priorities which will enliven and at the same time give balance to the educational process. We in the arts, as well as other disciplines, must venture beyond the products of our system and search for the hidden dialogues involved in the formation of that product. In order to achieve that end, programs must be developed to speak to the aesthetic and creative needs of all individuals.

I am mindful that it is fairly simple to take a parochial stance to one's profession, viewing it as the panacea for the world's ills and the harbinger of eternal good, so I would hasten to reiterate at this point that we in the arts must continually be aware of the political and economic factors which impact on our institutions and subsequently on us. While I am not suggesting that another scenario of catastrophe be developed, we must admit that stern realities need to be faced if the academy is to be productive in the midst of diminishing resources. We must put our house in order and examine our purposes if the vitality and viability of the arts in higher education are to be maintained. We must also continue to be excited about the accomplishments we have achieved and be prepared to make new advances in spite of the prognosis of diminishing resources. In order to do this we must lobby effectively for institutional support both internally and externally, and we must be willing to capitalize on the new directions in higher education, and market our art accordingly. We may discover in the process that the significant contribution the arts can make to the enhancement of educational programs in the 1980s will neither be achieved through the teaching of conventional standards of beauty and harmony, nor in defining the primary mission of the arts as the training of professionals, nor in the creation of a multitude of products.

It is my conviction that the message of the arts for this new decade is that the worlds of creativity which are familiar habitats of the creative spirit are accessible to all, not just the dreamers of society. Quality of life issues and a basic commitment to human values can only be realized when each individual is capable of grasping his potential for human accomplishment. The energy arid vitality of the arts are linked to the creative process of discovery, the discovery of the world's "beyond," if you will. For it is only in the process of discovery, when man has the ability to dream of becoming other than what he is, that the process is already in place for him to become that which he is not. As Jon Roush has said, "The kind of art that can control the way we project ourselves in the world will perhaps be most like the art of a happening, in which an event and an environment mutually inform each other, in which each individual is a creative participant within a surrounding form."14


This address was given at the meeting of the Southern Chapter at Florida State University, Tallahassee, February 7-9, 1980.

1WICHE High School Graduates: Projections for the Fifty States.

2Twenty-one tenured faculty members terminated; terminations were then rescinded. Twenty of the twenty-one terminations were made in the Colleges of Education and Liberal Arts. (Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15, 1979)

3James Ackerman, "Education of Vision," The Arts on Campus (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1970), p. 68.

4According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in schools of art, drama, and music increased nearly 40 percent from 1960 to 1965. Jack Morrison, The Rise of the Arts on the American Campus (McGraw, Hill, 1973).

5Quoted by Roberta Graham, "Business and the Arts Make a Perfect Match," Nation's Business Vol. 67, no. 4 (April, 1978), p. 51.

6Margaret Mahoney, "Overview of the Present," The Arts on Campus: The Necessity for Change (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1980), p. 23.

7Morrison, op. cit., p. 194.

8James Thrall Soby, Ben Shahn Paintings (New York: George Braziller, 1961), pp. 26-27.

9Barbara Hampton Renton, "Worth a Thousand Words?" College Music Symposium Vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1979), pp. 246-251.

10Quoted from Ann Jarmusch, "The Energy (and Agony) of Jackson Pollock," Realities (Spring, 1979), p. 40.

11Earl McGrath, General Education and the Plight of Modern Man (Indianapolis: The Lilly Endowment, Inc.), p. vii.

12Quoted from Albert Christ-Janer and Ralph L. Wickiser, "Higher Education and the Arts," The Arts in Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1968), p. 51.

13Rollo May, The Courage to Create, pp. 15-16.

14Mahoney, op. cit.

Read 1458 times

Last modified on Thursday, 25/10/2018

Elizabeth C. French

Elizabeth French has been a member of the staff of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) since 1978 where she currently holds the position of Director of the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Planning. She has earned degrees from Wheaton College (Illinois), the College Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati, and Boston University. Postdoctoral study in administration of higher education was completed at the University of Arizona.

As a professional musician, Dr. French served as a tenured member of the faculty of Concord College in Athens, Virginia (1964-1970); was appointed musical director of the Barter Theater in Abingdon Virginia (1966); and has enjoyed an extensive performing career as organist and harpsichordist, including several seasons as harpsichordist with the baroque ensemble, Birmingham Musica Antigua (Alabama). In addition to her position as Director of Music of Temple Beth Or (Montgomery) which she has held for more than thirty years, she also serves as organist at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church (Montgomery).

Go to top