The questionable value of arts programs

Samian Quazi

State governments nationwide have targeted arts programs for budget cuts in a cash-strapped era. As states and universities reallocate taxpayer money to core subjects such as English, math and science, UT administrators should take a hard look at our arts programs. Students should also question whether such programs can lead them to stable careers or if they are frivolous expenditures with no bearing on the real economy.

Pablo Picasso once famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Parents of public school children often adamantly defend school programs in music, visual arts, dance and theater. The parents argue such programs impart creativity, foster discipline and expose children to fundamental aspects of human culture. And I agree with that.

But what’s troubling is these same arguments don’t really hold water at the university level. A 17- to 22-year-old undergraduate should already have finely-honed self-discipline in study habits to keep pace with the academic rigors here. UT’s core curriculum goes to great lengths to reinforce students’ cultural literacy, regardless of their major. And creativity isn’t within the exclusive realm of the arts. Prodigies in law, computer science and medicine alike have creatively applied their vast theoretical studies to achieve success.

Unlike the liberal arts, the fine arts are richly endowed with specialized institutes and conservatories dedicated for the most serious and ambitious of their craft. An aspiring historian doesn’t pour over manuscripts since childhood to train day and night at a history conservatory. Such specialized schools are presumably far more expensive than a comparable UT education, but I presume they would be far more beneficial to the most competitive of arts students.

It may seem unfair to the extent that reducing arts programs’ budgets would shut out youth from less affluent families. But the arts have traditionally been the patronage of the wealthy anyway. An oversupply of fine arts graduates from public universities without pertinent jobs is inevitable. The bottom line is that although the arts enrich our national culture, they don’t meaningfully contribute to the economic productivity of America.

Even top representatives of the arts community have acknowledged that their fields are out of sync with economic realities. Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, complained that there was an oversupply of theaters coupled with dwindling demand. And in universities’ film departments, faculty members openly lament the number of graduates unable to find employment.

But I digress. I certainly wouldn’t want a talented and highly motivated arts student to forsake his or her dreams solely because of a tightening job market. I am firmly convinced that not only will the elite institutes of arts education continue to produce some of the world’s most reputable stars but that dogged persistence can even open doors of opportunity for those without a formal arts education.

It goes without saying that more and more students and their families understand the costly investment of a college education. It is both pragmatic and reasonable to tailor your field of studies such that you can utilize a financial return on your investment. If a student is unswervingly determined to take courses on interpretive African dance, they have every right to do so. But UT, as a public institution, also has the right to ask Texas taxpayers if they feel their hard-earned money should help fund such courses, too.

Public universities, including UT, go to great lengths to promote the public good. But their primary focus should always be to ensure that their students are successful in their academic goals and can find suitable employment upon graduation. When assessing whether arts programs’ budgets should be cut, UT should carefully consider whether these programs are helping students achieve their career goals.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.