Back in 1984 when I was living in Ireland for several months, I was asked by a teacher friend to speak to his class of inner-city Dublin kids.
The students were middle-school age and came from poor families whose parents had limited education. When you asked these children about America, there were two places they knew without fail: New York City and Hollywood.
They recognized New York because half their relatives lived there and they knew Hollywood because of all the American movies and TV shows they watched.
Now as then, pop culture is one of our biggest exports. The movies, television and music industries make billions of dollars every year, which is one of the reasons intellectual property and piracy issues are so important to the United States.
Film director James Cameron alone could be considered one of the titans of American industry based on two movies. His film “Avatar” made more than $1 billion worldwide, including about $220 million in China, and “Titanic” made upwards of $1.8 billion.
Likewise, Steven Spielberg’s movies are estimated to have made more than $8 billion while employing or helping to employ thousands of people.
Of course, some of the arts and culture the U.S. exports are truly cringe-worthy. The reality show “Jersey Shore” with foul-mouthed women and men wallowing in drunken brawls and decadent self-absorption must be a great recruiting tool for Jihadist U. It's depressing to think that Snooki is one of our cultural ambassadors to the world.
I bring all this up because some commenters on two previous columns implied that college students who are burdened by debt have only themselves to blame if they study subjects, such as the performing arts or journalism, that won’t make them a lot of money when they graduate.
And recently, The Daily Beast, a news and opinion web site, ran a feature headlined “The 13 Most Useless Majors,” which included theater, music, graphic design and fine arts. I majored in two of the 13 – English and political science – and work in a third, journalism. Count on me to specialize in worthless knowledge and skills.
And yet. Though my career has had ups and downs, I’ve never regretted that I didn’t become, say, a nurse – which would have made me infinitely more employable. Patients throughout the land should thank their lucky stars that I’m not at the foot of their hospital bed saying, “Now where the heck did I put that chart?”
American manufacturing, which was on the ropes for so long, appears to be making a comeback and that’s great news. And Patch commenters are right that students going into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math have a better shot at making a lucrative living than most fine arts majors or actors or writers. It's telling that the term “starving artist” has its own Wikipedia page; “starving computer scientist” does not.
But as someone whose family prefers to spend money on experiences – movies, travel, books, meals and plays – than on clothes or home furnishings or other “stuff,” I’d hate for artists and authors to be dismissed as somehow less valuable Americans than those people who make material things for a living. I could live a happy life if I never bought another set of dishes or pair of high-heel shoes; I’d be inconsolable if I never got to read another book.