Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: A Bright Future for the Liberal Arts

As promised, this is in follow-up to my last column on the importance of employees with well-developed right brains (which control art and creativity), as well as those who tend to operate strictly through left-brain skills such as logic, mathematics and science, in a competitive business environment.

I tend to think of myself as pretty average in brain balance — now. But, as a high school graduate, I was highly influenced to major in music by well-intentioned parents and teachers as well as sights such as this college algebra textbook formula:

It must be acknowledged that this was in the Dark Ages, when it was commonly known that girls were incompetent in mathematics and all things quantitative. That notion, as well as the well-intended cautions about certain professions for which women were simply “unsuited,” made choices about college majors and careers very easy for us. Because I could sing, it was assumed that I should pursue a career in teaching music. Unfortunately, it took a full-year contract to undo that assumption (although my adolescent students and I recognized the error much sooner).

The college music theory and composition courses I took, made surprisingly more interesting by their mathematical nature, were my first foray into left brain development. Fast forward many years with several trips back to the academic trough, and a really satisfying day at the office for me is one spent manipulating computer spreadsheets with good music playing.

The algebraic formula seen on the previous page actually stands for change — something that students growing up today must learn to expect and prepare to be a part of in their careers. They face career decisions in a world where human knowledge doubles every 13 months. Businesses are busy modeling projections of what this means and how to manage such change in their industries. According to Sir Keith Richardson, an expert on creativity and author of “The Element,” 25 percent of the jobs that will exist in four years are nonexistent now. And astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, that brain-balanced spreader of fun knowledge, bemoans the fact that we still don’t know anything about 96 percent of the universe, in part because of our own lack of imaginative education.

Some state education departments are moving rapidly to integrate arts into the core curriculum, commonly known as STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. So, metaphorically at least, adding arts and turning STEM into STEAM should provide a powerful force in preparing the next wave of post-secondary learners.

What (tech companies) are saying is: Give us people with creative thinking skills and well-developed right brains, because left brains are not adept at change.

But there’s a lag when it comes to the changes new hires face and the college preparation they’re sold (and that’s not too harsh a word choice given today’s tuition rates). Many schools of business, originally created appropriately as trade schools, have ossified around a left-brain curriculum considered classic, universal information — a particular hazard in universities where they coexist and compete with, well, purveyors of the classics. By contrast, Malcom Gladwell’s bestseller, “Blink,” describes and promotes a new paradigm for business decision-making, tapping into collaborative and intuitive skills and based on the right brain.

Technology leaders get it. Adobe’s Mark Randall put it this way: “Thinking will be now more important than knowing.” And Steve Jobs made his mantra: “We’re not just a tech company, even though we invent some of the highest technology products in the world. It’s the marriage of that plus the humanities and the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple.” What they are saying is: Give us people with creative thinking skills and well-developed right brains, because left brains are not adept at change.

Enter the Liberal Arts curriculum — poor, maligned and misunderstood, still at the bottom of all majors and the last degree to be sought out for positions in business. These are the skills needed to take the next generation of scientists, technicians, engineers, artists — and even business majors — safely through careers predictable only by inevitable and constant change.

Liberal arts include courses in anthropology, communication, English, history, language and linguistics, philosophy, political science, math, psychology and sociology. In his book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” “Washington Post” columnist and CNN host, Fareed Zakaria, suggests “these are the subjects that liberate the learned to contribute in a society requiring life-long change and life-long learning.”

I was fortunate to have academic “do-overs” that fit nicely with my career. The stakes are much higher now and the odds favor the prepared and “whole” mind.

Today, students and tuition-paying parents should watch carefully which core courses and electives end up on that transcript. Take as many liberal and fine arts subjects as your business, science, technology or engineering degree allows. Find the courses that give societal context, lessons from the past, understanding of people and evolution of culture. Throw in a music class — you’ll love it! Much of the rest will be replaced before you can use it.

Illustration by Jason Needham

About The Author: Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.


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