Against conventional wisdom, studying liberal arts is a more practical pursuit than it may seem.
By Sam Tarr
May 17 2017: The Massasoit Tribune
The parking lots at Massasoit were emptying out steadily as I made my way down the long walkway to the Fine Arts building, Thursday afternoon. I walked past the Science and Technology buildings looking into their empty classroom windows as many of the day classes were wrapping up.
But in the Buckley Performance Art Center, things were just getting started.
Later that night, Massasoit Professor Corinne M. Mason would direct The Trial of Madeline Gee, a new production written by local playwright Steven Bergman.
Despite a nationwide drop in college enrollment and a society which emphasizes more “practical” majors, the Massasoit Theater department and the school’s Liberal Arts Theater concentration are alive and well.
I walk by the framed photographs of past performances as I head into the large theater. Professor Mason and some students have begun the final preparations for the night’s performance. The theater is pitch black. I can see movement from the stage where a soft light illuminates the bones of a wooden staircase.
Mason is out in the seats, as several students communicate through headsets. They’re setting up the stage, the sound, the lighting for what is being billed as “a contemporary retelling of the classic Greek tragedy, Madea.” The story, about a woman enacting revenge on her husband through a string of murders including their two sons, is given a film noir twist and a courtroom setting.
Mason, who received the script from friend Steven Bergman, was excited about the freedom it afforded the students. The script, she said, was just “the text on the page,” with “no stage directions,” and was perfect for this year’s Performance and Production class project.
“The blanker the slate,” Mason said, “the more creative the process can be.”
Even though colleges throughout the country, Massasoit included, have seen their enrollment numbers drop in recent years, participation in the theater program has been level or steadily growing.
The play, for example, was written for just one actress, but now featured more than a dozen cast members. The final project evolved into what Mason describes as a “performance art dance piece…somewhere between the avant-garde and the traditional.”
It is the second year of the student-run project as the Massasoit theater program continues to expand. Even though colleges throughout the country, Massasoit included, have seen their enrollment numbers drop in recent years, participation in the theater program has been level or steadily growing.
Fine Arts Coordinator Mark Rocheteau and Corinne Mason have been organizing events and pushing for expansion, increasingly since Mason joined MCC full-time two years ago. Many schools, however, including traditionally liberal arts colleges have been adding more courses that stress more “practical” concepts
In a research paper presented by Inside Higher Ed, doctoral students B. Nobel Jones and Erin B. Ciarimboli investigated the shifting curriculum of four traditionally liberal arts colleges. Swarthmore College, for example, added 51 courses during the study period, only 4 being traditionally liberal arts courses.
Swarthmore’s Provost, Tom Stephenson, reviewed the study for Inside Higher Ed.
Stephenson summarized the study as showing a “historic trend among many liberal arts colleges, a growing ‘professionalization’ of the curriculum.” He said “the shrinkage in the number of ‘true’ liberal arts institutions” was a “national phenomenon, and one of genuine concern.”
Corinne Mason says her efforts at MCC have not been affected by any such trends.
“There’s never any pushback from the administration,” she said. “They are 100% behind the idea of the program growing.” Mason did acknowledge that there are budgetary and financial limitations to what they can do.
For the Fall Semester, Mason is teaching the “Movement for Acting” class, which hasn’t run for several semesters. Mason sees the liberal arts as invaluable and not as impractical as they are sometimes portrayed.
“By Studying liberal arts,” you get a really well-rounded education,” Mason said. “But you also get to see how everything is interconnected with each other. That sort of critical thinking and communications, and getting to link all of the different skills together, is really valuable.”
Though it remains a tough sell for some, the perception of that value is perhaps shifting.
In the 2016 Republican Presidential Debates, candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, summed up a common attitude towards liberal arts majors, specifically those studying philosophy.
“Welders make more money than philosophers,” Mr. Rubio said. “We need more welders and less philosophers.”
The comment got a big reaction from the crowd in attendance, but those with philosophy degrees were not so amused. Even some welders, though acknowledging there are significant shortages in the field, took exception to what was presented as a binary choice, as written in the New York Times.
Also last year, then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign co-chair and education advisor Sam Clovis, began laying out Trump’s potential higher education proposals. Among them were several initiatives that would make it harder for students to obtain student loans for liberal arts degrees at “non-elite” colleges.
“If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you. I support the arts,” Clovis said. “But you are not going to get a job.”
Professor Mason, a theater major herself, said she experienced this kind of discouragement “every day” as she was pursuing her passion.
“Initially people were not supportive,” she said. Those close to her asked questions like “what are you going to do with your life?”
There is data about the prospects of philosophy majors and liberal arts degrees that back up those looking to persuade someone to a more “practical” job-oriented field of study. Though, when looking at those numbers again, the initial findings change over time.
As an article in the Wall Street Journal points out, the statistics of initial job prospects don’t factor in how those with liberal arts degrees fare over time. Also, they do not show how a liberal arts undergraduate degree can help in making the next step to graduate school.
The WSJ report, using data from PayScale Inc., shows that an English or sociology major with 0-5 years’ experience ($39,000/year) makes considerably less that a finance major ($52,000), or a nursing major ($57,000). However, over time, when people reach the 56-60 peak working age they see that they’re salaries are 3% higher than those in vocational fields, according to the report.
Those with science and engineering majors, were still 20% ahead in average yearly earnings, according to the report.
The article also cites several companies, such as Seattle-based real estate data firm Zillow Group Inc., who stack their management staff with liberal arts majors. Some prominent corporate executives and entrepreneurs have been signaling a resurgence in the liberal arts degree.
Students are learning life skills and hard work while pursuing their dreams and passions.
Mark Cuban, the self-made billionaire and vocal opponent of the President asked, via Twitter, when Trump would address the student debt situation. This, coming after Cuban, at a SXSW event in Austin, TX this past March, spoke on the value of a liberal arts degree.
“I would not want to be a CPA right now.” Cuban said at SXSW. “I would not want to be an accountant right now, I would rather be a philosophy major.”
“Knowing how to critically think,” Cuban said, “and assess them from a global perspective I think is going to be more valuable than what we see as exciting careers today which might be programming or CPA or those types of things.”
Critical thinking and teamwork, are two of the major skills Corinne Mason sees students gaining from a more liberal arts style education. Especially in the theater major, Mason stresses that students are learning life skills and hard work while pursuing their dreams and passions.
“You’re there late hours,” she says of theater majors. “You’re there more than you need to be, you do whatever you can to help your team.”
Mason hopes the Massasoit theater program will be known as a place where students can learn what it takes to work in an equity house or a professional theater. One of the reasons, as Mark Cuban vocally believes, that a liberal arts education may become more valuable in the future is the rise in automation.
Though the poor initial job prospects of some liberal arts majors have been well reported, there is a growing thought and concern that our notions of job prospects and industry are about to be turned upside down with the rise of automation.
Cuban said that we would “see more technological advances over the next ten years than we have over the last thirty. It’s just going to blow everything away.”
The 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute identifies 1.2 million jobs in sectors such as finance, insurance, and the medical field can be partially or fully automated. The report also estimates that half of all the current jobs in the world can be automated by 2055, acknowledging a 20 margin of error.
An article from timeshighereducation.com stressed the need for higher education to face this trend head-on. It will be, the article said, essential for students and the workforce to be able to retrain and learn brand new skill sets several times over as technology advances.
There certainly wasn’t anything robotic about the Massasoit production of The Trial of Madeline Gee.
Mayah Braun led the cast of this visually stunning and delightfully bizarre piece. A Greek Chorus featuring Amber Smith and Keion Lugay, displaying range following up their performance in A Raisin in the Sun, supplied an impressive dance performance throughout the chilling adaptation.
The same stage which hosted Grease just two weeks prior, now was the site of a gruesome, well-acted and imaginative quadruple homicide. Everything from the costume design to the lighting, to the stage props, done by the Performance and Production class, with the help of several mentors.
There will always be a battle between the practical choices and following one’s passion. What cannot be debated is the amount of hard work, team building, critical thinking, and imagination it takes for a group of students to pull off a fascinating work like The Trial of Madeline Gee.
Ariel Wigfall, also from A Raisin the Sun, made an appearance as Cassie Raspan. Wigfall was previously enrolled in the school’s Liberal Arts Science Transfer, electing recently to change her major to the theater arts. Wigfall, now in her 5th Massasoit show, said in the program that she “knew from a very young age that this was something she could enjoy doing for the rest of her life.”
The Massasoit Theater Department and Corinne Mason continue to expand and branch out in the community. Enough students are enrolling to justify that expansion, as some are deciding to forego more immediately financially attractive “practical” majors, to pursue their dreams in theater.
And as I walk by those Science and Technology buildings after another inspiring Massasoit performance, I know that the choice between following your dreams and building a career, do not have to be mutually exclusive.
We are all better off when people like the Massasoit theater majors follow their passions.
And so, there are trends, statistics, and high profile voices, suggesting that liberal arts majors may be making a much more practical choice than they realized.