Calder Stembel: Politics versus arts? Diversify the GW education

Every two years in D.C., some offices in Congress are renewed. Every eight years a new president takes office. These electoral cycles are widely celebrated by GW students, many of whom have contributed time or money to political campaigns. I am more interested in another District cycle, however: the seasonal rotation of actors and directors, shows, concerts and films.

Based on GW’s student body, curriculum and budget allocations, you wouldn’t think that D.C. had much to offer in the way of arts. Who cares that the Library of Congress just completed a project to restore its Thomas Jefferson Building? Who is excited to see Antony and Cleopatra, opening next week at The Shakespeare Theatre Company? I love being in a city that has these opportunities available, but my affection for the arts seems atypical at GW.

To be sure, some student groups and classes take advantage of the city’s arts and cultural offerings. Program Board sponsors free and advance screenings of films. An Honors Program course titled “Discovering Washington Theater” is taught by Peter Marks, a theater critic from the Washington Post. Yet these campus activities are overshadowed by sociopolitical campus groups and GW’s majors in political science, international affairs and related fields.

Political science majors benefit from D.C.’s unsurpassed political opportunities, from interning on Capitol Hill to working on campaigns to attending speeches by presidential candidates.

Yet in focusing on politics at the expense of the arts, attending GW does not represent the overall experience of living in D.C. – the city has the potential to be a cultural capital as much as a political one.

GW seems to forget that to understand any foreign society, one must study its culture – including music, theater and dance and film. In addition to the popular monuments on the National Mall, seven Smithsonian museums are located near the Capitol. In 2007 alone, the Smithsonian Institution recorded 24.2 million visits. And whereas public access to political centers like the White House is severely restricted, Smithsonian museums are open to the public every day of the year except Dec. 25.

All of the resources exist in D.C. for a successful arts curriculum, but they do not exist at GW. The University either needs to reallocate funds to accommodate D.C.’s arts scene, or reduce its focus and stop pretending that it can offer decent arts programs. At the very least, GW must improve the publicity of its arts events. How many current undergraduates are aware of the GW Documentary Film Program, for example? This is just one example of a promising program begun by the University and then left to languish in obscurity.

Currently, no school in D.C. allows students to fully explore the city’s cultural side, but a dedicated arts school is exactly what D.C. needs. Major universities and cities across the country boast impressive arts curriculums – the University of Southern California is home to an enviable film school, New York City features New York University and the Tisch School of the Arts, Chicago has the Art Institute of Chicago and Philadelphia hosts the University of the Arts. Save for the Corcoran College of Art and Design, D.C. cannot compare to these cities in the realm of arts education. Universities in the area offer haphazard programs, none of which integrate well with the city’s exemplary art offerings.

It is impossible to attend school in D.C. without considering the city’s artistic and cultural side. Politics and art are both integral parts of the city, and it is about time that students at GW be able to take advantage of the city’s vibrant culture.

The writer is a freshman majoring in English.

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