May 31, 2013
Studying the right things
So the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Hank Huckaby, caused a slight kerkuffle among my alumni community this past week, when he said, in reference to the fact that apparently large numbers of jobs in Georgia are going unfilled, that “students are studying the wrong things,” and that “If you can’t get a job, and you majored in drama, there’s probably a reason.”
Where to even start. Oh, I’ll just start.
1. The point of a university education is not to fill a quota of jobs in particular industries that just happen to be available in the state. The point of a university education is to support and fulfill a student in the long term, not simply as a worker but as a learning, thinking, creating person. College education should enrich an entire society with a liberal range of thinking skills, not simply enable young adults to fill available jobs.
If industries with jobs to fill are failing to attract students and applicants by making a reasonable case that the work is worthy of their dedication for the salaries they’re offering, that is not the student body’s fault. Industries with jobs to fill are not entitled to students’ lives or attention. A graduate has no particular duty to take any given job, anywhere, or to train for any given job just because it’s available.
2. It is so easy to take the stereotype of the undisciplined, flighty, starving actor or artist and say if you studied drama and now you don’t have a job, maybe you studied the wrong thing. But who would look at an unemployed graduate who studied business, marketing, or biochemistry, and say “Maybe you studied the wrong thing. Maybe you should have studied photography or playwrighting?”
But maybe they should have. Maybe a kid who sacrificed their true interests to what they were told was more practical, responsible, stable, or lucrative, would have been better off pursuing what they were a natural at. Maybe they would have found that being educated where their strengths and intuition lie is actually more reliable and life-sustaining.
3. People do work in the arts! Maybe this is overly obvious, but I really think that some of these bigwigs who run their mouths off overlook it. People work in the arts. People really do make their livings in the arts. People who quite possibly couldn’t sustain employment in more conventional career fields do so in the arts. People with very specific and uncommon talents find a life in the arts. People study for and work in the arts who damn well know that that path is their best bet.
And it’s not like the only thing to do with a drama degree is act or direct. There are jobs in management, administration, development, and design, just to name a few areas. There is such a profound ignorance of what it really takes to run the theater world, that, just for instance, I had not even heard of what would become my own job until I was in college.
Do too many people study drama expecting to be able to find jobs, or sustain themselves by performing, who then can’t? Sure, probably. But so what if everyone made more practical choices and studied dentistry or engineering instead? Would the economy then have the jobs available to support all of those people? A society can’t absorb an overabundance of nurses or computer scientists any more than it can a glut of theater artists. There aren’t a limitless number of jobs for electrical engineers, either. If everyone who hears Chancellor Huckaby’s speech takes his advice and chooses their field of study based on where job openings in Georgia currently are, who says those jobs will still be so plentiful, or even exist, five or ten years from now, and what happens to those students then? And in the meantime, what happens to a society that decides it doesn’t value the education of its artists and creators?
4. Make no mistake: I am employed because I studied drama.
Beyond the fact that I still actually work in the specific career which I chose in college, my education in theater gave me opportunities to develop communication, interpersonal, collaborative and analytical skills that I just would not have had access to otherwise. I found a world in which the kind of person I was at heart wasn’t considered a fundamental problem. I found a niche that demanded my natural skill set. I got told for the first time that the way I learn is a strength and not a weakness. I deeply understood how my own mind worked for the first time when I was taught to use a two-scene preset light board. Somebody taught me how to yell.
I really and truly don’t like to think about where I’d be right now if I hadn’t studied drama. And there’s almost nothing for which I’m more grateful to my younger self than the fact that she had the foresight to not listen to people like Chancellor Huckaby.