The Starting Five, 2/3/2015


Butler University announced last week that, beginning with

this year's freshman class, all students will be required to attend one

cultural event per semester. Members of Butler's Class of 2014 will attend

eight performances or extra curricular lectures during the course of their

college careers.

It used to be that studying abroad for a time was the

standard way for a college student to broaden her horizon. Indeed, Butler still

has an extensive program for students who want the experience of living in

another country.

Now, apparently, the arts are another country, too. Butler

students will, in effect, need to get their cultural passports stamped a

certain number of times if they want a diploma.

The administrators at Butler should be congratulated for

recognizing that a college education should include dimensions that reach

beyond the classroom. College isn't just a place, but a time when individuals

can take their first steps outside the circles of family, their childhood, and

received ideas and beliefs. Life-changing experiences are liable to happen

here. And it's entirely possible that, given the opportunity, some of those

experiences might involve watching the movement of bodies in a dance, feeling

the emotional impact of a play or hearing the way sounds are arranged in an

experimental piece of music.

If there is a whiff of melancholy in Butler's decision,

it's that such a requirement is considered necessary. Colleges are their own,

self-regarding communities – that's why, for generations, students have

referred to life outside the campus as "the real world." Given a community

where art is being created by one's peers in multiple places on an almost daily

basis, you'd think that students would come to find attending arts offerings as

natural as sharing a meal with friends.

But when it comes to the arts, it seems that even a

relatively small campus like Butler's – 4,500 students – is getting

more like that other, supposedly more "real," world outside. A world, that is,

where even so-called educated people think of the arts as being for someone


It's no secret that traditional arts organizations today

are fighting harder than ever for each soul they can cajole through the door.

Last year, a study released by the National Endowment For the Arts found

attendance down for practically every form of art in every type of venue. While

it was tempting to blame the sick economy for this slippage, the NEA study was

unforgiving: it showed a trend line that extended back for years, including

economic booms as well as busts.

Tellingly, the only indisputable area of arts audience

growth has been online. People have increasingly been turning to their

computers to look at types of performance that have always been defined as

"live," muddling William Butler Yeats' question, "How can we tell the dancer

from the dance" more than he could possibly have guessed.

It is impossible not to see a connection between this

situation and the general erosion of what are called the liberal arts on most

college campuses. As the cost of a college education has climbed beyond the

stratosphere – staggering many household incomes and driving a large

percentage of graduates into levels of debt that all but foreclose on their

choice of careers – college has become less about learning how to learn

through life experience, and more about training for a place in the corporate


Humanities departments such as English, Philosophy and

History see declining enrollments and cuts to programs, as students and their

parents feel a greater and greater need to justify the outlandish cost of college

with a professional pay-off upon graduation.

Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that, for

many students, the arts seem either extraneous to their ambitions, or else are

judged almost entirely in terms of their occasional ability to provide escapist

relief from the competitive pressure to turn college's financial shock therapy

into a moneymaking proposition.

For these students, college as a place for lifetime firsts

has been reduced to the first step in the rat race. It's no wonder that, having

had little or no meaningful experience with the arts, so many college grads are

oblivious to what the arts have to offer. That they turn out to be just as

ill-equipped to find creative, sustainable solutions for our collective

healthcare, environmental, energy and employment woes is probably more than a


It's possible that some students at Butler will see the

new requirement to attend arts events as the equivalent of a charm school

exercise, like learning which fork to use with salad. But firsthand experience

with the arts should provide the students with more than a flush of social

embellishment. The arts, ultimately, are languages suggesting ways to join our

heads and hearts. In form and function they provide the opportunity for experiences

that show us new ways of thinking, feeling, being. As Kurt Vonnegut liked to

say: They make your soul grow.

Let's hope one event per semester is enough.


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