The Price of Passion… And Its Rewards

Visiting a campus that is not very selective (I’ll call it “Downtown University”) as part of our study of higher education, I spoke to a middle aged painter (I’ll call him “Henry”) who teaches drawing and painting to undergraduates. A handful of his students hope to be able to make a living as artists of some sort. The vast majority take his courses because they would like a job in an arts-related business (perhaps fashion or communications or advertising); because they want to become art teachers in public schools; or out of curiosity, hobby, or—that bugaboo of contemporary non-vocational education—in order to meet “distribution requirements.”

In the course of our conversation, Henry mentioned that he himself had studied at a conservatory, where most of the students fashioned themselves as future artists or teachers of art; and that he had also taught at two highly selective Ivy League colleges. Curious to learn about his experiences at these more selective schools, I departed from our customary protocol and asked him to compare his “ivy-covered” students with those at Downtown University.

Henry thought for awhile and then said, “Well, in many ways it is easier to teach drawing and painting at an Ivy School. The students are highly articulate, and since I like to give verbal feedback, it’s easy to explain to them what they might do differently and why and for what purpose. Also, I begin with highly technical lessons and, used to being obedient and to following rules, the students have fewer problems mastering technique than those who come from less privileged or more chaotic backgrounds.”

Henry paused again and added, “But there’s a big problem with many of the Ivy students. To get into these highly selective schools, students need to amass a portfolio of assets: high grades, high test scores, and a panoply of extra-curricular and service activities. I understand and respect that. But then when they arrive at college, they feel that they have to continue that pattern. They know no other! And so, come the weekend, they divide their time between homework, seeing friends, going to athletic events (if they are not actually on one of those numerous teams), or some other artistic or athletic or academic club. And before they know it, it’s late Sunday evening, if not early Monday morning.”

But to become an artist, Henry explained, “You need to have passion. Making art has to be the most important thing that you do. You need to be prepared to spend nights and all weekend on your painting or your mural or your triptych—in fact, you have to want to spend your time on that artistic endeavor. Of course, you pay a price, but it’s a price that you realize you have to pay, and you will want to continue to pay into the indefinite future.”

I did not want to put words into Henry’s mouth, but it seemed he was saying that, inadvertently, preparation for college may undermine the drive, passion, grit, and love that enable a young person to pursue certain careers, and especially a career in artistry, where no holds should be barred. If so, this is a steep price for an individual—or, indeed, for a culture—to pay, especially when the individual or the culture is unaware of this sacrifice.

To be sure, perhaps such individuals should be directed to artistic conservatories—to Julliard or Curtis in music, to Rhode Island School of Design or Parsons School of Design in the visual arts. But then, two costs are incurred: the students themselves are deprived of a balanced education in the liberal arts and sciences, and their classmates lack contact with future major artists (no Yo-Yo Ma or Leonard Bernstein at Harvard, no Frank Stella at Princeton or Helen Frankenthaler at Bennington).

Perhaps there is a way to decrease the dilemma that Henry foregrounded. In current efforts to rethink college admission—for example, Turning the Tide—it’s been proposed that on their applications, students should only list 1-2 extra-curricular activities. Not only would this stricture slow down the trend toward quantity rather than quality, but it might reward those students who have a passion for the arts, or, indeed, for any hobby, discipline, or topic. And perhaps, in a similar vein, college students should be restricted to one major, rather than the two, or, increasingly, three majors, two badges, and a certificate to spare, that I’ve been hearing about of late.

Of course, as colleagues have reminded me, students (and their parents and advisers) are keen readers of changing signals. And so, if colleges decide to valorize those students who seem to have a passion, no doubt there will be efforts to “game the system.” At least some may attempt to “fake passion.” One has to hope that those who preside over college admissions will be able to discern which applicants are truly and passionately engaged in an activity and which simply purport to be passionate.

A bigger challenge is to change the way in which we as a society think about and admire children growing up. All of society recognizes that certain young persons will excel in an area—be it chess, spelling, baseball, or, to use examples from the arts, drawing, caricature, mime, or musical performance.  But all too often these young persons are seen as anomalies, as freaks, as Gladwellian outliers—and so, as not particularly relevant to the rest of society or, to be specific, to child-rearing at home, or classroom education at school.

If, instead, from a young age, children were encouraged to find an idea or activity that inspired them, that they enjoyed, that they wanted to get better at, and from which they gained “flow,” not only would we have more youths of passion and with passion, of purpose and with purpose. Equally important, we would be bestowing on these young people a gift that they would have for the rest of their lives. When I was young, I enjoyed playing the piano, quite possibly because my mother sat alongside me on most days. Now, as someone well on in years, I remain passionate about music. Whenever possible, I listen to music. And when I am home, I play the piano every day—only for myself, to be sure—and there is no activity, whatever its resonance of Walter Mitty, from which I gain more satisfaction. I am grateful that this passion has endured, and I wish that everyone had an activity from which they can gain sustenance throughout their lives.

Note: I thank Wendy Fischman, Lloyd Thacker, and Rick Weissbourd for their helpful comments on this piece.

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One Comment on “The Price of Passion… And Its Rewards”

  1. Mia November 30, 2017 at 9:16 am #

    Thank you Howard, very interesting and important! I meet so many polymaths in my current job but when the passion is lacking/gotten lost/forgotten, these individuals do not make the final cut for the most important C-level positions, and they are puzzled why this is happening although they do everything ‘right’. So arts or business or life in general, spark comes from passion.

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