Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and the conductor and artistic director of the American Symphony Orchestra, began his talk on Wednesday night at the Yale Center for British Art by warning the audience that he intended to “infuriate you as much as I can.” Between the title of the night’s talk, “Beyond Fashion and Fear: The Future of the Humanities in the American University” and his opening promise, Botstein provided a humorous opening for what is hardly a funny concern for many humanities students: that their degrees are irrelevant and their prospects poor for finding paid work in a depressed economy.
Botstein’s opening remark in some sense typifies the man himself, who is well known for his outspoken disregard for CollegeBoard, the SAT and college rankings publications. Botstein was ironic throughout his talk, moving effortlessly between jokes satirizing the response of parents to their children’s choice of major and deeply serious suggestions about the state of art and culture in the United States and society at large.
According to him, many parents now dread their children’s turn to English literature, seriously believing that the major is a “dead end into a dark place.” He delighted in recounting his recent visit to Stanford, when he dined with humanities faculty who fret about their increasingly slighted role in the intellectual emphases of the university, quipping that the Stanford arts faculty have “always been marginal” there.
Botstein did take a more serious tone about contemporary society’s real disinterest and detachment from the arts. According to him, our educational system has failed to cultivate an understanding of the relevance and importance of the arts and humanities in the American student. Most Americans, Botstein says, lack a personal attachment to music, art or literature.
To use his example, unlike crazed soccer fans, who literally kill each other over the results of games, such passion does not exist around arts because many people lack even an amateur association with them — most Americans cannot draw or paint or play an instrument. It’s debatable whether even the most hardcore violinists ever think about beating each other up after concerts gone wrong, but this is beside the point to Botstein.
Yale itself, Botstein continues, plays a role in perpetuating some of the “fear” surrounding involvement with the arts and humanities. Strict departmental structure and archaic, technical language of academia prevent scholars from considering important questions that span across disciplines. Students who choose to specialize in tech or natural sciences graduate with degrees that lack a background in the humanities and thus find themselves unprepared to tackle moral and ethical questions that the humanities investigate in depth.
Botstein’s charisma and good humor gave his talk a levity that saved it from falling into a rant about the lack of public interest in the arts and the failings of institutions like Yale to help correct society’s apathy. And according to him there is hope for the future; he sees technology as a positive force for bringing the arts back to the people. But he doesn’t offer much of a vision for how technology can be effectively used to bring classical music and literature back to everyday people.
Nor does Botstein offer an alternative to organizing departments by major, but he is sure that the status quo presents structural impediments to practical application of the arts and humanities. He refused to acknowledge the simple fact that any expansion of music or art programs in schools will require funding that is scarce. Maybe individual science and math teachers can do more in their classrooms to embrace history and literature in order to instill an ethical and moral education in their students. But for schools to emphasize the arts on an institutional level, they will have to spend.
Botstein hints at this conclusion when he acknowledges that struggling orchestras and operations like the Met will potentially have to be subsidized in order to survive. He is clearly wary of the sensitive subject of money, though, and doesn’t press the issue. He explains how at Bard the precarious financial situation drives them to innovate, but the school is practically dedicated to creative study, and public schools have to emphasize the core curriculum over anything else. Most schools simply don’t have the same flexibility that Bard does to throw what little money they have into strengthening their arts programs.
Ultimately, Botstein argues for vast structural changes to public and higher education in order to include the arts and humanities as central pillars of their core curriculums. This is a noble ideal, but in order to cultivate an appreciation of the arts among American students in college, that education will have to start at an elementary school level. And this is a question of funding that Botstein is not ready to address.