29 July 2010

Teachers & Reform

School reform has been a big topic for a long time but it’s heated up in recent months because of the Race to the Top, part of the economic stimulus package enacted by the Obama administration, and the changes in every state’s public education system that the program’s eligibility rules mandate. Known as R2T among other abbreviations, the $4.35 billion incentive program was announced in June 2009 and many states have already made sweeping changes in their education systems to accommodate the requirements of the program, a competition for millions in school subsidies. New York has been slow to respond, however, causing a loud debate among educators, legislators, union leaders, school officials, teachers, and public policy activists. Now, I’m no expert in education policy, but I’ve taught in private middle schools, public high schools, and both private and public colleges (where the products of secondary schools tend to end up), so I have some thoughts on this debate. I see myself as an informed but disinterested observer who, because I don’t really have a dog in the fight, can see the good and bad, the right and wrong on both sides of the argument.

A principal area of reform the administration demands is charter schools. President Obama is a big supporter of charters and states that limit the number of charter schools or put long delays in the approval process are required to loosen their restrictions if they want to compete for the federal funds. Another major condition of the package is increased use of student testing for teacher evaluation and promotion and the elimination of seniority as the basis for teacher assignments and retention if lay-offs become necessary. Tenure for teachers, under which they cannot be fired without extensive legal procedures, is also a provision states must abandon. All these prerequisites have met with opposition from teachers’ unions across the country, though the ferocity of the opposition varies from state to state. New York State, where the teachers’ unions are very strong and are important benefactors of the Democratic Party which controls the governorship, most significant state offices, and the contentious legislature, is one of the states that has resisted changes and may lose the opportunity to compete for the federal money.

Let me acknowledge right up front that I’m an advocate of public education; I’m also an advocate for teachers, though not necessarily for teachers’ unions. Mostly, however, I’m an advocate for students, schools, and education. I take a pretty pragmatic approach to educational programs: all ideologies and philosophies aside, whatever works in a school building and classroom gets my vote. Basically, if it’s good for the kids, I’m for it. If the old ways don’t work, change ‘em. If new ideas sound good but turn out not to be, drop ‘em and do something else. When bilingual education was first proposed, I was for it. It sounded like a good idea to let students learn history and math in their native languages while they learned English. But the kids never really learned English and there were several sets of classes and teachers in schools, so I no longer support the concept as it’s practiced. School kids aren’t guinea pigs: they aren’t there to experiment on, they’re there so we can teach them.

Schools always need money and in this time of devastating cut-backs, the appearance of bribery in R2T might be more real than imaginary. (One way to counter the attraction of R2T, opponents might note, would be to fund the schools enough that the allure of federal grants isn’t so enticing. Ironically, however, the forces who oppose reform efforts like R2T are usually also the reflexive proponents of “cuts”: cut taxes, cut property assessments, cut spending. Inevitably, those cuts come out of school budgets.) In order to qualify for the grants, states must make broad reforms in their educational policies that would ordinarily take years and copious debate to accomplish. While that process hasn’t always been productive, especially to the school kids, forcing the states to make precipitous changes might be disastrous; it’s certainly going to be contentious. New York teachers’ unions are already developing strategies, such as getting legislators to place “poison pill” clauses in the bills that essentially render some changes ineffectual, to halt the reforms the legislature is forcing on the schools. Other opponents of R2T are pointing to states’ rights as the rationale for challenging the new rules; it smacks to many conservative politicians and activists of the feds taking over the schools. (Several current conservative candidates for governorships and the U.S. Senate advocate abolishing the federal Department of Education.)

The issue—or, really, issues—of school reform are always hot-buttons. Advocacy groups are ever ready to chime in, whether or not they have the interests of students in mind. Many activists have political and ideological motives which have little or nothing to do with educational theory or pedagogical philosophy. Even organizations that you’d imagine have schools and students in the forefront of their concerns often don’t when you examine their motives. The teachers’ unions, for instance, are more focused on preserving teaching jobs, maintaining pay levels, and protecting members from disciplinary action than on teaching and learning. Others, such as politicians, line up against the unions more to score political points than to move the debate forward, trying to stand up to the unions to appeal to conservative voters and hand the Democrats, who benefit from a symbiotic relationship with teacher organizations, a defeat. Much of the rhetoric doesn’t elucidate the questions; it obfuscates and confuses them.

First, let me address charter schools. These are schools funded by the public system but which operate under their own rules in terms of curricula, hiring and firing, teacher accreditation, and most other aspects of school life. R2T mandates that many states entertain larger numbers of charter schools than their current laws permit. From the perspective that whatever benefits the kids gets my support, I can’t argue with attempts to establish schools that teach their students successfully where the existing schools have been failing (though there’s substantial evidence that charters aren’t inevitably better than ordinary public schools and are sometimes worse). A good school is a good school, and how it comes to be is irrelevant. But I do have problems with the concept of charter schools. For one, I see them in the same frame as school vouchers—they siphon funds from public schools and abandon them without attending to the problems or deficiencies that cause them to fail in the first place. Instead of fixing the existing schools, the charter and voucher systems skim off the best students, the committed ones, and take the money those students represent and shift them to another institution. Not only does that leave the old schools bereft of needed funds, resulting in even smaller budgets, but it turns them into warehouses for the students whose parents aren’t savvy or motivated enough to relocate their children. The consequences should be obvious: the public schools deteriorate even more because they’ve been further impoverished and because their best and most energized students have been removed. Instead of scuttling the public schools that way, the reformers should be pushing to fix them, finding out why they aren’t working right and improving the system. Generations of American leaders came out of our public schools. There’s no reason the concept of public education, which managed to acculturate generations of immigrant children from all over the world, should no longer work. It’s easier to open a new school than it is to fix an old one, but abandoning the public-school system isn’t the answer.

But I have other reservations concerning charter schools. The vouchers at least send the kids off to other established schools, private, parochial, or different public institutions that have ostensibly proved themselves to be good educators. The charters are new, with no track record for either their administrators or their faculty. Some of them are launched by sincere and dedicated people who just want a good place to teach their children. Many of the best private schools were started in just that way. But many are the projects of organizations or groups with agendas. Often those concepts are lofty—a school to inculcate the principles of leadership or success—but sometimes they are narrowly envisioned and the school is in danger of becoming not a place of education but of indoctrination. Since the schools operate outside the regulation of the public system, there’s no easy way to supervise them. Indeed, most charter schools, especially those that are started by organizations, resist control by the system they feel has neglected their children in the first place.

My quarrel with concept-driven charter schools is twofold. First, I am uncomfortable with the desire to inculcate an ideology in the students. I don’t care what the belief is, I distrust any so-called school that bases its curriculum on a philosophical or political idea. (In the extreme, a madrasah is a school with a conceptual agenda. So are military academies, and I’m not thrilled with that program, either.) I wouldn’t even condone a school whose stated philosophy is to teach children to be patriotic Americans. Such an idea is too easily diverted to propaganda the way we’ve seen schools in totalitarian regimes become. When there’s little oversight of the curricula of charter schools, I have concerns.

My second reservation is related to my first: a charter school gets to teach what it wants with whatever teachers it sees fit, and we get to pay for it. Charter schools are essentially private academies subsidized by tax money. They’re supposed to get the same per-pupil funding that public schools get, and I assume that’s accurate, but the charters get to take my tax money and spend it pretty much however they like. (Plus, they have few of the mandated expenditures the public schools must sustain on that same appropriation.) Like the curriculum question, this raises the possibility of too much freedom with too little oversight. (I’m deliberately ignoring questions of the business management of such schools. I’m focusing on the pedagogical questions I have, but it should be noted that financial wastefulness and lack of proper accounting at charter schools are issues that have been raised by authorities and the press.)

This is not to say that boards of ed always run things excellently. (We recently saw proof of that in Texas.) They have good and bad aspects, of course, and the occasions when the school policy of some jurisdiction becomes a topic of news coverage or political controversy are rare when you consider how many school districts there are in this country; but it does happen. Even when the board’s actions don’t become political footballs, though, they can be inefficient, hidebound, bureaucratic, and just plain incompetent. They can also become hogtied by union rules and contractual obligations that militate against good education governance or stuck in a web of policies and practices that impedes progress and essential change. State and city bureaucracies can become obstructions to progress that benefits the students and it can take a sudden impact, like federal action or, in the worst cases, a court decree to make them get off the dime. In an ideal world, boards of ed would be staffed by educators, parents with kids in the system, and experienced administrators, not politicians, movement activists, or ideologues. In the real world, though most board members and department employees are committed to the management of a school system that works for all the children it teachers, you can get an unwieldy mix of backgrounds and motivations and the control can ebb and flow as voter sentiment shifts.

There are usually a couple of constants, though. At the top of the pyramid is always a chancellor, a superintendent, an ed commissioner, or someone in charge of administering the boards and the school system of the jurisdiction. The chancellor may or may not have a lot of autonomous authority. Often with the support of the mayor or governor, however, the chancellor can make substantial changes and reforms in the system, but the quality and efficacy of those reforms depend on who the mayor or governor and the chancellor or commissioner are. Currently, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and schools chancellor, Joel Klein, are both reform-minded. (Washington’s Mayor Adrian Fenty and Superintendent Michelle Rhee have also pushed through many reforms opposed by the unions and teachers.) At the federal level, President Obama and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, are both genuinely reform-oriented when it comes to education policy and, as Democrats, have no qualms about using government action to effect changes. (Unlike previous Democratic politicians, though, they, like several state governors, many of them also Democrats defying union objections, are ready to stand up to the teachers’ unions to enact changes.) But R2T does have an ominous dynamic: it looks like the feds’ using large (and perhaps irresistible) sums of money to bully legislatures to make changes the schools, teachers, unions, and even students may not want just so the states can get the cash.

Another significant element in the equation is the teachers’ unions. No matter how the rest of the system is administered, the unions have a say in the way the teachers and principals are treated because they are the negotiating authority for the teaching professionals. (I’m not sure how this process works in right-to-work states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas where union membership is not as strong as it is in states such as New York, California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. The national unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, still have a great deal of influence in teacher contracts across the country, but their direct influence varies.) The unions are also powerful political forces, especially among Democratic politicians and officeholders, because members are active in elections and the unions maintain lobbyists in Washington and many state capitals to put pressure on legislators and officials. This political sway can have either a beneficial or a deleterious effect on reform depending on how the unions view the changes. The unions, I think, do often stand in the way of change because their foremost focus, as I’ve said, is protecting jobs and contract provisions. The provisions of R2T, for instance, include several changes in the way teachers are hired, fired, and promoted as well as pay raises, tenure, and seniority. The unions, at least here in New York State, are resisting the changes and because of that relationship with Democratic lawmakers, the state legislature has had trouble passing the necessary reform bills that would make the state eligible for the competition.

Many reform activists see the unions as nests of self-interested bureaucrats who are only interested in protecting their positions and the contracts that keep them secure and cosseted and roadblocks to progress. To these reformers, the teachers are lazy and unmotivated, clinging to benefits they don’t deserve, preventing necessary changes to make the schools more effective. From this point of view, unions work to keep teachers who have proved to be poor educators (not to mention some who have behaved improperly). There’s some credibility in this perception. One of the reforms mandated by R2T is evaluating teachers based on student progress as measured on standardized tests and cull out teachers who don’t measure up. Unions have balked at this, as they have at using merit pay to attract and retain the best teachers. (Unions insist that pay, like lay-offs, be based on seniority.) While merit pay seems like an effective practice, I can see many problems with relying on test results as the determinate measure of teacher effectiveness without accompanying subjective evaluations such as classroom observation. First, many subjects, the arts prominently among them, and some aspects of all subjects aren’t easily measurable by testing. Second, progress isn’t all even or regular, and some significant advancements may seem small when converted to statistical test results. Third, a student’s achievement on a test is influenced by many factors other than the quality of teaching. Finally, putting so much reliance on test scores ultimately leads to classes being taught to take tests, as I saw in one of my 9th-grade English classes. (I shared this class with a test specialist, a post that wouldn’t even exist if test results weren’t so consequential.) The more that rides on test results, the more schools will teach to those tests because the emphasis will not be on learning but on passing the test.

(An emphasis on test scores can also pressure principals to take other, more nefarious actions. If they want to raise their schools’ scores, they get rid of the lowest-performing students, leaving the better student to take the tests and pull the average up in comparison with past results. This tactic, of course, simply queers the statistics while abandoning the students who most need the help. Classroom teachers have, unfortunately, been known to use a version of this same practice to improve the apparent performance of their classes.)

As for who’s to blame for the problems, my experience is that all the finger-pointers are wrong in substantial ways. The unions, engaging in obsolete protectionism harking back to before they were recognized in the 1950s and ‘60s when principals made teachers work long hours for low pay, are sometimes impediments to progress. For instance, denying principals the authority to hire and fire teachers on the basis of who’s doing the best work and forcing them to retain bad teachers over good ones because of tenure and seniority is plain counterproductive. Still, if it weren’t for the unions, which after all are labor organizations not pedagogical societies, and their sometimes adamant stands on issues such as working conditions, discrimination, hiring and firing, and pay, school boards and administrations would run rough-shod over teachers. Some school administrations still treat their faculties as adversaries rather than partners. Among all the professionals like doctors and lawyers, teachers have almost no say in the regulation and administration of their own field: the classroom teacher makes almost no decisions concerning school policy, the curriculum, the choice of textbooks, or the placement of students. (Of all the interests considered when the Obama administration devised R2T, teachers were among the few who were not consulted. This may be one reason that their unions resist the initiative.) Without unions, teachers, who occupy a low stratum of social esteem, would be unprotected entirely, subject to worse conditions than they now are. As cultural historian Jacques Barzun lamented, “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”

There’s no question that reform is needed, though. In so many districts, schools aren’t working. Students aren’t learning and teachers aren’t teaching. Certainly there are schools, even whole districts, that are doing good jobs, but especially in cities and many rural systems, children are reading below grade levels, unable to do basic computations, and not doing any written work at all. Other problems, like drugs and violence, the lack of discipline and respect, and the shortages of books and fundamental supplies, occur all across the country. Even without the current economic distress, schools are underfunded—especially considering the importance of the task they perform. (The rationale on which school funds are distributed has always seemed illogical to me. Schools that have the most—that is, rich districts—get the most; those that need the most are short-shrifted. That’s just backwards—unless, of course, you want to maintain the disparities among the economic classes.) It’s been fashionable, especially among politicians looking for issues, to blame the teachers. I think that’s not only wrong, but shortsighted.

One impediment to effective teaching, for example, is that whenever a social problem gains the attention of voters or civil authorities, someone sooner or later suggests putting another program into the schools. Drugs? Put an anti-drug program in the schools. Teen pregnancy? Put a sex-ed and a parenting program in the schools. Violence and guns? Anti-violence and -gun programs. Bullying? A conflict-resolution program. It doesn’t take much of this to steal hours from math, science, English, history, and languages. If the school uses the existing faculty to run those programs, it’s adding extra burdens to the teachers’ already-crowded schedules. If the school hires specialists, it’s stretching an already inadequate budget. Socializing that used to be learned in the home, the church, or the community is being shifted wholesale to the schools. Now, I know why these programs exist, and I’m not advocating going back to just the Three R’s. I think enhancements are valuable and even necessary, especially if we want to educate not only the average students but also the gifted ones who, we should hope, will be this country’s future leaders. But these programs aren’t enhancements. They’re usurpations taking up the slack for society, which then turns around and blames the schools and the teachers because they’re not teaching our kids. Talk about Catch-22!

The view of teachers as anything but dedicated professionals who deserve both respect and a measure of control over the way they perform their jobs is unjust. I know there are bad teachers (just as there are bad doctors, lawyers, and electricians), but I was never anything but impressed with the veterans I worked with; they developed syllabi that were both substantial and engaging, they found ways of making the material speak to their students, and they managed classes that were often too large or populated with underachievers and disrupters. New to the profession myself, I was in awe of how well they did what I was struggling to accomplish. And they did it with inadequate pay for long hours of preparation, marking papers, devising projects, meeting students and parents, supervising extra-curricular activities, and attending departmental meetings. The idea, as voiced by some myopic, self-proclaimed reformers, that a teacher’s life is defined by a seven-hour day, a five-day week, and a nine-month year is ludicrous. That anyone would do this job for the paycheck (not to mention the prestige) as if it were some kind of sinecure is an absurd notion. The teachers I knew were constantly worried about their finances (and this was before the current economic distress), their health coverage, and their job security—on top of their concerns for their students and their school. They were all seeking tutoring work and summer employment to pay expenses their teaching contracts didn’t cover. Vacations were additional work time for the teachers I knew, not rest or travel time. (Our community leaders, John F. Kennedy once observed, “see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”) Yet they came back year after year—often using their own scarce funds to provide resources for their classrooms—to do what I think is the most important job in our society: teaching our kids. Characterizing teachers as lazy and uninterested is so far outside my experience as to be unrecognizable as reality.

As for the schooling of new teachers, on the other hand, I discovered that some didn’t know much about their own fields. Most (80%, according to the U.S. Department of Education) had backgrounds not in their subjects, but in education. In other words, they’d been trained how to teach, but not what to teach. Because I’d been hired as part of the Alternate Route Program, by which non-certified people with strong practical backgrounds (theater and writing, in my case) were hired to teach beside educationally trained teachers, I had to take teacher-training classes after school. Our instructors were from the education department of a New Jersey university, and I was disturbed that their focus was entirely on educational theories and pedagogy; very little time was devoted to how to teach our subjects—which, of course, were all different from one another’s. The new, young teachers coming into the system, as I saw it, were all being trained in education but not in educating. Furthermore, I had to take the National Teacher Exam, a test that evaluated my skills in the subjects I was supposed to teach. My principal subject was English and I hadn’t taken an English course since my sophomore year in college, more than 20 years earlier. (I wasn’t an English major.) I was surpised, therefore, when I scored in the 96th percentile. That means that all but 4% of the other prospective teachers did worse than I had. I should never have outscored all those other exam-takers, English and education majors fresh out of school. If they couldn't beat my score on a test for which I was only about half prepared, what did that say about their training? If these were the people being hired as teachers by our public schools, what did it say about the quality demanded of public-school faculty? I wondered what kind of teachers these young prospects would make. I found this outcome disturbing, if not outright frightening.

In the mid-1980s, just before I started at that New Jersey high school, there was a movement within the nation’s schools of education to revise their teacher-training programs. Unfortunately, the reform focused on theory and the social-scientific study of schools and education. Other ed schools got caught in a ’60s feed-back loop (the era when their faculties and administrations had been in college) and followed the paths of progressivism—an emphasis on individual instruction, informality in the classroom, and the use of group discussions and laboratories as instructional techniques—or constructivism, which argues that people generate knowledge and meaning from their experiences. The unglamorous subject of how to teach in a classroom went the way of teaching grammar in English and dates in history—it wasn’t hip. It’s these legacies with which we’re contending today. A recent survey showed that few ed-school teachers had ever set foot in a primary- or secondary-school classroom—yet they are supposed to be teaching teachers how to teach. (This brings to mind the old jibe: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” I always hoped this was a gross exaggeration.) After such preparation, the novice teacher is thrust into a classroom alone (and, because of seniority, almost always into the most difficult classes in the school). New lawyers and doctors shadow more experienced practitioners for a period of apprenticeship; new teachers, armed with their certifications, are thrown in at the deep end to sink or swim on their own. (I once opined that when a teacher is in a sink-or-swim situation in a classroom, it’s the students who are likely to drown.) We’re in line for a more practically oriented direction for teacher training and, toward that end, the Obama education department has doubled its teacher-training budget for 2011. (One intriguing experiment in Boston, called the MATCH Teacher Residency; models its training regimen on medical school.) Happily, a movement is beginning in ed schools to study teachers and teacher training to find out what makes the effective teachers effective; the Gates Foundation, for instance, is spending $335 million to study successful teaching methods.

I’m sorry to say this, but parents, too, get in the way of good teaching. Parental involvement, a vital part of education, is generally construed to be in support of the teachers, not in conflict with them. Now, I know it’s their kids who’re being taught and parents are naturally concerned with who’s teaching their children and what’s going on in that building. But parents have tunnel vision: they’re interested first in the welfare of their child, not yours or anyone else’s. When it comes to school, they want what they think is right for their child and they don’t necessarily consider the effect on other students. I experienced this quite clearly when I was staging plays for a New York City middle school. There was a meeting with the parents whose children were interested in participating at the beginning of the semester in which the play was prepared. After I told them about the play, I explained the rehearsal process and schedule and how I intended to run the after-school sessions. Invariably several parents explained that their children had soccer practice, music lessons, French tutoring, and so on after school and would be available only two or three afternoons a week. But they wanted their kids to be part of the play anyway. When I described the way a cast works as an ensemble and that everyone’s participation and attendance was part of the lesson—that everyone comes together and cooperates in order to accomplish a common task—they didn’t understand: their children should be accommodated, regardless of the needs of the group. If I suggested the children might consider giving up some of their other activities for the period of rehearsal, the parents looked at me as if I were out of my mind. Not their kids; they should get everything they want when they want it! This is a natural impulse, of course, but when parents get to look over the teachers’ shoulders and make demands which the principal backs up, it begins to eat away not only at the teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom, but even their authority. Who’s in charge in the room? The teacher, the student, the parent, or the principal?

Teachers not only need to be in control in the classroom, they need to be seen to be in control. In early and middle adolescence, students learn because their teachers lead them. (‘Educate’ comes from the Latin root ducere, ‘to lead’ or ‘to draw,’ and the prefix ex-, ‘out.’) At that stage of intellectual development, children see the Right Answers as the possessions of the Authority (that is, the teacher in the classroom, the parent in the home, and so on) and they learn because the Authority wants them to. (In later adolescence, somewhere between the end of high school and the early college or work years, young people begin to lose this absolute dualism and recognize multiple truths, relativism, and the possibility that right answers, when they exist, may be possessed by many different people.) If the students see their teacher lose her or his authority (which is distinct from Authority) in the room, they lose respect for the teacher. This affects learning (not to mention discipline, a separate but allied issue). The result is that learning falters—and the teacher, often undeservedly I maintain, gets the blame.

Social programs displacing academics, intrusive parents, antagonistic principals, and hidebound boards aren’t the only problems with which schools and teachers are saddled. Oversight and paperwork are a fact of any public system, and schools should be accountable to the public. But oversight carried too far becomes not just burdensome but a job in itself. Even at the level at which I taught, the bottom of the ladder, the paperwork required by the state, district, and school ate into the time I needed to prepare for and do the job I thought I was there for: classroom teaching. (Never mind the extra-curricular activities like advising the drama club or directing the plays.) And it’s not just documentation. There are too many outsiders who have a say—or want to—in what happens in the schools. Interest groups (some with political agendas), activists (ditto), politicians, courts, unions all have their oars in the water, and they’re not all pulling in the same direction. Yes, I understand that in many instances, this interference is necessary and even beneficial—courts mandating desegregation, for instance—but the tangle of kibitzers with clout makes administering the school and teaching in the classroom a minefield. One reform, therefore, is to clean house in the school building. Let the teachers teach and the administrators administer, and let those with other ideas and interests find other places for them.

The comprehensive answer, of course, is that education policy and school reform shouldn’t be a matter of political agendas, interest-group activism, or even pedagogical theory but practicality and common sense. All the groups and individuals with a stake in education and schools need to stop acting as adversaries and start supporting one another in the name of benefiting the children. (Part of the difficulty, as usual in any complex debate, is that many of the stakeholders promote the notion that they have the sole solution to the problem: lowering class size will solve the problem; more money and resources will solve the problem; firing bad teachers and paying good ones more will solve the problem; testing will solve the problem. It’s the True Believer Syndrome.) It’s more than just getting many of them out of the schoolhouse, but getting them to see that they should be working in partnership. State legislatures shouldn’t be scrambling to make changes in schools policy just to get a federal handout but because the changes are necessary to make the schools work better for the students. Unions shouldn’t be opposing reforms because it endangers the jobs of bad teachers; they should be looking for ways to make it easy (but fair) to clear out the dead wood and make way for enthusiastic, motivated new teachers. School boards and superintendents shouldn’t be battling to place programs, textbooks, and courses into the schools because they fulfill private philosophical positions but because they make learning better for the children. Teachers don’t all oppose testing as a measure of student achievement and, thus, teacher effectiveness—as long as other, more subjective and individual kinds of evaluations are made as well. Teachers on the one hand and principals on the other have to stop eying each other like labor and management in an auto factory; a schoolhouse shouldn’t feel like a revival of Waiting for Lefty. Debate is fine; it’s productive and should be part of the policy-making process, but the acrimony and antagonism has to stop. When a decision’s made, the focus should be on implementation, not repeal and reversal. I don’t know what it takes to accomplish any of that, but I do know it has to happen, and the sooner the better. Right now, too many school systems of this country are like racing shells in which all the rowers are pulling in different directions, with varying force, and in conflicting rhythms. The coxswains are asleep at the tillers; no one’s beating the tempo or steering the boats. Right now, our shells are more likely to capsize than to cross the finish line. A crew doesn’t move downstream straight and true, much less win a race, unless everyone on board pulls together. Stroke, people, stroke!

24 July 2010

Liberal Arts in the Real World

[After I’d been out of college for 16 years, I had begun to see some real-life applications of my liberal arts education. Even when I was in school, many people looked on liberal arts as an impractical approach; today, that belief has become almost axiomatic. In a recent column, I offered a perspective on the loss of student-performed theater at my alma mater. In that article (“Disappearing Theater,” 14 July), I spoke of the responsibility of liberal arts institutions like Washington and Lee University. It seemed opportune to revisit my statement on the practical benefits of that educational philosophy at this time.]

When I was teaching writing back in the mid-1980s, a student asked, “Is there value in a liberal arts education?” The question was a response to a request for my writing classes to suggest topics of interest to them. While most of her classmates proposed issues of more portent, such as divestiture of South African investments, rating rock-music lyrics, and the treatment of AIDS patients, this student found that question significant. It made me think: How would I answer her question myself? I’m the proud possessor of a liberal arts degree; many of the people I know and work with are, too. What is the value of a liberal arts education? The practical value, not the one that says, “It teaches you to think” (even though I believe it does).

This question, which makes me reflect on my four undergrad years, must also be of real concern to every member of a liberal arts school’s student body, faculty, and administration. Their major purpose is to provide a liberal education to thousands of young people every year, and to graduate many hundred products of that process out into the world. I never had much cause to doubt the value of my degree over the years, though it never got me a job or earned me a cent. It was simply part of what I am. But what good did it do me? Why am I better for having it?

Actually, in a way, I did question the idea of liberal arts schooling while I was still in college. One of my roommates, a science major who wanted to be a doctor (and became one), was frustrated because he was required to take a number of humanities courses. He couldn’t understand why he had to dilute his scientific specialization with useless classes in literature and languages. He wasn’t the least bit interested in being “well-rounded”; he was going to be a scientist. I, on the other hand, was equally frustrated because I was being forced by the same university requirements to pick a major. (We had a heated discussion about this dichotomy one night.) I thought I’d be limited to taking the bulk of my classes within one area, and that rankled me. I wanted to be free to wander all through the catalogue. Fortunately, I found a way to have my cake and eat it, too. But what did my serendipity get me?

Looking back over the years since I left undergraduate school, I find that I have a peculiar vantage point from which to judge the value of what I received there. Not only have I been both a student and a teacher, which allows me to look, Janus-like, in both directions, but my experiences cover a rather broad spectrum. I’ve been able to test the worth of my liberal arts background against a variety of touchstones to see if it proved to be gold, or so much intellectual dross. I’m satisfied it turned out, if you’ll pardon the expression, to be golden.

My first experience of the world beyond school was the army where there are three kinds of officers: academy grads, field commissions, and ROTC officers. ROTC officers like me comprised about 85% of the officer corps at that time and most were products of non-military, liberal arts colleges. (Cadets at VMI and the Citadel also receive reserve commissions on graduation.) It was my experience that most ROTC officers, not having what we used to call a “military mind,” approached their duties in a more human and often more efficient way, treating their subordinates as people who happened to be soldiers, rather than the reverse. (We reserve officers used to describe ourselves as “civilians TDY to the army.” It wasn’t entirely a joke.) I noticed far less resentment and hostility among enlisted men and women for this kind of officer than for the more doctrinarian alternative. This observation received unlikely confirmation from a sergeant major who told me he preferred to work for ROTC officers because they were more likely to take time to observe the operation of a unit to which they’d been assigned, and to work with the people rather than issue orders from a training manual. In another demonstration of the worth of a humanities background, my CO often complimented me on my reports and written documents (the stock-in-trade of an MI office: the typing instructor at the intel school called the typewriter “an MI agent’s weapon”) because they conveyed all the necessary information in ordinary prose that didn’t sound like a military text.

Out of the army and studying acting in New York, I found myself among people with varied backgrounds. Many of the young actors with whom I studied and worked had been theater majors in college—some even as early as high school. I invariably found these actors limited not only in their artistic abilities, but, more importantly, in their general knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, and science. This had two repercussions in their work. First, they had less factual knowledge on which to draw when studying a role and, second, they had a narrower basis for their experience of life—an experience that is indispensable for any artist, particularly an actor. The best actors with whom I worked had all had the most eclectic intellectual backgrounds, though not all got them from college. (Many of the actors I met, especially the older ones, were self-educated. Others had studied diverse fields in school, including chemistry, law, and history—and one or two former divinity students.)

My own work as an actor and director is riddled with incidents where I drew on the most improbable knowledge. At rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth, for instance, I gave informal talks on animal biology (especially phylogeny, though I never used that word). As an actor in a production of Anouilh’s Romeo and Jeannette, the director asked me to read the original French text to see if there was anything useful for our production (and there was); I had a similar assignment from the director of Chekhov’s The Wood Demon for the Russian version. In a theater appreciation class where we were reading Alice Childress’s Wedding Band, which is set in 1918, I found that I had to explain to my students that an unnamed illness that was ravaging the characters in the play, including the male lead, was the Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the country after World War I. Actors without a broad background have to acquire one on their own; those who never do are severely limited in their range and often produce shallow, superficial characters. While a liberal arts education cannot produce talent, ignorant actors cannot make full use of the talent they have.

Back at school for graduate work, I found myself again drawing on my liberal arts background. My doctoral department was eclectic itself, taking a kind of sociological-anthropological approach to performance; my broad-based education, filtered through my experiences in life and theater, again put me in a good position. Without the accumulated general knowledge built on my undergrad foundation, I would not have enjoyed myself so much, or done nearly so well.

Once when I was auditing Richard Schechner's Theories of Directing, I was astonished at the spectrum of fields covered in one session. The discussion focused on Vsevelod Meyerhold, the experimental Russian director. While it isn't unusual for visionary artists like Meyerhold to use eclectic interests and inspiration in their work, this class struck me as more far-ranging than any other I could recall. Schechner started off with a prĂ©cis of Russian history from 1914 through the revolution and civil war to the rise of Stalin. From then on, the class touched, occasionally in some detail, on the form and philosophy of Socialist Realism and the works of van Gogh and Picasso; planetary orbits and the effects of gravity; ellipses and parabolas; the rise of the stage director; time-and-motion studies, Taylorism and industrialism; and Jean-Paul Sartre's belief that "Death converts every life to a destiny." That makes seven academic disciplines covered in one three-hour class: history, art history, astronomy and physics, geometry, theater history, social history, and philosophy. And those were only the major fields. Now, I can't say that I knew all about all these topics—Taylorism was new to me, for one—but I had a passing familiarity with most of them, enough, at least, to put them together with the main focus of the discussion.

This experience also illustrates what I’ve often tried to explain to my theater students: you can't really work in the theater successfully without at least an introduction to every other field of human intellectual endeavor. I once advised, unsuccessfully, a young student actor not to pass up a trip to Paris for a role (in the chorus) in a community-theater show. There would always be another community production, and a trip to Paris would benefit her forever. Paradoxically, a student who studies only theater—no matter how extensively—is no theater student.

In conjunction with my graduate studies, I worked in dramaturgy, a theater profession in which the broadest knowledge is necessary. The job of a dramaturg or literary manager may include reading and evaluating new plays; working with playwrights; translating plays and adapting non-dramatic texts; writing program notes; working with a director on a cohesive production concept; compiling historical, sociological, cultural, and political information about a play’s milieu or the playwright’s biography; providing in-house criticism; and planning lobby displays, educational outreach, and study guides. You don’t get the breadth of knowledge necessary to fulfill that kind of job from a specialized education.

I also taught undergraduate writing while I was a grad student, though I’d never previously studied or taught writing. On what experience do you suppose I drew? During the course, I led discussions on Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus. My students wrote papers on, to name just a few topics, the creative impulse, Greek architecture, sports, Protestant fundamentalists, computer security, Soviet theater, and euthanasia. Without a liberal arts background, I could never have evaluated the work of my student writers—I wouldn’t have been able to understand what any of them was talking about.

After I finished my Ph. D. coursework, I found myself in a situation that proved to be the clearest example of the importance of a liberal education. I was hired as a part-time teacher of English and theater at a New Jersey high school. The theater class I taught obviously drew on my professional experience and training, but the English class required me to reach back into the general education I got in college nearly 20 years before. I started my ninth-graders off with Inherit the Wind, the dramatization of the 1925 Tennessee trial in which high school science teacher John Scopes was tried for teaching Darwin in violation of the state law. Over the weeks we worked on the play, I covered not only Darwin and evolution, the biblical story of creation, and the history of the actual trial, but the U.S. Supreme Court, our legal system, several constitutional provisions, newspaper reporting, basic biology, and a handful of other minor topics that cropped up now and then. (Let me point out that I covered those topics in class because they’re in the play—either in the text itself or in the atmosphere surrounding the plot and characters. Any actor or director who works on Inherit the Wind would do well to have a passing acquaintanceship with all those subjects, too.) Since we also spoke about other writings from time to time, questions and discussions occasionally ranged far beyond these topics, too. I found myself remembering things I hadn't thought about since college, and even since high school. Never before had I been so conscious of what I know and don't know.

Nowadays, I spend a lot of energy and time on ROT. Whatever its quality, I’m pretty confident that I cover a pretty broad range of topics and issues. Even in those articles that deal with theatrical matters there are discussions or passing mentions of an array of other subjects. Whatever I’ve been able to put together here, whatever connections I’ve made between ideas and trends, I was able to see them because of that liberal arts background. Whatever experience I’ve drawn on when I write for ROT (or any other outlet, for that matter) has been affected by the intellectual training I got 45 years ago and which has driven me to learn whatever I’ve learned since.

I thank heaven every day for my liberal arts education. Obviously, I never anticipated ending up in front of a high-school English class when I was in college, so I couldn't have prepared for that situation. The lesson, I think, is that the kind of education a liberal arts college provides is preparation for even some totally unlooked-for circumstances 20, 30, 40 years down the road. Now that's value for money! Soldier, actor, director, dramaturg, student, teacher: in all these capacities, and several shorter-lived ones as well, I couldn’t have gotten by without the broad, general background of the liberal arts degree—and those distribution credits my roommate wanted to avoid, plus the courses I took just because I was curious. Whatever little success I’ve made of my life, it all comes from that. Forced to think about it, I’m mighty glad I took the path I did at college. In this overspecialized, narrow-based world, a liberal education humanizes us.

[A version of this article was published as "Real-World Liberal Arts" in the Alumni Magazine of Washington and Lee (February 1986).]

19 July 2010

Disappearing Theater

I recently got some very disturbing news about my undergraduate alma mater, Washington and Lee University. In an e-mail from Bob Youngblood, a former professor of mine who’s retired now but still living in Lexington, he reported that over the past five years, little or no theater has been presented on campus. Of course, he was talking about student productions, not traveling professional or semi-professional shows, and he wasn’t referring to other kinds of performance. I haven’t been in close contact with my old college, though there are some former teachers with whom I keep in touch and, as ROT readers know, I just took a trip to Istanbul with a W&L-organized group. So when Bob wrote me that since his retirement, there hadn’t been many plays at the university theaters, I was shocked. I sent the news to my friend Kirk, who’s also a classmate, and he hadn’t heard this appalling news, either.

When Kirk and I were students in Lexington, W&L theater was a kind of orphan. There was no theater department (there as a Fine Arts Department) and the entire theater staff consisted of one man, Lee Kahn, the university theater director, who ran the small theater, directed the shows, scheduled the season, oversaw the set designs, maintained the rudimentary shop (where both Kirk and I worked briefly between graduation and military service), taught the classes, managed the box office and subscriptions, and everything else that was required to make live theater a presence on the W&L campus.

And he succeeded magnificently. Before Lee arrived in 1965, the same year Kirk and I did, W&L theater was mostly uninteresting and attracted little attention among the students (who got free seats as part of their Student Activities Fee). The fare in the ‘50s and the first half of the ‘60s had been mostly old chestnuts, almost nothing current, and the audiences were almost exclusively the little old ladies of Lexington. (From what Kirk tells me, the ‘30s was more interesting from many perspectives. His father, like mine, was an alumnus of W&L—in fact, our fathers were also classmates—and Kirk’s dad told him anecdotes of his own theater experiences at the Troubadour Theatre in the years before World War II.) Then Lee arrived, a young man (he was only 30) with a taste for challenging theater. He staged Waiting for Godot, his very first Troub production as I recall, and Richard II; Exit the King and The Homecoming; an adaptation of The Bacchants by a chemistry prof and the first student-written play seen on the Troubadour Theatre stage. And he produced the Marat/Sade while it was still running in New York. (W&L had been the first non-professional application for the rights to Peter Weiss’s play. Later Lee presented Equus before it was even released for amateur productions. He just couldn’t wait.) After the first or second of these challenging plays, the townie audience began to stay away—they were frankly scared—but students began coming around. (I’ll never forget one reported remark from a townie spectator after Marat/Sade, at the end of which the inmates of the asylum riot and scramble out into the auditorium: “If I want to see this kind of thing, I’ll stay home!”) Soon, it was hard to get reservations (admission was free, but no one was guaranteed a seat during the two-weekend runs), and proportionally there were nearly as many students who wanted to bring their dates to a Troub play in the evening as took them to the football games on weekend afternoons. Some students and their dates were turned away. The word got around—things were happening down on Red Square (so called because of the four big, red-brick frat houses that dominated the block) where the old Civil War shoe factory that housed the university theater stood.

That little building, which rumor always had it had been a brothel once upon a time as well, was barely adequate. It had no fly space to speak of, no right wing at all (beyond the stage-right wall was Henry Street), and the left wing was the stairway to the upstairs plus the shop. The backstage area, behind the set, was barely wide enough for an actor or techie to pass through without jiggling the rear wall of the set. (Right outside the theater’s back wall was Main Street. In fact, there was a disused door in that wall which from the exterior looked like the main entrance to the building—which it probably was in an earlier incarnation.) The dressing room—there was only one—was upstairs and served as the green room as well. But in this totally inadequate and inflexible space, Lee and the Troubs put on some marvelous productions. I spent some of the best hours I had in Lexington in the darkened house of the Troubs or on its stage. It wasn’t just interesting and informative—I learned a lot of what I still believe about theater in those days—but exciting. Godot was eye-opening—and Marat/Sade was mind-blowing. And one man made all this happen back then: Lee Kahn. Not only was he all there was, but he was the kind of personality that made such things happen—on stage and in the heads and hearts of students.

There was no theater department, as I said—Lee would help launch one in the years after I graduated—so all of the participants were from other disciplines. I was a German-French major, for instance, and Kirk was an English major. (There were also no women in W&L’s undergrad student body; it was an all-male college until the ‘80s. There were a handful of students’ wives and the occasional faculty wife with theatrical aspirations, but most of the women in our shows were recruited from the women’s schools in nearby central Virginia.) Lee offered one single-semester class in acting and one in directing; there was a theater history course and, if there was demand, a technical theater class. (In the years after Kirk and I graduated, Lee hired a TD who ran the shop when the two of us worked there in the fall of 1969.) None of us had much practical experience—a little amateur acting maybe and some high school theater, but there was no depth in Lee’s bench and he always drew a credible, and often superb, performance out of his raw talent—even if it was minimal or limited.

In the years after I left W&L, the school launched a theater department, expanding the course offerings and the activities in which students could participate, such as student-directed plays and student-written scripts. The university went co-ed in 1985; it was still a small school (about 1500 undergraduates, more or less) but the population eventually became about half women and half men. (Women had been law students since 1972.) In 1991, the Lenfest Center, a large, state-of-the-art performing arts center, was opened, a project on which my father, a committed W&L alum, was very active—in great part because of my special interest in theater and our friendship with Lee and Betty Kahn. The active theater department and the performing arts center were in great part tributes to Lee, who died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 46. If it weren’t for him, there would never have been a theater department or a Lenfest Center. He made them both necessary because he made campus theater a cultural and educational force that demanded attention and support.

Lee was succeeded by Al Gordon, the first chairman of the new department (whom Lee in effect hired as his own boss). Gordon was a music-theater specialist, but the emphasis on new and striking theater continued. (The Lenfest Center opened with a production of Evita, which had only closed on Broadway in 1983. In more recent years, Gordon, who’s now emeritus, staged Goethe’s Faust and other theatrically interesting projects, such as Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses just before he retired.) But somewhere between the end of Gordon’s tenure and the current chairmanship of Joe Martinez, something began to slip. Students stopped coming to the plays. I’m of the opinion that the plays or productions were no longer exciting to the student audiences and that that was the fault of the theater faculty, who selected and staged the plays. Bob Youngblood offers a supplemental reason for the drop-off in attendance and attention: the students themselves. First, he points out, “They’re the DVD generation.” He was one of my German profs and later taught Italian (which wasn’t offered in my day) and he took students on trips to Europe during the spring semesters. On a trip to Italy, he reports, he couldn’t get the students to take in the Umbrian countryside through which they were traveling because they were all watching videos on their laptops. Second, Bob says, “It's not their fault that they haven't been prepared for aesthetic experiences of any sort—artistic, musical, theatrical. . . . Drinking parties are attraction #1 . . . .”

A former Lexingtonian who had connections to the theater program when Kirk and I were there—and is now a professional stage manager in St. Louis—affirms that “it’s not the same as in our day for sure,” but she also asserts that “there is a lot more student participation in directing and playwriting” now than there was before the theater department was established. According to Bob, the dance and music programs continue because they charge admission so that the university doesn’t bear the whole cost of presenting concerts and dance series. Booked-in shows are also still offered; they also charge admission and aren’t subsidized by the school—but they don’t use student artists, either. There just aren’t anywhere near as many departmental productions with student participation as there was even just a few years ago. “The Golden Age is over, I agree,” concludes the Lexington native (who still has family there and stays in contact with the Lexington scene), and Bob characterizes the present state of W&L theater with the lament: “These are indeed hard times for theater at your alma mater.” Lee Kahn managed to engage the students 45 years ago—and we had our distractions at the end of the ‘60s, too—and he was only one man. But, Bob admonishes, “we can't apply our past to the present, alas.” “You're talking about your and my generation,” he adds; today’s students are interested in two things from college: “a social life” and “a high-5-figure job (a 6-figure one, if they luck out).” Intellectual and cultural growth isn’t on the agenda, it seems. He may be right; he’s taught these young people and he’s probably got a bead on their mindset. But I say that, given the recalcitrance of 21st-century college students, it’s still the faculty’s responsibility to find ways to engage them, overcome the electronic pastimes that distract the attentions of the students they’re supposed to be educating. If what you’re offering doesn’t engage them, doesn’t compete with DVD’s and the ‘Net, then change what you’re offering. Giving up the struggle altogether, throwing in the towel is the worst possible tactic. No one wins then—neither the students nor the university nor society at large. You can’t just throw up your hands and quit, with the excuse that it’s not cost-effective to offer plays to a student body who doesn’t come to the theater.

Bob writes sadly of the few students he had during the last years he taught—around the turn of the millennium—who weren’t taking the course “to satisfy the general ed. requirement.” This made me remember my undergrad curriculum. I’d gotten lucky: I got two years advanced placement in both French and German so that I was taking junior-level courses in my first semester. It was an obvious choice that I’d major in either French or German since I was already accumulating credits, but which of the two was my best choice? One of my German professors explained that I could major in both languages and not take additional courses for either program. The French classes counted as “cognate” credits for the German major and vice versa. I needed only to take one course in each language each term—which I would have done anyway. Because I would fulfill all the requirements for both majors and the distribution creds without taking a full load each semester, I could take courses purely out of interest and curiosity. So that’s what I did. I took courses in psych, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, several comp lit classes (Russian Lit in Translation, Modern Theater in Translation—known as Play-A-Day), as well as the one-semester classes in acting and directing and the two years then offered in Russian. (Okay, yes. I’m a geek. I took French, German, and Russian in college. And I loved every damned minute of it!) My point: Far from taking courses I didn’t want to just to satisfy a requirement, I took classes for no reason other than that I was curious about the subject. Because I could. I was in college to find out about stuff I didn’t know! I was monumentally curious, and college was an intellectual toy store. I couldn’t have had it better. Now, no one told me to do that—my German prof helped me see a way to do it—but that’s what the university ought to be doing now: figuring out how to encourage W&L students to partake in the vast array of intellectual and cultural pursuits available, including theater. (Ask me and I’ll tell ya, ‘above all theater,’ but that’s just me.) As Bob says, if they don’t see theater at home, as many students report, where else are they going to get that exposure but at college?

(It’s probably not relevant to my point here, but some of those extraneous courses paid off for me in spades later. When I went in the army, that linguistics course was the reason I aced the language aptitude test. That gave me the opportunity to write my own ticket for training at the army language school. Because I’d already started studying Russian, I chose the one slot available in that program and I got to spend a year in Monterey, California, learning Russian for the army. Because I already had German and French on my record, the Russian got me assigned to West Berlin, the best duty station in the U.S. Army, where I spent two-and-a-half of the most interesting years I ever had before or since. If any of that hadn’t happened the way it did, I’d have ended up in Vietnam where the life expectancy of a Second Lieutenant in Military Intelligence was estimated at fifteen minutes after we hit the tarmac at Ton Son Nhut Air Base. Intellectual curiosity can pay off—but only if you indulge it. Which you can’t do if the school doesn’t offer a broad-based program of courses and activities. Isn’t that what liberal arts means?)

As for what’s going on now, I don’t get it. Children aren’t born anti-intellectual—that’s something they have to learn. In fact, they’re born curious; exploration is their natural bent. (Play-acting is also a natural impulse, as it happens.) If the students aren’t still that way when they get to college, then they’ve been maleducated before they got there. Now, perhaps the problem starts in junior high and high school, or even before, but the colleges and universities that get hold of those students when they’re 17, 18, and 19 are responsible for what they make of those new charges. If they’re going to call them educated men and women when they leave campus, they have an obligation to . . . well, educate them. College isn’t job-training school. And liberal arts colleges are especially obligated to produce well-rounded, cultivated young people. The graduates are supposed to know more about heaven and earth than were dreamt of in their philosophies when they arrived. Colleges are supposed to open up new worlds for their students, not just reinforce the knowledge—and ideas—they already had. My roommate, who wanted to be a doctor (and made it, by the way), was frustrated because he didn’t think he should have been required to take all those non-science distribution courses. I was frustrated for the opposite reason: I didn’t want to pick a major because I didn’t want to be pinned down. I wanted to find out about things I didn’t know anything about before I got to Lexington. I was lucky because someone showed me how I could do that while following the program at the same time. (My roommate wasn’t so lucky: he had to take those liberal arts courses he wanted to skip. I don’t know how he feels about that now.)

I don’t know how different one generation of students is from another. I doubt they’re different from birth. My experience in front of a college classroom suggests that if there’s a difference with respect to intellectual curiosity and the desire to go to new places between some students and others when they arrive, the main influence was probably their secondary educations. Some high schools, I observed, opened students up to new ideas and others kept them on a short tether. Already at a developmental crossroads intellectually, some students arrived at college ready to explore new ideas, others wanted only to enhance the ideas they already held, and still others were just timid about anything new or challenging. In any case, however, they were all dependent on the university—the teachers, other students, the administration, the academic and extra-curricular programs—to lead them, like a collective intellectual sherpa, on an educational mountain climb. It’s a rare student who can do that on her own. But no student, no matter how ready to take off or how self-motivating, can go anywhere if the school takes away the mountain altogether. George Orwell posited that people can’t think dangerous thoughts if they don’t have the words, so his dystopic police state regularly issued new dictionaries with fewer words than their predecessors. Fewer words, fewer thoughts. Well, in the university, the same truth holds: fewer offerings, fewer intellectual challenges. If Bob Youngblood is right and the 21st-century student comes to W&L with no exposure to live theater or any cultural experience, little intellectual curiosity, and a focus on partying and prepping for a high-wage Wall Street cocoon, then reducing the courses and activities that might challenge that attitude by offering some unlooked-for outlets for exploration and self-enhancement is the wrong way to respond. It’s the educational counterpart to Newspeak.

Now, I don’t think the university is deliberately trying to constrict students’ intellectual horizons by reducing their opportunities the way Orwell’s Big Brother deliberately reduces the possibilities of individual thought. The school’s administration sees its actions as fiscally responsible and mandated by budgetary constraints. They’re responding to student interest, they’ll say. There’s no point in offering activities and pursuits, paid for with money that can be used elsewhere, of which few students partake. That may be true, but is it right? Not from my perspective.

Ten years ago, the university published a brochure called A Future Worthy of Our Past. I was heartened to see that the arts continued to be a prominent focus of the university's goals, "an essential part of every student's experience" as President John W. Elrod (1995-2001) wrote. This statement echoes what W&L's most celebrated benefactor, George Washington, wrote to the trustees of Washington Academy in 1798: "[T]o encourage the Arts [has] ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart." Is the present university administration living up to the spirit of the W&L of President Elrod—much less Washington’s. When he dedicated the Lenfest Center, Elrod’s predecessor, John D. Wilson (1983-1995), evoked not just any arts figure but the greatest theater artist of the English-speaking world, William Shakespeare, declaring that artists "hold the mirror up to nature" even when they show man as a "poor, bare forked animal." Wilson, an avid theatergoer himself, knew that the performing arts, whose new temple he was launching, could "show us the truth about ourselves," even as they thrust us into "that uncomfortable terrain" of the unknown and the challenging. Not much of that can happen, however, if there’s no theater to hold up that mirror and show us those truths.

I deplore that everything has become a matter of business. I agree wholeheartedly with Bob Youngblood, who writes: "I consider theater an indispensable part of a university's offerings and think, the price tag be damned, plays should be put on." Under President Wilson, there was a sense that campus culture, especially theater, was an integral part of the life of the university. Wilson (whom my parents and I once met unexpectedly at a performance of Rent on Broadway) supported W&L theater out of conviction, not cost-consciousness or bean-counting. Some things just shouldn't be dependent on the bottom line.

Perhaps what’s needed right now is an educational counterpart to the program Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser launched 15 months ago, Arts in Crisis. Kaiser travels the country and works the phones to help struggling non-profit arts organizations like theaters, orchestras, and dance companies keep their audiences, find new donors, and engage in more effective planning instead of cutting productions and programs. Kaiser, whose assistance costs the beneficiaries nothing, sees cutting back as a disastrous tactic. “I feel like the creativity has been beaten out of us,” Kaiser has said. Cultural organizations are “so scared about money that we’re afraid to do really interesting, innovative work.” Well, that’s what the theater departments of Washington and Lee and similar schools seem to be suffering, too. Ironically, one of the organization administrators Kaiser’s program helped sums up the Arts in Crisis message as: “You don’t have to be just cold and numbers driven.” If that works in the non-profit field, why can’t it apply to the educational arts as well? Why not an Educational Arts in Crisis to advise administrations like W&L’s in devising ways to keep their programs operating at full blast instead of curtailing them?

Well, aside from a personal disappointment, what’s the loss? At W&L and most liberal arts colleges, few students are theater majors or even arts majors. So how are we diminished if all those business majors, history majors, language majors, chem majors, poly sci majors, English majors, and so on, don’t get much (or any) exposure to theater or other arts? I’ve said this before (see, for instance, “Degrading the Arts,” ROT, 13 August 2009), and I believe it firmly enough to say it again: The arts are an important part of our society. Artists are society’s whistleblowers and night watchmen. Art tells us where we’re going off track and when we need to make a course correction. Given that we need these voices, we also need to guard against the elements in our culture who would suppress and censor them. The list of even the most recent attempts to keep artists from speaking to us is a long one. The way to prevent the forces of suppression from prevailing is to be sure there are citizens who understand the value of art and artists. The only way to assure that presence in society is to be sure that all graduates of colleges and secondary schools in this country have a fundamental grounding in the arts, to understand art and appreciate it as part of their lives, not an extravagance or a luxury that merely decorates our culture. It’s schools like W&L that are the training grounds for the citizens of influence and perspicacity, the women and men who will soon be making the decisions for the country at large. If there’s a hole in their education where theater and art should be, there will be a dangerous gap in society. Universities like Washington and Lee must insure that arts facilities like the Lenfest Center are no less anchors of our freedom than the journalism and law centers like Reid and Lewis Halls, two legacies of President Robert E. Lee. They can’t be if they’re dark.

I’ll end with a statement I’ve quoted before. It’s from artist and writer William Blake: "Degrade first the arts if you'd mankind degrade." Excising theater from the campus life at W&L is a perilous step toward degrading the arts. Is that a step a school that honors George Washington and Robert E. Lee should be taking?

[Aside from “Degrading the Arts,” mentioned above in passing, I’d like to direct readers to another column I’ve written that bears tangentially on this topic. I make brief reference to my concept of a liberal arts education here, and in 1986, I wrote an essay for the W&L alumni magazine describing the uses I’d made of my liberal education in the real world. I’ve revised that essay as “Liberal Arts in the Real World” and I’ve scheduled it to appear on ROT on 24 July. In a way, I see “Liberal Arts” as a companion to “Disappearing Theater.” I hope you will return to ROT and see if you agree with my vision.]

14 July 2010

Books in Print

Not long ago, I made the possibly shameful confession that I love libraries. I guess it’s not surprising to learn that I love books, too. I also love newspapers, but I not only love the daily paper and its news stories and editorials, but I love the look of it. No, that’s not accurate. I love the looks of the different newspapers.

I live in New York City now and I read the New York Times and I occasionally look at the Post, Daily News, and Village Voice. I grew up in Washington where my family took both the Washington Post and the Evening Star. When I was a teenager, we lived in Germany and we read the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune and The Stars and Stripes. They all looked different, with different banners, different typefaces, different layouts, even different sizes: The Stars and Stripes, New York Post, Daily News, and Village Voice are tabloids; the others are (or were—the Star is no longer with us and the Paris Trib is now the International Herald Tribune) broadsheets. When I came to New York and got into research, either for graduate school, independent projects, or out-of-town clients, I referred to a lot of newspapers from all over the country and even all over the world and I found a kind of pleasure in seeing the variations on the theme of newspaper format that was both thrilling and comforting at the same time. It was fun, a kind of game like spotting license plates on a long-distance car trip.

From what I’ve been reading over the past few years, this little corner of civilization is in jeopardy. It’s getting too expensive to publish newspapers and the readership is shrinking. People who get their news from papers are turning to on-line editions and as subscribers and readers migrate to electronic media, advertisers abandon print media, too, and publishers lose their principal source of revenue. Several papers around the country have already closed down and others are abandoning coverage and reducing their sizes. Sooner or later, the act of unfolding a newspaper and thumbing through the day’s stories, ads, and editorials, moving from the front page to the last, from one section to another, will no longer be a common occurrence. Sitting on a subway or in a park with a newspaper won’t be possible anymore.

It looks like the same future is in store for books, too. E-books are becoming more and more common and, some publishers predict, will soon overtake paper books in terms of sales. Like newspapers, it will eventually become too expensive to publish printed books as readers move to the electronic versions. I will miss books when it comes to that.

I suppose I have to cop to being something of a Luddite. I got a computer in the mid-1980s, but I didn’t go on line until long after everyone else had done so. I just didn’t see any need for it—until I did, and then I linked up. I still don’t own a CD or DVD player. I got my first cell phone just last winter because until then, I didn’t see the need. (I still rarely use my cell—which, by the way, doesn’t take pictures, play music, or record sounds.) The truth is, I don’t really like reading on a screen. I do it because it’s now a necessity, but if I want to read a long piece from a website, I often print it out and read it on paper. It’s not that I reject technology. I got a wordprocessor during my first semester in a Ph.D. program because I could see the advantages it provided for a writing-heavy course. I gladly gave up my electric typewriter—I’m not one of those curmudgeons who insists on hunting-and-pecking on an old manual because it “feels right.” I don’t see how any writer, teacher, or student can work without a computer (or the Internet) these days.

But there’s something about a book (and a newspaper) that makes me resist the idea of e-versions. I have a small private library and I can’t imagine living without it. You can’t line bookshelves with e-books. (E-books also don’t have covers that can be little works of art in themselves. Maybe you can’t judge the book by its cover—but an e-book doesn’t have one at all. And can you imagine a coffee-table e-book?) I have books that go back to high school—and I still use them! As useful as the Internet is—and I use it all the time for my work as well as for my amusement—sometimes a book is just the best way to go.

I also use e-mail, both for private and frivolous correspondence and for work-related communication. For speed and efficiency, you can’t beat it and I find it immensely useful and often entertaining. (I have a friend with whom I exchange daily—often several times a day—messages just chatting about this ‘n’ that—stuff we’ve seen or read, thought up, or heard about.) ROT started from e-mails. But when I was doing a lot of research for some scholars at universities outside New York, digging up references and documents for them, it dawned on me that e-mail is basically ephemeral. I know you can save it, and offices and agencies are required to keep significant messages, but electronic communications are just evanescent. What’s more, they can’t be passed along later on to an archive like a library, and an awful lot of that research I did was finding old letters sent from one historically important figure to another. One project on which I assisted was the publication of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams. The first two volumes cover correspondence from 1920 to 1957. Would a future editor or biographer be able to find e-mails, tweets, blog comments, and so on from 90 years earlier? Someone saved Williams’s early letters (he was nine in 1920); later correspondence—including postcards, telegrams, and random notes, are in various archival collections in libraries and document repositories around the country. Would e-mails ever end up in those kinds of places where they could be retrieved by writers of the future? My parents have kept some of my old letters from school and the army, but if I ever become famous, would any of my friends and colleagues have retained old e-mails for a researcher to look at? Many e-mail systems don’t even save messages older than a week or so. They’re just erased, gone, sent out into the ether. What will happen to the next Tennessee Williams or Elia Kazan (I helped collect his letters for a scholar, too) or Ronald Reagan (Nancy published his old letters to her)? Those letters are often fascinating and revealing. If newspapers are the first drafts of history, then letters may be the notes for that draft.

I’m not bemoaning “the lost art of letter writing.” I’ve written and received e-mails that are every bit as eloquent as any paper letters I’ve seen. (And not every letter—or everyone’s letters—has literary aspirations. The art of writing letters declined long before computers arrived on the scene.) What I’m questioning is the staying power of electronic correspondence. Even if it’s not erased, it’ll be stored on some obsolete hard drive somewhere, maybe even irretrievable if someone could find it. Technology becomes obsolete—just ask any library or school that still has Betamax videotapes they can’t watch anymore—while paper and ink will always remain accessible. Even if they’re stashed somewhere, someone can find them and read them. We frequently hear reports of hundred-year-old documents that have been discovered hidden away. Will 100-year-old e-mails be available for anyone to reread? I wonder.

It’s not just e-mails and such that are in this predicament, of course. Websites in general are ephemeral, too. I can’t attest to the worthiness for preservation of anything I post on ROT, but let’s imagine that it’s worth keeping. In 50 years, will anyone be able to find copies of my old posts? I’ve published a few articles in on-line periodicals which don’t have paper editions. There’s no question about the legitimacy of such publication as a career credit, but will the articles still be accessible for someone doing research in 10 or 20 years? (Believe it or not, a few of my essays have been cited by later writers. But those citations were from printed journals.) Even the more prominent Internet writing, like Slate or Politico: will anyone be able to research old articles on those sites in half a century like I can with old newspapers, Time magazines, or books? It doesn’t feel like any of those outlets, which do contain serious writing and opinions that should have some bearing on histories of our time written in the future, will be available for consultation and research. (I certainly can’t put a copy of the e-journal on my shelf among the small collection of my published essays, can I?)

I’m not making allusions to the dubious provenance of on-line publications in contrast to paper ones. We all know that there are dangers in using Internet information as a reference. Books and printed periodicals have the cachet of editors and fact-checkers, though we also know from many recent revelations that that isn’t a guarantee of accuracy or even honesty. I’m only contemplating the permanence, the lasting availability, the future accessibility of on-line writing versus the paper kind. Libraries keep old books and periodicals we can get to when we want them. There are archival collections that contain the letters and papers of the Tennessee Williamses, Max Lerners, and Elia Kazans and scholars, writers, and historians consult their holdings all the time. Who keeps electronic publications? Where would I go in the future to work with the e-mails or e-publications of a current figure I want to write about? Nancy Reagan kept her husband’s letters; who’s keeping Barack Obama’s private e-mails? My dad collected and bound the letters he and my mom exchanged during World War II. Who’s keeping today’s courting couples’ electronic love messages? A friend once sent me a copy of a wonderful memoir his grandfather wrote covering his life as a frontier lawyer for the first 60 years of the 20th century. Today that chronicle would be written on a computer and, unless the author printed a copy on paper, it would exist only as electronic blips on some disk somewhere. I donated my copy of the reminiscence to the NYPL so that someone interested in that bit of Americana can find it in the local history division; what would happen to a latter-day counterpart?

There’s a lot more to my feeling of impending loss when I contemplate the shift from paper books to e-books. On Sunday, 30 May, the New York Times ran two pieces dealing with this very topic, a column by Peter Khoury (“In Ink on a Flyleaf, Forever Yours”) and an editorial by Verlyn Klinkenborg (“Further Thoughts of a Novice E-Reader”). (Klinkenborg had also published an earlier “Editorial Notebook” essay, “Some Thoughts About E-Reading,” 15 April.) These got me thinking about books, e-books, and why I like the paper kind so much. We all recognize the useful attributes of electronic publications: the portability; the searchability; the immediate access from anywhere, even miles from a bookstore or library, in the middle of the night or a fierce snowstorm. I use Google Books on line and other electronic editions of published materials. I use the on-line editions of not only newspapers from far away, by my own New York Times because it’s sometimes more convenient than the print edition I get at home (such as for cutting-and-pasting quotations or e-mailing short articles to colleagues). But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t miss the paper copy of books and newspapers if they should disappear in favor of the electronic versions.

Khoury’s main point is that we’d lose the pleasure of finding a book with an inscription on the flyleaf, a personal sentiment from one person to someone else. Khoury called this “the personality that authors—and the people who give books to others as presents—sometimes leave for posterity.” Sometimes, it’s a first-edition inscribed and signed by the author, a sort of visceral connection between us and the creator of the work. You can’t have that in an e-book. “[W]here would the extra personality that comes with an inscription go?” asks Khoury. On my last birthday, one of my cousins gave me a couple of theater-related books. You can’t give an e-book and write a personal note inside the cover so that the sentiment expressed remains part of the book forever. In fact, you can’t really give an e-book to someone else at all—unless you want to give up your e-reader as well, a rather expensive gift in the end. You can’t even lend someone an e-book without giving up the reader as well. I exchange books with friends often, sometimes for long periods. (I have one book now that’s a loan from a friend who gave it to me months ago. I couldn’t keep his e-reader that long.) I used to lend books to students; I wouldn’t do that if I had to give them my expensive reader, too. What a sad loss—no more books as gifts, no more loans, no more personal notes inside. It’s not even about the books. It’s about the human connection, the “collaborative discourse” that we lose. “That is not a good thing for readers, authors, publishers or our culture,” writes Klinkenborg.

Klinkenborg’s principal theme, in both his editorials, is different. He writes about the feel of a paper book, its physical existence in your possession. “I love the typefaces and the bindings and the feel of well-made paper,” he says. And I couldn’t agree more. Holding a book, owning a book, is something. It’s palpable and warm and somehow alive in a way that holding a little computer screen or sitting in front of a big one just isn’t. Turning pages is a kind of positive act that clicking a button on a screen isn’t. As Klinkenborg observes, “The book is the book, whereas, in electronic formats, the book often seems to be merely the text.” (The same, by the way, is true of a newspaper.) Running my hand down the page of even the cheapest edition of a paperback is somehow satisfying, getting a feel for this object with which I’m about to enter into a relationship. You can’t do that with a computer monitor.

With many books, I do have a sort of conversation when I read. I make marginal notes, little comments that are a sort of dialogue with the author. I make comparisons to other experiences, references to other books or articles, ideas, thoughts, connections. One example of this is the four sections of my remarks on Kirk Woodward’s The Art of Writing Reviews that I published on ROT in November 2009. The basis of those comments were my marginalia from reading the book; I just typed them up and cleaned up the grammar and syntax for public consumption. One of the books I used to lend to students is my copy of Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting. A few years ago, I had to buy a lending copy because my original one had so many notes and highlights in it, it was unreadable by anyone other than me. (It also started to fall apart from use, like my copy of Harold Clurman’s On Directing, now held together by a rubber band! Those books are not just texts; they’re part of my life.) That kind of symbiosis isn’t possible with an e-book. You can’t make marginal notes on an e-reader or a computer. “Reading is a subtle thing,” says Klinkenborg, “and its subtleties are artifacts of a venerable medium: words printed in ink on paper. Glass and pixels aren’t the same.”

Klinkenborg also makes a point about the look of a book, the words printed on a page as compared to the pixels on a screen. No wordprocessed or electronic document, no matter the selected font, will ever look as good as a printed book, he insists. Books, he suggests, are beautiful—and, of course, that’s true because bookmaking is an art. E-publishing is a technology. The value of an e-book is what it can do beyond presenting a text to read. As Klinkenborg declares, paper books “do nothing. . . . [W]hat I really love is their inertness.” Like a painting, a sculpture, or an architectural masterpiece, a book’s value isn’t in what it does. It’s in what it is.

Probably I’m a fuddy-duddy. (Okay, no doubt I am a fuddy-duddy.) I was born long enough ago that books (and newspapers) were just they way I grew up. Paper and printer’s ink were all there was. Hell, photocopiers didn’t even come along until I was in college—and the really useful ones that copied onto plain paper and could handle illustrations and photos didn’t exist until I was in grad school. Klinkenborg makes this same point: I grew up reading books, not texts. “The difference,” as he asserts, “is important.” Those of you who came along later and began sentient life with computers and e-books, and didn’t have the formative introduction to the printed word may see all this as a silly resistance to letting go of obsolescent technology. I don’t have any special attraction to horses and buggies; I grew up with cars and airplanes. I was 14 when the first man went into space. I don’t bemoan the effect TV’s had on movies and theater—I grew up with television. So maybe some of you see electronic publishing and e-books the way I see those other technological advancements. That’s fine; I’m not trying to turn the clock back. I just know I’ll miss the feel of a book in my hand when I read, the way it lies open on my lap or on the desk, how I mark my place with a bookmark. I’ll miss putting my bookplate in the front of a new book. When I finished writing the chapter on Summer and Smoke and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale for Tennessee Williams: A Guide to Research and Performance, I went out and found a copy of the 1964 volume that first published both plays together. It was my gift to myself for completing the work. What a perfect reward! (I got that book at the old Gotham Book Mart, but the area near where I live used to be chockablock with used bookstores. I used to love to browse through them once a month or so just to see what treasures I might find.)

A final thought, borrowed from Verlyn Klinkenborg because he nailed it: “The question isn’t what will books become in a world of electronic reading. The question is what will become of the readers we’ve been—quiet, thoughtful, patient, abstracted—in a world where interactive can be too tempting to ignore.”