I’ve mentioned the blog Theatre Ideas before. I have some respect for this professor’s perspective: that, despite all the rhetoric otherwise, we theatre people live in a system that relies much more on personal financial assets (or parental financial assets) than it does on hard work and determination. Much like the rest of the country, in fact. And, he argues that this is not only annoyingly unfair, it’s wrong. It’s wrong that internships are unpaid because then they can only go to the kids whose parents can put them up in an apartment for a year or more. It’s wrong that the recognized playwrights and actors and directors of our time not only have expensive graduate degrees, but expensive degrees from the top universities in the Northeast. He is especially hard on awards ceremonies and large productions and TCG for rarely recognizing good plays written in regions other than New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles (referred to condescendingly as Nylachi).

Again, this is a microcosm of the country we live in, and I recognize that. I especially recognize that because I have so many brilliant friends who are very good at what they do and are trying to make their way in the world, without a whole lot of success. One of those friends never graduated high school and is an entirely self-taught sysadmin. He’s one of the smartest people I know, and after struggling with unemployment and various forms of self-employment, he FINALLY has a job doing what he likes, for a company that gives him some flexibility. But it took a long time. I have another friend who is struggling to be a professional musician. She’s got a BA in composition, but would she get more offers if she lived in NYC and had a grad degree from Columbia? Maybe. And there’s my boyfriend, who finally got his AAS in computer sciences, and has been struggling for months with unemployment and occasional temp work, barely related to his field, who is slowly and with growing frustration realizing that he needs at least a BA to be employable as a web developer. And yet, his passion for coding makes him devour coding website and books, and chatter to me excitedly about PHP and Java concepts that, well, I don’t understand because I taught myself just enough CSS to be web-savvy.

While all of these people have supported my theatrical ambitions, they are not theatre people. They do, however, suffer exactly what most passionate theatre people go through — the ongoing struggle between consistent employment and doing what you care about, what you know is right for you. Should you find a way to get that graduate degree? The only reason to do so is to make yourself that much more employable, in a field that is already over-saturated with highly educated actors and directors and playwrights and theatre professors. What I have learned from these dear friends is that, while I would love to have a PhD just so someone can call me “Dr. Cabe” someday, and although I am a nerd and love academia, it is ultimately better to get out there and practice what you love, devour as many non-college educational opportunities as you can (books, plays, workshops), and learn from everything. That 3 years you spent getting your Masters in Acting could have been spent just acting. Just … auditioning your butt off, going to workshops when you could afford it, mounting your own productions if that’s what you have to do. And taking criticism along the way, even though it hurts like fucking hell. That’s part of expanding your horizons — going outside of your comfort zone, even though some harsh critic is the one to take you there.

So I have to say that I was really disappointed by the most recent entry over at Theatre Ideas. I think he’s blaming the victim, honestly. Undergrads should already be curious sponges when they come in to college, and the fact that they’re not says more about the fundamentals of our public education system (or whatever private school they went to) than it does about the students. And, if you’re going to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt on a college education, even if it is just an undergraduate education, you bet your ass it had better be vocational! A general liberal arts degree? Excuse me while I sound like those asshole tea baggers, but that is completely elitist. I would know, I’m a liberal, educated, middle class white person!

I spent the first two years of my college life intensely frustrated by the education I was receiving. I got to pick my classes from a long list, it’s true, but most of what I was required to take, like American History and some kind of lab science, were classes that should have been taught in high school. And, well, most of what I was taught in high school (with the exception of Economics, Psych 101, Latin, and my English classes) should have been taught to me in middle school. I know there are only so many hours in a day, but you should have a basic knowledge of most of American history, mathematic principles, the sciences (including physics, biology, and geology) by the time you get to college. And your professors should not have to force you to read books or go see plays — or whatever is related to your major. I mean, some assigned reading, sure, especially if you are in an acting class. Scripts count as assigned reading. But, if you are in an acting class and you are handed a script side, unless the professor specifically says to go into that blind, you the student should have received enough fundamental education in grade school to know that you have to read the whole script and do some background research with your scene partner to know what’s going on in the play. Context is everything.

But finding the context is something that should be taught in every literature class ever, starting with you first literature class in 3rd grade. And that should tie in to your history classes like crazy, from the time you start learning your country’s history/mythology in 1st grade.

Here’s a quote from Tony Kushner in the blog post:

WHAT I WOULD HOPE YOU MIGHT consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they’ve arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They’re gullible and adoring; they’ll believe you. And then at least you’ll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say “But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!” and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you’ll need all the credits you can cadge together.

NO. What you should be saying to yourself on your deathbed, as a college professor, is, “I did a great job training those kids for the real world.” AND THAT MEANS VOCATIONAL TRAINING.

Honestly, this is why I know so many people who didn’t go to college, or who are resisting the idea of a graduate degree. Because it’s repetitive and tautological! I’m spending money, going into debt I will probably never recover from, because I want to be better-prepared for my career. NOT because I want you forcing me to read books that my high school English class should have covered.

If you are a professor and you agree with the Tony Kushner quote above, then you really need to lobby for better primary education. It is not your responsibility to cover the basics, it is the responsibility of the state to provide better teacher training and higher curriculum standards. Everyone should leave high school with the equivalent of a BA or BS. That way, we won’t have so many kids spending 10 years in and out of undergraduate programs with no idea what to do with themselves. If what they are cut out for is waitstaffing, then they’ll know that out of high school AND be qualified for the job.

Granted, that would mean lots of colleges would suddenly have less income, because fewer students would feel the need to get that coveted BA in English. They’d already have a foundation, and the confidence, to become a writer and send their work off to be published. They might decide to get a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature so that they can get some more specific vocational training in a particular area of interest, like Victorian Women’s Poetry or something. But they would at least go in to college with an idea of what they wanted from their education, without feeling like they were too dumb or worthless for the job market without that wasted 4 years and a note at the bottom of their resume, “University of South Carolina, 2002-2006, BA in Theatre.”

Basically, college IS NOT for this:

And your students should NEVER EVER graduate with this feeling:

School exists to prepare us for our futures, and if grade school isn’t giving us the foundation to find a career for ourselves, then there’s something wrong with our grade schools, NOT OUR COLLEGES.

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