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
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
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.