As cited in The New York Times, some “8 percent of undergraduates major in humanities.”
While many of us may cringe at that small figure, especially if we’ve observed the dwindling arts budgets in our children’s schools, or been impacted in our own careers for years, apparently there’s more to that statistic than meets the eye.
The devaluing of creative pursuits, as we look at jobs, at relative pay scales, or even “respect” for these fields is not new. We can look to the past decade (and blame recessionary times); we can look to the past several decades (or more) and note that there have traditionally been few decently paying jobs in the arts, though what you include in the broader category of humanities once offered career options.
Of course, once upon a time we had a patronage system, right? Then again, we also valued the creative spirit, the artist, the musician, the poet, the novelist.
Is There a Crisis in the Humanities?
In “The Real Humanities Crisis,” Professor Gary Gutting clarifies the statistic and clearly states the sad lesson for those of us who would – or do – choose creative fields as our chosen professions. He writes:
8 percent of undergraduates major in humanities. But this figure is misleading. It does not include majors in closely related fields such as history, journalism and some of the social sciences. Nor does it take account of the many required and elective humanities courses… the 8 percent includes only those with a serious academic interest in literature, music and art, not those devoted to producing the artistic works that humanists study.
Great. So it would seem that the reality is this: far more than 8% of our undergraduates are at least exposed to humanities and related subject matter. Yet the crux of the issue remains economic: lack of jobs, lack of adequate pay.
Does that count as a crisis?
Then again, one could say there’s less demand, and that may be true. When you get up, work (at one, two or more jobs), feed your kids, fall into bed, start over the next morning… Who has time for the community theater? Or a museum, even on the weekend? Who has the money?
Does any of that count as a crisis?
Compensation in Creative and Related Fields
The article clarifies:
Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents.
Professor Gutting points out the comparative earning power between humanities majors and others. These comparisons should be no surprise:
Humanities majors on average start earning $31,000 per year and move to an average of $50,000 in their middle years. (The figures for writers and performing artists are much lower.) By contrast, business majors start with salaries 26 percent higher than humanities majors and move to salaries 51 percent higher.
Clearly, as a person with one foot in the writing profession, these statistics are concerning to me but hardly a surprise. More than 30 years ago, when I hoped to make a living as a writer or in related fields, it was quickly obvious to me that I couldn’t do so if I was to pay back my student loans much less afford rent and food.
Finding Meaning in Our Work, and Its Price Tag
I set aside what I loved most – writing – and decided that taking a path into business, with communications and languages both a significant part of my role, would be satisfying enough to fill the need to communicate. It was a logical (and financially necessary) path. And yet, I continued to write on the side, through the nights, and eventually in a paying freelance capacity because staying away from what I loved was impossible, at least for me.
I find meaning in every aspect of the writing process – from idea generation to research and elaboration, and of course, chasing down the words that serve my purpose. And when I allow myself the time, polishing to a fine sheen.
This leads me to Professor Gutting’s next point, which is that many choose to pursue their passions despite the low pay.
… the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural… Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition… our system provides meaningful work in service professions… for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.
Athletes vs. Musicians?
Professor Gutting does note the small percentage of exceptions – those who make it to tenured positions in universities, or to jobs with a major symphony, or who write a best seller. He adds that otherwise,
Short of that, you must pursue your passion on the side.
I recommend the article. It’s both interesting and painful to read, certainly for those of us who believe that creativity is an essential element of our humanity, our understanding of the world around us, and a means to facilitate communication, to provide solace, or “simply” to replenish the well.
At the end of a long and stressful day, how many of you close your eyes and slip on the headphones, losing yourself in an extraordinary piece of music? How many of you crave even 30 minutes before bed to delve back into your favorite book, regardless of whether or not you’re clutching a paperback between your hands or viewing on a small screen?
In a final admonition not to forget about the “cultural” middle class, and reminding us how we treat and remunerate our athletes (as opposed to our artistic personalities), the article leaves me wanting. I’m hard-pressed to imagine how we recapture an appreciation of the importance of the arts and humanities in this country.
I’d like to be wrong.
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