Are you there, God? It’s me, Audrey, calling to ask if the world still cares about the arts and humanities.
As someone whose first books were children’s phonic books and who learned the Korean alphabet from watching educational broadcasts in which characters danced around singing “there’s an S in sagwa (apple)! there’s an A in aaga (baby)!”, as someone who, at the age of nine, carried around a pen and notebook wherever she went, scribbling down stories of characters riding around on magic carpets in fantastical worlds, as a violinist, pianist, and avid creator of Spotify playlists, I cannot imagine where I’d be without music and literature.
So you can imagine I was very upset when I saw on Facebook the Wells Fargo ads that encouraged actors to be botanists and ballerinas to be engineers with a tagline that said “Let’s get them ready for tomorrow.” Nowadays, jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are seen as more profitable, more valuable than those in the arts and humanities. After all, most success stories you hear are about science and math kids fresh out of college nabbing jobs at Google with an average starting salary of over $100,000, while writers and actors supposedly don’t do so hot because they’re scrabbling for jobs.
Not only is that wrong – over two-thirds of humanities majors get jobs in the private sector – but it also raises this question: Is this how we really want to value productivity? Books, movies, and other forms of art are essential contributions to our culture, works that live on for decades, centuries because they are remembered by their audiences for many reasons: the social commentaries, the emotion they wring out of people. Heck, even a book that causes its reader to throw it across the room when finished – sorry, The Circle – is a success on its own because it makes them think, to react.
This is what I think shines most in the humanities and is lacking in the STEM area: Art, products of the humanities, show society at its finest and expose its flaws and failures.
This summer, I took a class that combined American art, popular culture, and social issues, where I had the opportunity to visit Chicago, a living, thriving hub of art and music. Needless to say, it was I explored some murals in the Pilsen neighborhood and analyzed how they commented on the American Dream and immigrants’ struggles, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago (I had only an hour to explore the entire museum, which was so unfair because not getting to visit the contemporary and modern art sections is an outrage,) and I saw a performance of Between the Riverside and Crazy at the Steppenwolf Theater, which was probably the most memorable part of the trip.
The play explores race, police relations, and complex relationships, where the protagonist Walter “Pops” Washington is a retired New York City policeman who has been pursuing a discrimination suit against the police department because he was shot by a white police officer. In one of the most powerful scenes, “Pops” and a white police debate the motives of the shooting: the former argues it was racially motivated, while the latter claims “Pops” had simply been at the scene at the wrong time. Eventually, the white police officer loses his temper and starts shouting racial epithets. I flinched at the first slur, each repetition digging further into my soul and fixing me right in my seat. Obviously the words weren’t directed at me, but they came as a punch to the gut. And when the scene changed and the story moved on, I was still reeling from the intensity of the depiction of institutionalized racism situated at a mere dinner party. I soon realized why I was so shocked: I could imagine this happening in my life.
On the bus ride back to the university campus, as I stared out the window at the pitch-black night, I allowed myself to get a little sentimental. My very first visit to Chicago made me realize how much I love and appreciate the arts and how every kid on the bus singing (and rapping) along to the musical Hamilton, how thousands of other kids around the world are dreaming about the books they’ll write, the movies they’ll direct, the songs they’ll sing onstage, the art they’ll create and about spending the rest of their lives pursuing those passions.
So to every humanities kid out there, your interests, your passions are all valid. Be the change you want to see in the world. Keep trying, keep persevering.
And to those who question the value of the humanities, there’s no need to discourage teens from pursuing the arts while encouraging them, even pushing them to become scientists. It’s especially disheartening for teenage boys, who are seen as “weak” and “not masculine” if their passion lies in theater, and we should be supporting their artistic dreams, not crushing them. Instead of perpetuating the double standard where girls are pushed to enter the STEM field but are also told they should go into whatever they love without feeling any pressure, give girls more opportunities in every area. Let them enjoy their art, enjoy their music, allow them to be happy.
Don’t uproot the plant of creativity. Water it, let it get some sunlight, give it encouragement and support so that it can flourish and bear fruit.