Don't Go to Art School, Part 1: The Opening Argument

Read the entire “Don’t Go to Art School” series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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A Facebook friend recently sent me a great little blog post. It’s titled, “Don’t Go to Art School,” and here’s an excerpt:

school“Artists are neither doctors nor lawyers. We do not, on average, make huge six-figure salaries. We can make livable salaries, certainly. Even comfortable salaries. But we ain’t usually making a quarter mil a year. Hate to break it to you. An online debt repayment calculator recommended a salary exceeding $400,000 in order to pay off a RISD education within 10 years.

“Don’t do it.

“Don’t start your career with debilitating debt.

“Please. I beg you. Think long and hard whether you’re willing to pay student loan companies $3000 every single month for the next 10 years.

“You’ve got other options.”

The author of the post then proceeds to lay out exactly what these options are, ranging from materials to buy, subscriptions to subscribe to, online courses to take, videos to watch and so on, all for the purpose of putting together your own DIY “art school” program for about $10,000:

“There. For less than a quarter of the [RISD] tuition you’ve got yourself a killer education. You’ve received more quality, focused education than I think you’ll find at any art school.”

I have to admit that I agree wholeheartedly with this author’s message. Student debtis a huge concern for many graduates, and if the programs they’re taking don’t actually prepare them for a job that can assist them in repay that debt, then what’s the point?

There are some programs for which a co-op experience, or qualified instruction by an expert, really may be the only possible path. I know that to be a teacher in my country, Canada, you need to do an accredited program and have a license or you simply won’t be allowed to work.

But what about the arts? I love the arts. I loved my English degree and don’t have any regrets given the time and place that I (and the world) were in when I took it. But I think things are different now. We’re in a more technology-oriented society where, as our artist friend points out,skills matter.

Did I enjoy studying English literature? Yes, I did. But I have to admit, if the children in my life came to me in 18 years and asked me to pay for one for them, it would give me pause. Here’s why:

Knowledge has truly become democratized these days. The same PhDs who taught my English degree back in the stone ages of the late-90s now edit Wikipedia pages. Well over half the books I studied for my degree are now available online for free. If my niece or nephew or any of the other children I love really wanted to study literature or art or philosophy, I could put together an absolutely killer reading list for them myself and load them up a Kindle. I could probably even find a book group or study group that would follow right along with them. I could put together an almost-free degree, online, that would rival the one my parents paid thousands of dollars for.

Don’t get me wrong: I do still think the humanities have value. But I think that what they don’t have any longer is exclusivity. If you want to learn about art and literature, I don’t think you need someone with a PhD to teach it to you. So my advice to all my younger friends would be this: Get a degree in something practical. And study the arts yourself.

In the coming week, I’ll be sharing with you a detailed plan on how to do just that. Stay tuned!

3 Comments on Don't Go to Art School, Part 1: The Opening Argument

  1. The internet has made easier what has always been possible, self-insruction. The downside of that tactic is the absence of verification of learning and the credentialing that results from that. Would you actually pay for the services of an accountant if you were unsure of their qualifications? This is what has kept colleges and universities in business all these years.
    This is not an easy nut to crack.
    Of course if you can follow your muse without engaging in an expensive paper chase, there’s lots of great stuff out there. I am taking an iTunes U course from Penn State called “Art 10” which is not only free but really quite good. It’s only available via the free iTunes U app on a not free iPad.

  2. Okay, Frank—but name me one job where a credentialled degree in English or history or philosophy is really a criteria for entry. I can see why you would need a credentialled accountant, but when would you ever need a credentialled philosopher? Wouldn’t it be better to spend your degree money on a practical skill that does require a credential, and then self-study the ‘great stuff out there’ like you are?

  3. Thank you for your article! I completely agree with the main premises of the article, namely that college debt should be avoided whenever possible and that there are other excellent ways to study the humanities. I also think it’s vital that people know that these resources are out there. At the same time, I feel that there are still compelling reasons to study the humanities in a traditional institutional setting.

    Firstly, the humanities do teach practical skills and a degree verifies that you have these skills. Although there aren’t many instances where you’d need a philosophy credential, there are quite a few jobs that require a bachelors degree and desire a humanities skillset.

    Secondly, self-study and guided instruction are simply not the same. To learn in only one way is to deprive oneself of a whole range of experiences. Classroom discussion was always my favorite part of English classes; it enriched the readings in ways that I could not have achieved alone.

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