A Modest Proposal by Tony Kushner, American Theatre, January 1998
Keynote address to Association of Theatre of Higher Education Conference
I don’t think you earn your income as an artist to be an artist. But if you are an artist, the artist is what you do, whether or not you’re paid for doing it; it is what you do, not what you are. I regard artist not as a description of temperament but as a category of profession, of vocation. What we call education in the arts is mostly training; it is, in fact vocational training.
This being the year of my ten-year high school reunion I could not help but look back to see what has become of my twenty-eight years of living. While the creation of social media outlets like facebook and myspace allows one to easily connect with people from the past, one’s ideals, hopes and goals of days gone might not so easily within reach.
The summer before my senior year in high school I just had been through a mountain-top experience at the two-week seminar for high school juniors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. With all the passion and drive of a hormonal seventeen year old, I was ready to enter my senior year and begin my life devotion to the theater. I quit the basketball team to assistant direct the one play that was produced that year and pursued acting and auditioning outside of school.
That January I read the article A Modest Proposal by Tony Kushner published in the American Theatre magazine. I was floored by his premise to abolish all undergraduate art majors. Being from a small town in central California, where the cows at times out numbered the people and my total graduation class was a couple of hundred students, I thought maybe this was crazy east coast, liberal arts ideals rearing its ugly head. As I read the article I grew to appreciate the ideas Kushner proposed, specifically the desire for young artists to receive an education and not merely vocational training. I wished I could say I followed his advice, but I fell into the trap of training. I moved to Los Angeles so I could get an undergraduate degree in communication and theater. Like many students I thought it was the best situation. I was able to get a degree, study theater and pursue acting in Los Angeles. Many good things came from that decision, a beautiful wife, life long friends and studying with some great mentors, but looking back I wonder if I sacrificed formative years of education at the alter of vocational training. As I pursue a graduate degree in theater education I decided to re-read Kushner’s article to see what has changed, if anything. Undergraduate art majors are growing more than ever so what can be taken away from the article now?
Kushner’s proposal is simple: abolish all undergraduate art majors. His thesis is wrapped in the idea that the institutions have exchanged education for vocational training, since the undergraduate arts majors mill is almost as profitable for cash-strapped institutions of higher learning as pesticide development and biochemical warfare research, certainly considerably more profitable than liberal arts departments. Colleges and universities main goal is to make money and with so many people wanting to pursue the arts, the schools are going to go where the money is flowing. What college would deny eighteen year old students the right to pursue a major in theater, visual arts, writing, filmmaking, photography or musical composition? According to Kusher, schools that elevated education over training. Education, as opposed to training, I think, addresses not what you do, or will do, or will be able to do in the world. Education addresses who you are, or will be, or will be able to be.
How is one supposed to study to be an artist? Vocational training in of itself is not bad. The article points out there are many graduate programs, conservatories and private schools in all major cities that will be happy to take your money for exchange in how to make it in the profession. Seventeen through twenty-one year old undergraduate students donâ€™t need vocational arts training, they need an education. Think of the liberal arts, in other words, as meta-Acting Training for Life.
Kusher continues, “The vocalization of the liberal arts undergraduate education echoes the loss in the world at large of interest in the grand dialectic of life, in all dialectics, in breadth, in depth, in thinking as a necessary luxury, in the Utopian”. Jill Dolan in her book Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre and in her speech to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education entitled Unhappy Thespians: A Manifesto on Training Theatre Students continues where Kushner left off. She is a practioner of the idea that education should be the focus and models this at Princeton University where the school’s motto of arts education seems to echo what Kushner recommends.
Believing that the best training for a career in the theater is a broad-based liberal arts education, Princeton does not have a concentration in Theater. Instead, we offer a certificate in Theater and encourage students, should they have the inclination, to make connections in their artistic work between their fields of concentration and their love of the theater. The program offers the kinds of courses and co-curricular activities that will allow the student, upon graduation, to move into the best graduate conservatories to pursue advanced training in playwriting, acting, directing, design, stage management, and dramaturgy. But most students who take courses in the program do not elect to enter the certificate program; they simply enroll in the courses that interest them. Students with a particular interest in and commitment to the arts, however, may want to obtain the program certificate.
This mindset seems to be echoed in the work of Dr. Scott Walters in the writings of his blog Theatre Ideas and his work at University of North Carolina-Asheville. In a recent post he describes the sympathy for the students in trying to embrace this type of arts education.
And so when they arrive in a class like Dolan’s, or in my own, they revolt against the attempt [from teachers] to encourage them to think, to develop their own ideas, their own beliefs, and develop them as part of a rich conversation that has been ongoing for 2500 years — because they know that it is a lie; that once they leave that particular classroom, they will once again be forced to erase themselves. Why go through the pain of developing as a unique individual when one must rejoin the masses again in order to survive, to be cast? I have sympathy for them, because they have been told that there are no alternatives, and those who have revolted against those limited opportunities by college have self-selected themselves into other departments, other field of endeavor.
In a undergraduate performing arts program the mentality is to shape the curriculum based on the industry. The problem is that colleges and universities are not supposed to be extensions of the entertainment industry, but rather they are to produce what Dolan calls artist-citizen-scholars. Artists that question society and through their art speak for those that do not have a voice. Instead performing art students are trained to accept the fact that they are viewed by all in the industry as an equivalent of a coke can, a product that is to make money for agents, managers, producers, advertising firms and production companies and if they are lucky have some money left over for themselves.
As Kushner pointed out ten years ago, “I can say let’s get rid of it and we don’t have to worry that anything will actually happen.” The same holds true now. As long as it makes money the schools will not get rid of undergraduate art majors or offer sufficient alternatives. As an educator what can I hope for is that there will be more teachers like Dolan and Walters who try to change the system from within. Teachers who show the students an alternative so that one or two might see the current form of arts education as a facade and that an education that can truly benefit an artist is much bigger and broader than what is currently being offered. How is this specifically to be done? Kushner’s suggests, “What I would hope you might consider doing is tricking your undergraduate art major students. Let them think they’ve arrived for a vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv.”