May 31, 2013

Studying the right things

Posted in Schooling and unschooling tagged , , , , at 1:21 am by chavisory

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.


  1. Anonymous said,

    Where I do agree that well-rounded people are important, and that yes, many people _do_ have great success in the arts, many people in those fields are supported by many other fields… computer technology, the construction trades (where would Broadway or Hollywood be without electrical power and running water, and dietitians? or those mobile film crews in NYC without trailers to house their starts and craft services). While I totally respect someone who works at something else while pursuing their dream (one has to do something to eat and put a roof over his or her head while pursuing that dream, right? Might as well be something profitable so you are enabled to buy head shots, organic produce, live in NYC, etc…), I do also think that all those other fields would be very benefited from the creative, spatial and dramatic minds, and make the world a better place. I would love it if professionals in M-F 8-5 jobs pressed the question of better working arrangements for their creative pursuits. I think that many less “creative” fields can actually be very creative, but are written off as being far less potentially glamorous, and possibly involve “terrifying” subjects like calculus-based math and science. Creative pursuits benefit everyone (including those of us who took a more practical career path…), and yes, sometimes they are wildly profitable. But can you imagine what would happen if all those creative minds were set loose solving the worlds problems, and had the practical schooling to actually make a difference? Helloo alternate energy sources and goodbye poverty.

    • chavisory said,

      I agree that non-artistic fields can be immensely creative. But all the creative minds ARE loose in the world, trying to solve problems, and I think in large part aren’t getting listened to.

      I have a background in science, by the way. Calculus and biology weren’t “terrifying” to me. But that didn’t make it the right field for me, practical education or not.

      I don’t see how it’s any kind of a solution, though, to just have everyone currently in performing arts to go into other jobs to apply their creativity. Haven’t you recently enjoyed a movie, play, TV show, radio program, or record? That kind of creation takes people dedicated to doing that full time…and not just doing the acting or writing that you see, but editors, sound engineers, stage managers, deck hands, designers, and probably a hundred other jobs that I couldn’t even name. If we as a society value those things, then we need people who do them full-time; they can’t be half-assed.

      • Anonymous said,

        (I have way too many thoughts here to keep this to a linear essay, so I will simply separate by paragraphs. I’ve been re-arranging far too long, and need to get ready for yoga.)

        So, it’s lovely everyone is getting all huffy about statements made by Hank Huckaby (a name probably not widely known outside of Georgia), but there’s a lot of truth in this dialogue.

        (1) engineers are not paid well enough for what they do, even though they are some of the highest starting salaries out of college. They are also not acknowledged enough, and not given enough opportunities to exercise their creative side within their everyday jobs.

        (2) If a student, a family, and a student loan system (therefore, Jane Q Taxpayer) is going to invest massive money in a 4-year education, then in most cases, the result _should_ be a pay-back _to_ society, ideally related to the investment made. (if you can fund your own schooling without a loan, then god bless you, study whatever you like.)

        (3) if more naturally creative minds did go into technical fields, and if more room was made for that expression within STEM careers, there would be more innovation, and we’d be solving more problems faster. See Item 1.

        I can name dozens of directors and writer, and hundreds of actors, and I’ve met very few in person. How many engineers and scientists, actually working in their fields can you name who you have not met? How many autographs have you gotten from engineers and scientists because you so value their work and contribution? How many after-parties have you attended or crashed for the completion or grand opening of a construction project? (fyi, most of the time, the engineers & tradespeople don’t even get invited if there is a party at the end of a building project)

        Society _does_ highly value the arts, in the measure of the monetary success and celebrity of the moderately-to-uber-successful theatrical professionals, by comparison with the _highest_ paid engineers who stay in their craft. If a person in engineering wants the kind of wild success that is available to the lucky actors who are deemed pretty enough, or talented enough, or who have the right friends or relatives to be successes, they have to LEAVE engineering. That person needs to be an inventor, be able to see how their invention fits into the needs of the future, patent their invention, start and run a company (typically leaving a true “technical” day-to-day work which got them there). Many engineers who wanted to be financially successful leave engineering for real estate, management, or finance (all I have to do to see that is go to a meeting of the alumni association for my college in NYC) … And yet, all that said, every disruptive technology has been developed, designed and built by the technically creative mind. I can’t even imagine what kinds of wild things Rowan Atkinson would have dreamed up if he stayed in engineering (but as a known gearhead with a bankroll, frankly, he probably is funding his own ideas. Made possible by his financial success in acting.)

        Star Trek & Gene Roddenberry may have dreamed up the mobile communicator, but it took engineers to make it even possible to put it in everyone’s pockets. Can you name an engineer at Nokia? I can’t. I _can_ name Steve Sasson. He’s in the Hall of Fame for my college. Do you know what he invented? The Digital Camera. He worked for Kodak. Think of that. Kodak. He invented what ultimately is killing print film.

        Where an actor has to consistently be superb in one area of specialty – acting, and has an entire non-public crew working towards their success, a person in the technical / engineering fields often finds the model is completely the opposite. Most highly technical geniuses are working for lower salaries, in cubicles without windows, don’t have talent managers negotiating their salary (headhunters are often leeches), don’t have unions, and are stuck in the areas of their expertise (even migrating to a different job within the same field can require a paycut, and proving themselves all over again)… and i suspect B and C list character actors out there make more annually than highly paid engineers…

        The most influential to society electrical engineer of all time, Nikola Tesla, died in poverty… Not because he was a drug-using fuck-up like a “when they were stars” actor, but because he was generous with people who stole his ideas from him, used his patents without permission or payment, and because men like JPMorgan couldn’t figure out how to put a meter on wirelessly transmitted electricity, so he pulled the funding. Even in death, the US Government confiscated his papers.

        … and yes I LOVE good theater, film, and TV, but wish there was less mediocre stuff out there too. As the most direct comparison I can think of, I can’t figure out why the Twilight saga is successful (how is whats-her-name even an actor?), I tried to watch one and was bored to tears, mostly by the acting. Loved Harry Potter, where most of the actors were children. And I generally stay thru credits on films where I think the non-acting staff should be seen.

        I think the real crime here is in the education system, where creativity in the sciences is NOT encouraged, the connection between calculus and the real world obscured by the process of learning the math, and in fact, scientific curiosity could lead to a student being arrested and expelled for a felony (re: Kiera Wilmot).

        To be a really good engineer, a person _has_ to be creative. It is essential to think out of the box, and be able to have enough self-awareness to not lose your mind in most businesses where engineers are hired. Creative minds often survive in spite of the working environments of paid engineering jobs. And trust me, most businesses today (except maybe Google) are _not_ creatively structured. With not a foosball table in sight. And they generally keep the engineers in the basement or out in the construction trailers. This observation has been consistent, and has always perplexed me. (The beancounters usually get to sit on the top floors with the upper managers.) ..And of course the lack of recognition or credit given to career engineers who get stuck in a job _not_ solving problems, because some manager has already decided how things should be done, and overrides their professional judgement. Often managers are non-technical professional, and has no real ability to gauge how much a technical professional is actually worth in terms of salary.

        So, I do respect anyone who invests fully in their career, and feels self-actualized in their profession. However, I really think the world would be a much better and healthy place if the techies have more license to be creative, and the creatives were more evolved in technical areas (and honestly, the people who I wouldn’t call either creative or technical, well, more of both would be great)… and mediocre but pretty actors found something else to do with their lives, making room for more talented individuals to take her place.

  2. Anonymous said,

    PS – “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.”

    You can thank an Electrical Engineer for teaching you how to yell, then. We design & build that shit.

    • chavisory said,

      Oh, but I do. I think electrical engineers are amazing. I’m thankful for anyone who does something I can’t, or wouldn’t.

      But that doesn’t make that a good option for everyone, and it doesn’t make work in the arts any less necessary. My point is that artistic work is just as real as any scientific or technical field, and we would be no better off with everyone making superficially practical choices, than we are with too many people trying to go into theater. What the right choice is, isn’t the same for everyone.

  3. I love this! Both my husband and I are artists. Both of us deeply regret our decisions to “do the responsible thing” and went into careers that neither of us loved. Now in our 50’s we are finally, finally beginning to do what we wish we’d done in our 20’s. To both our children we will never push them to pursue anything, but what they feel passionate about. I would rather see them live simply and joyously than with wealth and misery.

    • chavisory said,

      Amen to that. I used to be an advice column junkie. The number of letters I’d read from college kids studying medicine or engineering because their parents wanted them to, or were even *making* them…who were then miserable and didn’t know what to do, was unreal.

  4. Robert Solomon said,

    Chancellor Huckleberry may want to consider the billions GA takes in from the film industry as more and more major theatrical film studios open around our state then, I suggest he takes his boneheaded speech and exits stage left.

  5. My college education was provided by a fabulous women’s college…in Georgia.
    My first year, I told me advisor that the major I wanted wasn’t available. My college, including the dean of students and a panel of advisors, helped me create an Interdisciplinary major: Theatre Arts Administration. I wanted to work in the arts, but not as a performer. My school was immensely supportive! I now work as production manager for a ballet company. My husband, who didn’t even receive a complete college education because his big name school tried to mitigate his course decisions, is owner of a multi-million dollar netting production company for theatrical events. Where would I be without my arts degree? Probably in an unhappy place.

  6. Thank you for your post! I went to a liberal arts college where I double-majored in English and theatre. I worked for a few years and then got my MFA in playwriting while continuing to work full-time. I grew up in a working-class family and I have a boatload of loans. Right now I work in publishing to support myself as a playwright. I would give anything to be paid a liveable salary AS A PLAYWRIGHT (which basically never happens) because I know my work would improve 10-fold if I could work on it full-time. But I continue to forge ahead and make my art any way I can.

    I took AP math and science courses in high school and could do well in them, but I knew that those majors were not for me. I have always been a writer. (Similarly, my friend in high school was a pretty good writer, but her real passion was biology, and she’s a doctor now.) I also know fellow theatre majors from college who are actors and designers, but also those who are wonderful drama teachers, event planners, lawyers, and college admins. Their liberal arts education and theatre major gave them skills applicable to a whole range of fields. Constantly hearing that my degrees are basically worthless to modern society, and that liberal arts education as a whole is equally useless because it does not train for a specific career path, is disheartening.

  7. D. said,

    The dean was wrong; a person’s major is his/her personal choice and each individual should have the freedom to choose.

    That being said, we then need to take personal responsibility for our choices. If someone majored in drama and can’t find a job, then I don’t really want to hear the whining. I don’t have a problem following the path a person wants. Heck, I studied English literature and proudly proclaimed when asked why, “because I want to.” But I also did some practical things that ensured me work when I needed it.

    And further, if you took 40K in loans to pursue that arts degree and can’t find a job, well, good luck with that. My sympathy has long expired in that arena.

    Common sense does not preclude enjoyment, fulfillment, and any other wishy-woshy feeling. Common sense shouldn’t have to be taught in a college course either. And neither should personal responsibility.

    I agree that a university education is not about job training. At the same time, if you are going to need a job after university, some job training won’t hurt.

    Common sense.

    • chavisory said,

      Look, I am ALL about exercising good judgment in major life choices. Like going into a career field with infamously low average wages and taking out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to do so? Probably not a great decision. I am certainly not advising against looking realistically at what your career options are for the outlay of time and money that you’re putting into an education.

      But there is so much cluelessness about the extent of those options. Yes, if you have a drama degree and can’t find a job, probably there’s a reason, but maybe the reason actually *isn’t* your choice of major. I know fellow drama majors working in practically everything imaginable, including medicine (and a pretty stunning number of the people I was in school with still employed in some aspect of the performing arts).

      Job training is a great thing, too, and yes, maybe that is what’s missing…but that’s something that universities haven’t traditionally been expected to provide. Teenagers had part-time jobs, and employers expected to do some on-the-job training for entry-level jobs.

      The thing about a drama degree (and I just don’t know if this is the case for other degree areas; I’d be interested to hear) is that you can’t just present your degree as qualification for a job. If someone gets a drama degree, can’t find a job, and gives up and whines, I think they didn’t really understand what the entire area of study is about, and THAT is likely to be at least part of the problem.

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