NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story yesterday that has generated lively debates on their website, on Facebook, and on professional listservs. Much of this debate centers around comments made by Steve Inskeep’s guest on an ongoing NPR series concerning young people and financial literacy. The guest was Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the websites FinAid and Fastweb. For musicologists, one of his more contentious statements was the assertion that ethnomusicologists’ only career options involve joining the professoriate or becoming music librarians. Plenty of people took issue with that part, and rightly so, but plenty more are beginning to delve into the deeper issues that this piece failed to examine.
The comments on the NPR site have centered primarily around economic issues and the financial viability of ethnomusicology and other fields in the humanities and social sciences. That’s a perfectly smart conversation to be having, particularly given that those of us who choose to pursue careers in these fields need to seriously consider how to be financially solvent. But where and when is that not the case? In what field do people not need to consider these issues? As long as lotto winners remain a small sector of the population, these are rather quotidian considerations for everyone.
One stream of argument in particular is important to highlight in this debate: the notion that arts, humanities, and social sciences place people in financially unstable positions or miserable careers of destitute poverty and starvation perpetuates the already rampant undervaluing of these fields. The idea that one cannot have a career or a fulfilling life unless pursuing a corporate life or a field of study in the so-called “hard sciences” remains not only completely untrue but also thoroughly detrimental to the continued development of a diverse and robust economy. As one Facebook commenter put it, “Innovative thinkers and a creative class will be an important part of American economic recovery and building a better future for all of us.” As many others expressed on the NPR site, the very journalists bringing us these stories often come directly out of the fields of study that Kantrowitz’s commentary degrades by encouraging “fall-back” double majors or minors. In fact, one savvy comment on their site quoted the first part of the NPR mission statement, which stands in direct contradiction to the thrust of this piece: “The mission of NPR is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public – one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.” I find it extremely hard to believe that such and understanding would not be enriched by more enlightened reporting on this issue.
Want to defend Steve Inskeep? Think Mark Kantrowitz is right? Hit me in the comments. This lively discourse lies at the intersection of academics and culture in this American moment. AND, lest anyone buy into the bunk notion that careers in arts, humanities, and social sciences are dead ends, this just in from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Be sure to note Philip Bohlman, Sarah Fuller, and Thomas Forrest Kelly on this list–all are musicologists, and Dr. Bohlman is the former president of the Society for Ethnomusicology.