wanted: ideas

Last week four of us from the CSU Office of the Chancellor went 20 miles east to Cal State Long Beach, where we met with the president, provost, faculty, and a phalanx of administrators.  Among our campuses their record for graduating students and reducing achievement gaps is unusually strong, and we wanted to learn how they did it.  No real surprises:  passion, dedication at the very top, and about ten years of relentless hard work.  The epiphanies were in the details.

At one point we heard that the College of the Arts, and in particular its major in art, is enormous.  Something like 3,000 students.   And, we were told with a certain pride:  “they all get jobs.”  A surprising number are entrepreneurs.

It reminded me of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about a company called Jump Associates.  It’s a thinktank for, well, thinking.  They make stuff up for you, reimagining your business from fresh angles, cooking up a compelling narrative for six figures a month.  It sounded a lot like screenwriting, but with more buyers.

 I read a story like that, and think about Cal State Long Beach, and it makes me proud of what we do.  They serve neighborhoods that are both tony and not, and many of their students come in not ready for college.  Either they were poor students in high school, or good students in bad high schools.  So the Long Beach campus set up a “seamless education” project with the local unified school district and community college, to plug the leaky pipeline.  And out the other end we get high-wage creative types, driving the regional economy while pulling themselves up the ladder.

There are down sides of course.  For one, not all of the arts majors are tycoon wannabees.  Some of them like art, and want to make it.  A whole lot of them want to teach it, and so churning out thousands of them comes with a certain pang when our schools keep cutting their art programs.

The other undertow has a certain irony.  The students we’re proudest of serving, the ones who barely make it to college, who struggle to fit us into their lives, who are blazing trails for families unfamiliar with — and even skeptical of — the whole university experience, are the hardest to convince.   They come for the degree in engineering, health care management, or business.  If we offered a degree called Employabilitology they would jump.  They took all the risk they need just by coming here, and sure don’t want to squander that on a major that sounds flaky.  And thank God for it:  we need engineers, health care workers, and business execs more than we need dropouts.

But here’s the thing.  All of those people need art.  They need to learn how to create.  And apparently, those who didn’t get enough of it in college will pay a lot to outsource their innovating to companies like Jump.

Somehow, more than most, Cal State Long Beach may have made that case.

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2 thoughts on “wanted: ideas

  1. While this post warms my heart, it has also caused me some confusion. I love it that there is vindication for the arts as useful but I also realize that we’re a long way from being able to articulate why–really why–we study various disciplines.

    At a meeting with faculty a few weeks ago, someone introduced herself as being from biology and then said “and I think everyone should be a biologist.” A little later someone from engineering followed suit by saying that he thought everyone should be an engineer. And so it went around the table from anthropology to theater.

    Lately it seems as though I’ve come across more articles about how everyone really should be schooled in “Computational Thinking,” or “Design Thinking,” or whatever kind of disciplinary thinking the author is peddling. And I admit to being hideously guilty if this myself, harping on the fact that everyone needs to hone their visual reasoning skills. Now although I think there is some truth to all of these arguments, I get the feeling that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of why.

    When I used to develop program-level rubrics, which for quasi-political reasons always had to be based on the university’s critical thinking rubric, I noticed how different disciplines would sort of swell out at a given dimension. In the case of fine arts, “questioning assumptions” was huge and so when I read your blog post I thought, “Well of course, it’s because art helps you question assumptions.” But then I thought about anthropology, which could be said to have its big dimension be “considering multiple perspectives,” which of course leads to….well…questioning assumptions. And then I wondered if maybe it was the arts’ practice of questioning assumptions in order to come up with novel solutions that might be exercising the brain for a kind of ideation fluency–which would make graduates successful in ventures like Jump Associates.

    But I don’t know.

    I know that I have suffered through a number of science courses where professors have expounded in the most reverential tones about the Scientific Method. And without fail these sermons have been deadly dull; anemic explanations of a methodology that is in practice absolutely riveting.

    Furthermore, I think that most university goals, the “Big 4s,” “Big 5s,” and “Big 6s,” etc. aren’t really getting to the heart of the matter either. Which is why they’re usually tucked away on some forgotten subpage of the provosts’ webpages.

    I guess I’m wondering if in trying to get beyond the concept of the brain as a vessel for absorbing information if we have fully grasped what it means to exercise it in multiple directions. How do we go about intentionally exercising the brain in multiple methodologies so that we can pursue the questions that most intrigue us? And how might we articulate to students what the value of these methodologies are?

    And that’s leaving aside the whole idea of degree “completion” rather than periodically returning for a little fine tuning.

    So no ideas from this quarter. Just more questions.

  2. This reaction is great; frankly it’s better than my post, and better written. Thank you. My favorite part is your summation, that we’re comfortably beyond thinking of the brain as “a vessel for absorbing information,” but still fumbling for the ways to develop it otherwise. Art and anthropology do that for their majors, a minority of whom go on to make their livings as artists or anthropologists. But I agree: we know it’s true and have a hard time saying exactly why.

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