Pomona Should Place More Value on Creative Expression

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending “The Mike and Morgan Show,” Bottom Line Theatre’s (BLT) first production of the semester. The director, Alex Genty-Waksberg PO ’15, along with the two leads, Mary Kamitaki PO ’15 and Tim Reynolds PO ’15, did a phenomenal job realizing a simultaneously hilarious and heartrending play.

As I left Seaver Theatre’s Large Studio, however, listening to the accolades that these three students received from their peers, I could not help but think this production had no business being as impressive as it was. The director and the cast members are neither theater majors nor affiliated with Pomona College’s theater program except insofar as the department supports BLT. Indeed, the fact that three such eminently talented individuals are not participating in department-sponsored shows or pursuing majors is troublesome.

I figure now is as opportune a moment as any to revisit the dialogue I invited from the Department of Theatre five weeks ago. However, those looking for the confrontational tone of my first article may be disappointed. I’m simply expanding my point of view to consider the impact of larger bureaucratic and social forces at Pomona.

A week after I wrote my initial article, the department’s faculty members published a rebuttal in TSL, toward the end of which they made a point that resonated with me. The authors suggested an institutional bias against arts-oriented students, even going so far as to imply discriminatory practices in Pomona’s admissions office. I lack the information to address such a specific accusation, but my general impression is that the authors’ concerns about Pomona’s commitment to the creative arts are well-founded.

The exceptional creativity of Pomona’s student body is undeniable. Student productions offered by BLT are only one example. An abundance of other organizations devoted to creative writing and the visual and performing arts attract Pomona students. As the theater department’s letter points out, moreover, many of Pomona’s most renowned alumni have been people accomplished in the visual, performing and literary arts.

Despite the artistic talents of our student body, a hesitancy to engage academically with Pomona’s departments in the fine arts—and to a lesser extent, the humanities—exists on campus. In my previous article, I addressed how program-specific issues like labyrinthine degree requirements can discourage prospective majors. The departments themselves are not at fault, however, for the broader, school-wide biases against artistic scholasticism.

To some extent, the disparity between students’ creative abilities and their academic pursuits is intensifying at colleges and universities across the country. Students correctly perceive that degrees in the natural sciences are often more marketable than those in the fine arts and humanities. Economic headwinds and other large cultural forces are beyond a single college’s control, but I am still not convinced that Pomona does all it can to combat the trend against the arts.

Consider, for example, the Breadth of Study Requirements. Pomona’s area requirements are intentionally flexible, but the Area 1: Creative Expression group of courses is the most nebulous and the easiest to fulfill of the five mandatory curricula. I cannot imagine a liberal arts education that does not challenge its students to experience the intellectual perspectives that can only accompany work in the creative arts. Students in any field of study, even mathematics and the natural sciences, will benefit tremendously from the innovative and abstract thinking necessary to produce art.

Pomona attempts to acknowledge this fact, but has stretched and contorted the Area 1 requirement to such a degree that it would be a serious challenge for any student not to satisfy it. Not only do the options range from studio art to literary criticism to advanced foreign language courses, but you need not even take a course with a letter grade. I cannot see the merit in forcing a theater major to pass a laboratory science course if a pre-med student can simply continue high school piano lessons and be said to have acquired sufficient experience in creative thinking.

Pomona clearly values the arts more than many other institutions do. Several large universities forced to make economic choices have dissolved art departments entirely. Unwavering commitment to the arts is a challenge in a market-oriented society, but there is no reason for Pomona to accept this blindly. I just hope that Pomona, through its curriculum and its principles, can continue to recognize the indispensable value of the arts and work toward reversing the marginalization of creativity.

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