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:: The arts, or else!

Butler University's culture credit

By David Hoppe

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 being for a time 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 to be 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 else.

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 up 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 hierarchy.

Humanities majors 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 coincidence.

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.