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Herald Staff Editorial: Giving up on the arts is giving up on students

By The Herald Editorial Staff

President Trump recently threatened to cut off funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and other federally funded humanities programs, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We believe Trump’s threat to these programs reflects a broader pushback against the arts and humanities in this country, which has become so focused on jobs and employment numbers that even community colleges are following suit by slowly morphing into vocational schools where job preparation is considered to be a student’s highest aspiration. The sad loss here is our peers’ opportunity for self-discovery that is unique to their freshman and sophomore years.

The City Colleges of Chicago is directly connected to this shift from liberal arts education to vocational school model, and it would be beneficial for it and its students to reconsider the importance of the arts for students and their personal development.

The first years of college are a time of fermentation, when latent creativity and passions are discovered in a variety of classes that cover many human interests, not just in classes that prepare students for jobs. A student’s first experience of adult freedom happens in community college. The rigid schedules of high school are shed and students decide for themselves which classes and topics they would like to pursue. Should our schools really be stifling creative exploration by cutting programs in the arts and humanities, and guiding students within “pathways” that resemble the predetermined scheduling of high school, merely because humanities and arts are less profitable than programs like business or nursing?

The City Colleges of Chicago has fully endorsed the view that job programs should take priority over funding the liberal arts and humanities since the “Reinvention” of 2010, when the City Colleges began consolidating programs in an effort to limit spending. Since then, the colleges have focused on “college to careers” and “student pathways” as a way to streamline freshmen into programs that will graduate them faster and propel them into the workforce.

We see the shift toward “student pathways” and “college to careers” as limiting student access to the arts and humanities programs this school has to offer. “Pathways” have become an echo chamber of sorts, keeping students confined to the subjects they may or may not have chosen with much certainty.

Our school leadership’s motivation for this shift toward the vocational is their instinct for survival. In these times of financial over-awareness, if your school cannot prove its students get good jobs after graduation, then state and federal governments will consider the school failed and cut its funding. We should overcome this fear and remember the long-time ambitions of higher learning: to expose students to new and unfamiliar material, and to open their minds beyond the capitalist mindset that dominates our lives. 

There is no reason college cannot both prepare students for work and also expose them to the culture of the humanities. To do this, our school must make it easier for students to explore classes outside of their “pathways,” and to encourage them to delay their declaration of a major until later in their academic journey.

These changes to our school’s structure during “Reinvention” were done in good conscience and were meant to keep students in school and to graduate them into careers that promised good pay and future employment. But to turn a school into a institution of pure job preparation is a dangerous step against the creativity of our student body.

At the heart of the arts and humanities is the idea that life can be fulfilling if you consider your purpose and self-worth beyond the labels society sticks on you. Do we need to prove to our state and federal governments that our programs deserve funding because we will graduate and make money? No, we are people first and we refuse to be thought of as merely future workers. We strive to live lives full of curiosity and imagination. 

To earn a living is part of life’s journey, but we cannot ignore the inner part of our souls that yearn for expression and self-understanding. And the liberal arts are an integral part of that journey.

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