Windows of Opportunity: The Fine Arts Advantage

You may recall the story about a class of kindergartners who are asked to raise their hands if they are artists. All hands fly up amid peals of delight. Then, a class of ninth graders is asked the same question. Few or no hands appear. What happened to still those creative hands? Unfortunately, as they grow older students are often led to believe that delving deeply into the fine arts will result in an unreliable and unprofitable future. Students are steered to more “practical” endeavors like science, engineering, or business—as if knowledge were deposited like grain into sealed silos.

As college counselors, let us ventilate those silos with windows of opportunity. Each fine artist is imbued with imagination, curiosity, and creativity, and through these windows light pours into every corner of the mind. Albert Einstein declared: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Einstein is in the good company of Leonardo da Vinci, who, had he been practical and followed his father’s profession, would have become a clerk. Imagine the loss, not only to art.

Consider as well the phenomenal career of Michael DeBakey, pioneering cardiovascular surgeon and medical device inventor. DeBakey credited his mother, a seamstress: “That’s how I started. She saw that I was interested, so she taught me how to sew and how to cut patterns and how to use a sewing machine, how to crochet and knit and how to tat [make lace].” Years later, when DeBakey learned that Dacron (a polyester fiber) could be used to reinforce human organs, he used his wife’s sewing machine to prepare the material—successfully discovering a new, creative, way to mend. Compelling stories continue into the 21st century. Who can doubt the creativity of Steve Jobs as he developed the iPhone, or Serena Williams as she reinvents tennis and entrepreneurship? The artistic mindset fuels innovation, which in turn enables all human progress.

Any fine artist can attest to the maturity, discipline, and composure cultivated by years of study and performance. And fun—whether sublimely contemplating a Rothko painting or kicking up one’s heels at a hoedown, fine arts are downright fun arts! In the digital age, savvy students diversify and combine fields of study. Fine arts can be the stars in the crown of an education responsive to the protean prospects of the future. Colleges and universities recognize the bond between the arts and other disciplines. It is no coincidence that we observe so many colleges of arts and sciences, tethered and complementary. Consider, for example, how Georgia Institute of Technology’s architecture school braids the creative with the practical.

Georgia Tech’s College of Design is home to the institution’s architecture, industrial design, and music technology programs, respectively. The department chair describes the difference between industrial design and architecture as being the difference between designing small things, like phones, versus designing large things, like buildings. Students try their hand at physical design (“Make something of this burlap.”) as well as digital design, with lots of cross-pollination between the two. Naturally a B.S. in architecture can lead to graduate school, but the program leaders are keen to point out that alums successfully enter engineering, law, urban planning, fine arts, business, real estate, and construction management. They seek “creative problem solvers, spatial thinkers, and curious minds willing to fail.” Other colleges and universities to catch this wave include Emerson College (MA), Maryland Institute College of Art, and Savannah College of Art and Design (GA).

Fine arts can also enhance a student’s college admission prospects. Would an admission dean rather admit a terrific chemistry scholar or a terrific chemistry scholar who will also play violin in the university orchestra? If our violinist is a competitive music conservatory candidate, she could earn not only professional training but also a music scholarship to sweeten the deal. What’s more, engagement in fine arts empowers a college essay that fairly pops with enthusiasm, individuality, and authenticity. And who can measure the benefit of fine arts for the student who struggles in some subjects, yet thrives and finds a happy home in the art studio or rehearsal room? It is not extravagant to assert that fine arts have launched fulfilling careers, eased defeatism, and even saved lives.

So, instead, I’d like to suggest that creativity and practicality are not silos, but rivers that converge. Creativity is everywhere. It is the novel we escape to, the song that reminds us of our first date, the child’s watercolor on the refrigerator, the hymn we choose for a loved one’s memorial service, the bright graffiti on the walls of city buildings, the “crystal stair” in Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son.” So join our wise kindergartners and raise your happy hand, for they remind us that art is the child of life.


NACAC member Bryan Rutledge serves as director of college counseling at Woodward Academy (GA).

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