The other side of the coin. A degree in acting.

Yesterday, I wrote a lengthy post about studying the humanities. Today, let’s puncture a myth, though.

A few years ago, I was in a production of the musical 1776 that included several young actors who were in high school or college. One of these young men (the show has a lot of men – they were the Founding Fathers, after all), who I shall call Oscar (because nobody his age is called Oscar any more), was studying at a local state university. He was a year away from graduation, and was very excited about getting his degree and starting his career. One night, during a break in rehearsal, I asked him what he was studying.

He seemed surprised. “Acting,” he told me.

I was surprised. I had been acting and directing for a few years at that point, and Oscar was the worst actor I’d ever seen. He still is. Nobody else is close. His line readings were wooden, he had no physicality at all (the fact that his character sat motionless in a chair for most of the show was fortuitous blocking indeed), and he absolutely could not look anyone in the eye. The director, the other actors, no one. Ever.

I recovered, though, and asked my follow up: “What are you planning on doing?”

Same answer, of course. “Acting,” Oscar told me proudly, “I’m going to be an actor. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. And once I have my bachelor’s degree in acting, I’ll be an actor.

I mumbled good luck to him and walked away, wondering how he’d made it to his senior year at a credible university without anyone telling him to reconsider his career choice. There was, to put it mildly, no way he would ever be a professional actor. Hell, he’d have trouble getting cast in amateur theater. (And I run into him now and then, and he’s done only a few plays since, in very small roles, none of them professional.)

So, potential actors, if you’re on your way to a bachelor’s degree in acting or performance, please know that in the cold, cruel world that awaits you, very few people with the power to cast you professionally will care. What they care about is skill, about work ethic, about passion… and whether you look the part and don’t have a funny-sounding voice. There are so many factors, and only rarely will your sheepskin from State U. matter.

Why bother then? Well, here’s why: Going to college to study anything — including theater — means you’ll be with dozens, even hundreds, of like-minded students, with whom you can share your ideas and your passion. There will be facilities, such as stages and black boxes and costume shops and workshops with tools and resources you don’t have and that are expensive to buy or rent yourself. There will be teachers, like me, who love theater and love sharing the joy of creating theater with students like you. And unless you’re planning on doing just one-person productions and turn the lights on yourself, it does help to have a lot of people around to make up a cast and crew.

Just don’t confuse the end result, your college degree, with a license to be an actor. You’re still going to have to prove yourself, over and over again, and the fact that you have a degree itself won’t be a big difference maker. But the work you did to get it will.

Learn to learn. Prepare for change. Study humanities.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Andrew Sullivan commented this morning on an article by Paul Jay and Gerald Graff at Inside Higher Ed called “Fear of Being Useful.” Sullivan’s title was more blunt: “The Humanities Aren’t Totally Useless After All.” His comments and his excerpts from the original article are good, plus he includes the graph shown above from Georgetown University showing unemployment rates between those who studied various academic disciplines.

I teach humanities (theater arts) at a community college, where vocation-specific training has traditionally been very important. We have plenty of students at my college who are here to gain specific knowledge about a subject in order to get a job in that field. Medical, construction trades, manufacturing, and so on. The instruction is (hopefully) up-to-date, thorough, and will lead to a greater chance of success… in that field.

Times change quickly, though. Today’s specialized knowledge is old news tomorrow. What’s the demand for FORTRAN or COBOL programmers these days? Car engines (and robotics and electrical codes and…) keep getting more complex and computerized. And you probably don’t want someone dealing with your medical condition whose education stopped when they left college.

Damon Horowitz, director of engineering at Google […] insisted recently in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “From Technologist to Philosopher: Why You Should Quit Your Technology Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities,” that “if you are worried about your career … getting a humanities Ph.D. is not only not a danger to your employability, it is quite the opposite. I believe there no surer path to leaping dramatically forward in your career than to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities.” “You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion,” he explains, “and it just so happens, as a byproduct, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry.”

Horowitz, a leading figure in artificial intelligence and the head of a number of tech startups, ought to know. He took a break from his lucrative career to enroll in Stanford’s Ph.D. program in philosophy because he figured out that in order to do his job in technology well he needed to immerse himself in the humanities. “I realized that, while I had set out in AI to build a better thinker, all I had really done was to create a bunch of clever toys.” Horowitz came to realize that the questions he was “asking were philosophical questions — about the nature of thought, the structure of language, the grounds of meaning.” Returning to the humanities, Horowitz took time out from the world of artificial intelligence to study “radically different approaches to exploring thought and language,” such as philosophy, rhetoric, hermeneutics and literary theory. As he studied intelligence from these perspectives he “realized just how limited my technologist view of thought and language was. I learned how the quantifiable, individualistic, ahistorical — that is, computational — view I had of cognition failed to account for whole expanses of cognitive experience (including, say, most of Shakespeare).”

It’s true that we usually continue to learn and update our skills on the job, and continuing education is a requirement for many jobs that require licensing. The ability to do that self-learning, though, begins with learning how to learn. Critical thinking. The ability to ask good questions and expect good answers. The ability to think both creatively and logically. Good writing and intelligent conversation. Skills that are in demand no matter what kind of job you have or aspire to have. As the New York Times’ David Brooks is quoted in Jay and Graff’s article:

Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

I find a great depth of thought in most of my students. Not all of them come to college with the ability to express that depth. Some have even been encouraged to “not ask too many questions” by well-meaning parents, teachers and counselors. Given the challenge of trying to understand and inhabit a character, though, they have to get out of their own heads for a few moments and consider someone else’s point of view. It’s liberating for many of them, and they find it’s something they can then apply to many other life choices as well. It’s critical thinking. They’re not just soaking in facts and figures and regurgitating them on tests, they’re learning to learn.

And this ability to think and learn is in demand:

As Associate Dean [Scott] Sprenger [of Brigham Young University] notes, “the usefulness of the humanities” paradoxically “derives precisely from their detachment from any immediate or particular utility. Experts tell us that the industry-specific knowledge of a typical vocational education is exhausted within a few years,” if not “by the time students enter the workforce.” It is no accident, he observes, “that a large percentage of people running Fortune 500 companies (one study says up to 40 percent) are liberal arts graduates; they advance more rapidly into mid- and senior-level management positions, and their earning power tends to rise more significantly than people with only technical training.”

Studying theater or art or English lit or history or composition may not guarantee a specific job right out of school. (Then again, neither does specialized vocational training.) It can, however, prepare the student for a lifetime of learning, adapting and adjusting to new jobs, new challenges and new realities.

Related: Should you go to college? Yes.