23 October 2013

Large Whole-Number Ratios

I was reminded recently of a certain inconvenient fact about my master's degree:

As the graduation ceremony program shows, the CalArts School of Music granted nearly identical numbers of BFA and MFA degrees last spring. Occasionally people from outside the music profession will poo-poo a sarcastic remark about music degrees. Certainly my CalArts experience was worth quite a bit more than the degree ever could be. Yet isn't there something mildly unsettling about the notion of handing out graduate degrees in any of the arts or humanities nearly forty at a time? And even if the sheer number doesn't impress you, wouldn't you also say that the ratio between undergraduate and graduate degrees is much more flagrantly in violation of what once would have been called responsible academic behavior in fields where jobs don't exactly grow on trees? And if not for finding teaching work, what, exactly, is the degree for in the first place?

(For the record, both the raw numbers and the grad/undergrad ratios were similar in the schools of Art, Theater, and Film and Video. In Dance, where practice disproportionately trumps scholarship, and Critical Studies, where the opposite is true, many fewer MFAs were granted compared to BFAs.)

I'm not exactly blazing a trail here noting that the number of graduate music degrees granted and the number of real jobs for those graduates are out of whack with each other, nor am I the first to notice the Ponzi-like aspects of the academic food chain, nor does it take me and my blog to establish that the revenue feeding the scheme overwhelmingly represents debt of one kind or another incurred by students. The trite "real-world" stuff is no less troubling for having been recounted a million times, but as someone who may still yet be both a student and a teacher for the ump-teenth time each, I want to make sure we don't lose sight of the more abstract, less quantifiable aspects of all of this. To wit: is there anything left the truly gifted student might be able to do to distinguish him- or herself from the merely good? At what point does the propagation of opportunities for "encouraging" young artists swallow the entire endeavor whole? At what point have we encouraged enough of them to have discouraged all of them? Or, on the other hand, has the playing field actually been leveled in a constructive way, the profligacy of degree-granting institutions ensuring that bookish academic politicians with trust funds have a harder time swindling their way into real-world success that outpaces their talent now that everyone else has, on paper at least, much the same academic pedigree as they do?

It may be a stretch, even now, to say that a college degree is the new high school diploma, but perhaps the MFA, on the other hand, really is the new BFA. Seems to me that any serious disagreement with that statement has first and foremost to confront the numbers.

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