Thinking ‘Bigger Than Me’ in the Liberal Arts (Chronicle)

By Steven J. Tepper

A decade ago, arts leaders faced a crisis in America. National data indicated significant declines in attendance at venues for virtually every art form—classical music, dance, theater, opera, jazz, museums. Bill Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and I offered a counternarrative in 2006: We saw a renaissance in creativity and cultural engagement, made possible, in part, by new technology. Guitar sales had tripled in the course of the decade; 25 percent of college students in one study indicated that they had produced their own music and posted it online. “Pro-ams” were on the rise—people who were not making money at their art but were part of robust creative and collaborative communities. More than 100 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute suggested the emergence of new forms of online creativity.

I now believe the pendulum has swung too far.

Much of the cultural activity we celebrated in 2006 could be categorized as “iCreativity,” emphasizing personal expression, identity, individual customization, convenience, and choice. Too often that has turned into what I will call “me experiences.” Market researchers call this the era of IWWIWWIWI (I Want What I Want When I Want It). In both culture and education, what we need are more “bigger-than-me experiences.”

Self-confidence is great, but not at the expense of considering others. A survey of high-school students that has been repeated for the past 60 years presents a startling picture. In 1950, 12 percent of students agreed with the statement, “I am a very important person.” By 1990 that had risen to 80 percent. Other scholars have found that student scores on an index of empathy have been going down over the same period. Moreover, recent research in cognitive science suggests that media overload (often implicated in iCreativity) may reduce compassion, empathy, moral reasoning, and tolerance. For many young people, if they cannot insert themselves into an experience—capture it in what some observers call “life-catching”—and share it online with friends, then it is not worth the effort.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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