Does Culture Have a Skill Set?

Employment.

It’s a word that is on the mind of every student this time of year. With the downturn of the economy, it has been on the tips of the tongues of Americans, politicians, and the media for longer than we would like to consider (or perhaps hear about). Yet I’ve been particularly struck by a group of articles popping up recently (via Bloomberg and Huffington Post), discussing and reacting to statistics stating that most “unemployable” majors fall into the Liberal Arts categories (something that is no new headline), specifically Art and Art History.

After finding out I had majored in Art as an undergraduate someone said to me once, “oh, so you painted pretty pictures?” They were half joking, but half not, and it is this very reductive reasoning that shows up on charts, graphs, and statistical data sets that are splashed across newspapers, magazines, and televisions across the nation serving as a warning to high school students, undergraduates, and graduates alike that Liberal Arts degrees are “not employable,” and that degrees that develop hard skills are a much “safer” bet. And with the rising cost of higher education, who is to blame students for feeling like they should heed this advice?

Not only to my mind does this type of facts-and-figures reporting allow so many to write off the value of creative reasoning, but have we forgotten that perhaps statistics is only one half of the picture when it comes to something that is not entirely quantifiable? Statistical methods have a time and a place, and are incredibly useful in projecting and pinpointing trends. However, last time I checked, the amorphous and unquantifiable philosophical pursuits of the liberal arts was the very thing that made them hard to break down into “skill sets.” And that’s exactly what gives them their strength. They penetrate deep into every sector; they are often at the heart of the most technically advanced fields.

Steve Jobs this past year discussing how Liberal Arts is essential to innovation. Image via The Daily Riff

The article in Bloomberg Online by Virginia Postrel, “How Art History Majors Power the US Economy” underscores the fact that if everyone flooded into so called practical fields, the result would not be industry leaders, but rather handfuls of middle of the road professionals. Postrel writes that:

That message not only ignores what students actually study. It also disregards the diversity and dynamism of the economy, in good times as well as bad.

So with an emphasis on the practicality of pursuing “skill based education,” one might think that apparently, creativity is not a skill unless it can be quantified. I would agree that in order to be enriching (personally, or in the larger sense) skills must be able to accomplish something, and that in order to me monetized, it must be able to be capitalized and therefore the means by which we use creativity would be to apply it to something concrete. But we must remember that this emerges in a variety of ways: it could be everything from producing a piece of performance art to conceptualizing a marketing campaign. While I would forefront that we can and must be able to apply these aptitudes on new and emerging platforms for communication, not only to enrich the field but enrich our personal abilities to grow as thinkers, to make the assumption that Art History does not develop “skills” is all well and good, but doesn’t it prove productive for accounting how to foster a rich and diverse economy.

Maybe, just maybe, the way that some are able to access their creative powers, their understanding of tools for the most innovative marketing, advertising and communicating and innovating is through a path not reducible to annual reports.

 

Key Image via Washington Post Online, Nicholas Kamm – AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Alicia Dillon

Alicia is a former CCT Graduate Student.