It is winter, which means my high school senior is in the thick of the college application process. Like the hundreds of thousands of other American mothers in my shoes, most conversations I find myself having with family, friends and even new acquaintances inevitably turn to questions of where, and for what, my son is applying in terms of his higher education.
They nod as I recite the usual list of institutions to which a child with a high grade point average, great ACT scores and a natural affinity for math and science would apply: Michigan, Carnegie Mellon, Washington University in St. Louis.
But although my son could easily tackle a pre-med curriculum or an MBA track, or whatever those thinking about law school are majoring in these days, the fact is, he really likes to sing.
When I reveal to my peers that my son plans to major in musical theater, the head nodding kind of stops and is replaced by a slight squint in the eye.
Uh huh, they politely say.
But what they are thinking is, “How impractical.” Or, “How in the world will he make a living?” Or, “Why are you allowing him to enter into a life of certain and continual rejection?”
How will he make a living? Not really sure.
But the answer as to why my husband and I are enabling him to follow his dream is a bit more complicated.
First, we as parents have allowed each of our three older children the privilege of choosing their own — albeit more traditional — career paths, and have committed our emotional and financial support to those choices, so the fourth child gets the same deal.
But the more fundamental answer — which is a bit tougher for most folks to understand — is that I firmly believe there is no higher calling than the arts, and I am proud that I have a child brave enough to dedicate himself to that pursuit.
What about medicine? Or science? Or education?
This is not to belittle those professions or any others.
But in the larger scheme of things — the very Big Picture — it is the poets and the painters, the musicians and the playwrights, who are best equipped to make us feel and understand what it means to be human, to interpret our experiences and share those interpretations with others. What would be the point of good health or scientific advances, or learning for that matter, if we were to live in a world devoid of art?
The arts don’t really matter, some say. I say, the arts may be the only thing that matters.
Scientists already are envisioning a future where doctors and accountants and a myriad of other professionals will be replaced by some sort of computer or other technology.
And as the Internet — an encyclopedic amount of knowledge — becomes more and more accessible in the form of wristwatches and eyeglasses, is it really too farfetched to assume that it is only a matter of time before some sort of chip will be installed directly into our brains, enabling us to instantaneously channel anything we need to know and thereby obviating the need for traditional education?
If we continue down this path — and there is no reason to assume we won’t — then the only people who will not be replaceable by computers will be the ones whose work necessarily comes purely from the soul, necessarily independent of machines: the artists.
In an ironic cosmological twist of fate, it may well be the artists who are the only ones in the future who are employable.
It will be the artists who will remind us of those things that cannot be regurgitated through a Google search. It will be the artists who will be there to teach us what it means to love, to have compassion and to remember; to show us, in the words of the late art historian Norris K. Smith, wherein goodness lies.
And in the future, that will be of primary importance.
As it is now.
“The arts are not a way to make a living,” admitted novelist Kurt Vonnegut. “They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”
Toby Tabachnick is a senior staff writer for The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh, Pa., an affiliated publication of the Washington Jewish Week.