Parental Reality Check

What happens when you teach the arts, the job market is terrible, and your son wants to be an arts major? Robin Gerchman considers the challenge.

January 6, 2011

"I want to major in the arts."

This coming from my son, a product of two artists, was no surprise, yet the impact of those words jolted me from artist to parent in a matter of seconds. I always prided myself as being a balanced artist and parent; in the theater on the day of delivery, back in the dance studio with baby in tow days later (after a cesarean section no less), not missing a rehearsal or a parent-teacher conference. I advocate for the importance of arts in education and against the severe budget cuts the arts are currently faced with from the perspective as both art educator and parent. Why then, do these seven words throw me into such a tailspin? Where will he work? How will he survive? The funding isn’t there now; what will it be like in four years when he graduates? Is he prepared for this ever-changing artistic world?

As I begin to breathe and justify my reaction, I am faced with a reality. My son has experienced with me the highs and lows of being an artist and the constant justifications I need to make for dance programming, the lack of funds and the frustration of the lack of support. Yet through living this life he still wants to go into the arts. Don’t misunderstand my concern; I am not disappointed by any means. I am very proud and excited for him that he has chosen this path.

Teaching at a women’s college, I speak to many parents about their daughters wanting to be dance majors, reassuring them that it will be O.K.; I advocate for a liberal arts education where a student can major in the art of her choice and be able to double with something "else." The "else" has quickly become, to me, something "solid." I understand the value of an education in the arts and the strong, positive impact the arts have on society. A college major in the arts provides an opportunity to acquire strong creative thinking skills that will enhance learning across disciplines and a comprehensive study that students will apply the rest of their lives.

I am now living what I preach and the mom in me fears that my son’s undying passion for his art may not be able to support him. On top of all that he tells us he wants to go to study at an arts conservatory, not a liberal arts college. This means minimal to no opportunity for the double major. I put other parents’ minds at ease by telling them their daughter will find success majoring in the arts. Who is easing my mind? Is this hypocrisy? I am now on the other side of the desk.

At the risk of sounding partial, I have always been proud of my son's nature to love life and desire to learn everything about everything. He never hesitates to research what he does not know and excitedly shares his discoveries. He and I will often have conversations about how to synergize his findings with my choreography. His innate ability to think as an interdisciplinary artist is fascinating to me. Where did this derive from? How can he apply this interdisciplinary thought process as a tool for his major?

I quickly discover that he thinks through the liberal arts. It is this synergy that he unconsciously created within him that will guide his process. He is my best lesson in learning how to be an artist in a liberal arts environment. An arts education within a liberal arts setting nourishes interdisciplinary artistic opportunities. Will he achieve this at an conservatory? Art conservatories produce fabulous visual artists. I'm not quite sure that such an intense and narrowly focused program is the right fit for him.

I refer to interdisciplinary art as a collaborative method or perspective among several disciplines; my most immediate experiences combine my choreography with visual art, literature, drama, sociology and feminist studies. Interdisciplinary art, however, is not limited to specific genres of art. Teaching in a liberal arts community has provided me with an opportunity to experience an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum between my dance program and other departments on campus including but not limited to art, music, theatre, psychology, the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. I have witnessed interdisciplinarity among other departments as well, outside of the arts. While this interdisciplinary approach provides multiple outlets for creativity for students and faculty, it also fosters a new vision of the arts, one that peers between the lines and opens communication between art forms as well as between art and academic studies.

As the waiting for college letters commenced, my son had his heart set on a conservatory program as his first choice. Keeping the door of possibilities open, I delicately broached the subject of my realization about him being innately grounded in the liberal arts. His way of thinking and his developing artistic process appeared to crave the interaction of many disciplines. He quietly listened and did not respond. I walked away hoping he was being reflective after my mini-lecture rather than politely ignoring. After many restless nights, after treading on eggshells around the subject, and after all letters were received, he chose to attend a liberal arts college rather than his original intention of a conservatory.

He shared with me that he worried this may pose some challenges for him in developing his technical processes; he was also concerned that he may not fit in. You see, I affectionately refer to him as our vagabond. He wanders, on foot, or bike, throughout the area we live in looking for opportunities to meet new people and draw fascinating things. Material possessions are low on his list of priorities. He lives each day as it comes. Will he fit into an environment that is not entirely filled with other young artists just like him? When will my internal tug-of-war end?

Why did he choose a liberal arts college? After many weeks of weighing the options, he decided that at a liberal arts college he would be exposed to many influences that allow for more subjective and contextual stimulation. His first choice was housed within a large university. An excellent program, no doubt; however, they were not keen on him double-majoring. His love of literature and anthropology needed to take a backseat and he wasn’t too sure he wanted that to happen. Now there is the opportunity for the other major of something solid.

He is currently mid-semester freshman year and finding himself questioning the true meaning of liberal arts. Although the college professes its liberal art values, he has found many students to be quite stagnant, fearful of exploration across disciplines. My son is bouncing back and forth with his second major (beyond an arts major) as being either English or anthropology. He has concluded that this decision would be based on what allows him the most room for artistic growth.

My son has given me a gift. His interdisciplinary way of thinking has provided me with an intellectual and artistic opportunity to further my development as a lifelong learning artist. Joining the forerunners in the dance field that recognize the potential of dance as an interdisciplinary art actively engages me in authentic learning and discussion which contributes to the core competencies that new generations of dancers should have. Robert Diamond documents these core competencies as communicating, problem solving, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, the appreciation of diversity and the ability to adapt to innovation and change.

The artistic process and creation, analytical thinking, and the integration of dance into other disciplines are foremost in my philosophy in the classroom and studio. I challenge my students and encourage them to explore all dance-related avenues of learning to broaden their perspectives of dance as an intellectual art form. As a motivated artist and educator I strive to work toward advancing my knowledge of the future of dance by continuing my education in an environment that promotes higher levels of standards for artistic education and research.

In the ‘80s, the movement and visual art worlds grew apart. Everyone was out for themselves trying to find monies to create. Shared venues between artists that encouraged dialogue among the arts became a thing of the past. Meanwhile, dance was trying to find a solo voice that was appreciated and viewed as a respected art form. My son is now entering an artistic world that has been enduring a tug of war with politics for the past nine years. He personally experienced this after working diligently on his portfolio submission to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. After waiting patiently for a response to his submission, he had the rug pulled out from under him. During the week the admission letters were supposed to be sent out, he was told by his school guidance counselor that funding for the school had been cut with the budget changes.

It is time to transfer into the 21st century and strongly merge artistic efforts with other artistic disciplines. Text, media, art; cross-discipline of art forms may open up more opportunities for funding in the 21st century. Dance is beginning to close the gap between the performance and the visual; to reintroduce itself to the other creative arts. Breaking down these disciplinary categories helps those looking for funding.

My son admitted to me that had he chosen an art conservatory, the study may have been too narrow. While a conservatory may have offered him more technical aspects necessary for a student artist, he has found that at a liberal arts college he is receiving the breadth that is necessary for artistic, creative and personal growth. His list of new friends spans the liberal arts academic choices. He can apply everything he is learning from this new environment to his art.

Having peeled back the parental layers to reach my artistic self I found a calming reassurance that my son will be just fine. How interesting that through this my son is the one that taught me the lesson. Yes, being an art major will open his eyes to the world in a way that he has not viewed it before. Yes, double-majoring with something “else” will give him an opportunity to merge his thoughts from discipline to discipline and communicate his new findings to the world. It is not hypocrisy. I am not leading my son or my students astray. I will watch my students grow, along with my son, as educated artists. He will be fine and will flourish as the interdisciplinary artist he is already becoming. It’s time to let go and let him experience. As he so delicately wrote me this past Mother’s Day, "through my individual growth, isolation, stubbornness, mistakes, choices, arguments, beliefs and lifestyle, which are all going to change faster than you can keep up, just know I love you."


Robin Gerchman is assistant professor and director of dance at Cedar Crest College.


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