Last Friday, I traveled with my friend Natalie and her sister Suzanna to Winston-Salem’s monthly DADA Gallery Hop. We explored their galleries, shops, live music performances, and impressive public art. On the way back to the car, Suzanna asked me if I was also studying Biology, like Natalie. I laughed. “No, I’m an English major. Sometimes I wonder how Natalie and I are friends, considering how different our interests are,” I teased. Then, she posed the stock question: “So… are you planning on being an English teacher?”
It wasn’t malicious, or sassy. It wasn’t rude, either. She was just curious. Suzanna, who recently graduated high school from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and will attend Kansas City Arts Institute in the fall, is pursuing art professionally. She reminds me of my father, who studied engineering, with zero nonsense classes in his way, to become an engineer. Every time he picks me up from Davidson, he makes catch-up conversation in the car before eventually posing the topic– what do I want to do with my life with an English degree?
It reminds me of a friend at another college, who declared an Economics major that he hates, in order to placate his parents.
It reminds me of every person I’ve encountered–at Davidson or otherwise–who values education primarily as careerist preparation.
The question, or the people who pose it, don’t annoy me. The ideology does. I tried to articulate to Suzanna why English majors have just as high employment rates, if not higher, of almost all other graduates with different degrees. Or how studying English promotes career mobility through its emphasis on creative thought, written communication, thoughtful reading, and countless other skills that are transferable to most career fields. I tried to cite the lives of people I know who majored in English and now have great careers doing something other than waiting tables or teaching English. Mainly, I politely bashed the idea that the choice of college major equals a commitment to a career or life path, and that education is valued too frequently in society as a means to an end.
This issue, of the perceived purpose of education, has been on my mind a lot recently. Since I just finished my first week working in the Arts and Science Council’s (ASC) Education Department, it hasn’t left my mind yet, either. Tomorrow begins ASC’s Studio 345 summer session. As a free arts program for high school students that “educates and inspires students to stay in school, graduate, and pursue goals beyond high school,” I understand its emphasis on valuing the future success and opportunity that education provides.
Education should not be the means to an end, but the path to a beginning. For Scott, the Education Scholar with ASC last summer, the path to photography began three years ago when a friend let Scott play with his camera. I constantly remind myself that one of my life paths began when my high school developed a strings orchestra program. The opportunity gave me access to a viola and a classroom in which to learn about it. That opportunity gave me access to join Davidson’s symphony orchestra, which has influenced my college friendships, job experiences, and career interest in arts education and management. I also reflect on my class privilege, and how my mother could often budget season passes to the local community theatre for the two of us. I grew to love theatre, took an introductory theatre course at Davidson with an ushering requirement, and was able to get a job in arts management on campus because of my experience.
Scott argues in his concluding blog post that the impact of the arts probably can never be measured in full, at least quantitatively. I’m eager to find out if I agree by the end of the summer. Clearly, the emotional impact of the arts is difficult and complicated to quantify. But it’s hard to ignore the gaping opportunity gaps created by cuts in arts education. Where exactly would the trajectory of my path be headed without some of these experiences?
This Friday, Natalie and I and two other friends went to Bearden Park for a Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concert. As we sat on the lawn and enjoyed their program, I found myself reflecting on the Education Scholars experience and my future summer work with ASC. It is so freaking cool that I can sit in a nearby park on a Friday night and listen to a professional orchestra for free. And, for example, that ASC can sponsor field trips for all of CMS’s 5th graders to see the orchestra, ballet, and opera. And that there are programs like Studio 345 that offer free access to arts programming, food and transportation provided, in a (currently) self-selective fashion.
I’m a proud realist; what some people call pessimism I call being realistic. But despite all of the shortcomings in the education sector, these types of arts programs keep me optimistic and energized about the future of learning. I take many, many things for granted, but my access to arts and an amazing secondary and undergraduate education are least frequently among them. I’m excited– for Studio 345’s first day tomorrow, for the rest of my summer with ASC and the Education Scholars cohort, and for my future path with arts and education. Summer 2015 is off to a great stART.
- The Decline and Fall of the English Major
- Major Exodus
- In Defense of the “Impractical” English Major
- Why Teach English?
- Davidson College Class of 2014 Career Outcomes Report
- Charlotte’s arts districts face challenges, study finds (included is a quantitative comparison of Charlotte’s arts life to Winston Salem’s)