While reading, I was reminded of a number of discussions I had with John Bardo, former Chancellor of WCU, and Kyle Carter, who was WCU’s Provost, during the time I was Chair of the Faculty and President of the Faculty Senate. These conversations, as I remember them, focused on the idea that higher education in the US was experiencing a considerable amount of pressure to refocus on what might be referred to as “job training.” Of course, we didn’t (and don’t) refer to it as that, we call it “skills-based” education, but it does seem to be, essentially, job training.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about learning a set of skills which apply to a specific occupation. The traditional Master/Apprentice situation, which has been around about as long as there have been humans was, in my opinion, this sort of training. In the arts, the major shift from a traditional Bachelor’s degree, with a major in some specific arts area and one, or more, minors in different areas, has largely moved towards the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with considerably greater focus on the requisite skills of a particular form of art. Hence the great increase in theatre programs of BFAs in Acting, Musical Theatre, Playwriting or Design. Certainly, these degree tracks have become very popular in recent years.
I confess, however, that I’m not sure that this has, necessarily, done students a real favor by placing considerable emphasis on this skills-oriented approach as opposed to emphasizing the broader-based educational framework of the more traditional Liberal Arts degree, which allowed for some specific skills training, but also required something of a broader exposure to literature, history, other arts, psychology, other cultures, math, science, etc. Certainly BFA curricula generally, based on my own rather casual observations, have moved in the direction of minimizing the traditional Liberal Arts in favor of considerably greater emphasis on the specific skills which are viewed as important for a successful transition directly into the commercial ranks as a working actor, performer, playwright or designer. Hence, the BFA has become, for many, a terminal degree.
That’s a change which I’m not sure we have thought about as clearly as we might have. Now, I’m old enough to remember when MFA degrees were first getting started. As I remember it, these degrees were created as a step beyond a traditional Liberal Arts degree for the specific purpose of providing specialized, professional training experiences to allow one to move directly into the arts professions, so the MFA was considered to be a terminal degree, but a professional one. This meant that the Master of Arts degree could retain its more scholarly focus and would not be considered a terminal degree. The terminal degree for the more scholarly approach would remain the Doctor of Philosophy. I thought that that made a good deal of sense, as it provided for a professional/commercial training track (BA & MFA), as well as the more scholarly, traditional one (BA, MA, PhD).
However, probably since MFA programs were immediately rather successful, someone, apparently, came up with the idea of using the same sort of approach at the undergraduate level. Hence, the BFA degree was created. My concern is that this degree creates false expectations, on the one hand, and doesn’t, in all too many cases I’m afraid, provide the sort of background which seems to me to be important to allow the student to know what to do with the skills she/he has acquired in this “professional” training. So, what’s going on here?
To discuss what I consider to be the false expectations of such programs, the fact seems to be (based on limited, personal observation) that many BFA graduates are surprised to find that they really aren’t very well equipped to become full-time, working “professionals” immediately upon graduation. Some find work, yes, but far from all. Some of the others realize that further training and experience would be of benefit and go on to enter MFA or other training programs. Quite a few, however, simply move on to other employment, in or outside of the entertainment industry, in a direction quite different from the one they had planned on during their undergraduate years. Unfortunately, they are, probably, not very well prepared for this new direction, either.
Now, I have always maintained that there IS a lot of work out there for those who are dedicated, talented and lucky. (I would not have stayed in theatre education if I didn’t believe that to be true.) But, unfortunately, that does not mean that there is work for everyone. No matter how hard some faculty members may work to try to prepare students for that fact, many of them do seem to have the expectation that obtaining a degree means that they will find work. While there IS work, not everyone is going to find it, especially when one considers that many ex-students cripple their chances by wanting their work when, where and how they want it. There’s really nothing new in that, but increases in the number of “professionally ready” students leads to increased expectations and it seems unlikely that the industry is capable of providing work for everyone who’d like to be in it.
As to background, most Theatre BFA programs (regardless of focus) that I have looked at have reduced the number of hours/credits required for such things as literature (especially dramatic literature) to a very clear minimum, sometimes even to no more than is required as a part of the “general education” requirements of all Bachelor’s degrees, and reduced the requirements for history of the art (theatre history, in this case, although it could include history of musical theatre) to a level which seems to be little more that what is sometimes covered in general education, “Intro. to Theatre” type courses. (Of course, anything resembling theatre history is often eliminated from such “gen. ed.” courses today, but that’s a different problem.)
So why should this matter? As I tried many times to explain to my students, probably not very well and often not very successfully, I have always felt that it’s hard to truly understand what’s going on in the theatre and drama of today, without at least some knowledge of where it came from. Where it came from is, mostly, from it’s past (history) and it’s previous literature. Yes, there are people doing “new and different” things today, but most of them, as has always been the case, are either building on the work of previous generations or responding to perceived inadequacies of what has been done before.
Realism (you know, Ibsen, Chekhov and those guys, as well as the productions of David Belasco, and the like) appeared largely because people in the middle Nineteenth Century became unhappy with the kinds of things that had developed out of the Romantic period of early Nineteenth Century. All of the “anti-Realist” stuff which started in the very late Nineteenth Century, (the “isms,” Appia, Craig, etc.) was a reaction to the perceived inadequacies of Realism. The work of the past (some of which may still be worth looking at) can help us to understand where and how it can still be relevant to the present, and can also suggest what may need different imaginations to make better art in the future. That seems to have always been the case, if one looks.
But Art, in all of its forms, I think, has never existed in a vacuum. If the purpose of theatre is “…to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature….” then it must be seen as a product of its time and place in history, as well as something which might be capable of shedding light on our own times. That suggests, at least to me, that if one is to understand an historical work (let alone a specific character in one of those works) it probably would be useful to have at least some idea how that work (character) relates to the political, social, philosophical, religious and scientific ideas of the time that work (character) was created. Now, not everyone needs a highly detailed knowledge of all of this, but some general background, some ability to find out more and to be able to communicate about it seems likely to be useful to make the work one does on a play (character) most productive. It’s not enough to just have a flexible voice, body, etc., (for a performer) unless one has the insight into the character’s psyche to be able to use that voice, body, etc., to more effectively communicate the thoughts, actions, motives, etc. of the character to an audience.
That’s what a “liberal education” was supposed to be all about: to expose one to a wide range of information; to help him/her learn how to assimilate that information into ideas which can be used; and to communicate them. I don’t see how having attained even the highest level of “skill” can be very useful without some understanding of how to use those skills for the benefit of the production. I’m afraid that all too often in “educational” settings it is common for the director to simply try to “spoon feed” what is deemed necessary of this background to the performers (although it applies to non-performing areas as well) and to let it go at that. I’m not sure that’s really useful, in the long run.
One of the most interesting things (at least in my opinion) in Richard L. Sterne’s 1967 book, John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet is the transcripts of the discussions between these two individuals (both of whom had, rather famously, played Hamlet before) about their not always identical ideas as to what was going on in the character’s mind, how to play certain moments most effectively, etc. Yes, Gielgud was the director and, as we always say, was responsible for the entire production. But, Burton had to be Hamlet for the audience and he brought his own ideas to the table for discussion, debate, modification and resolution with the rest of the production. It seems to me, that that is the best way to work, and not only between actors and directors.
In Designing for the Theatre, Jo Mielziner, by many accounts the most important American scenic designer of the Twentieth Century, describes his conversations with Arthur Miller, the playwright, and Elia Kazan, the director, relating to his ideas for the visual design scheme for the first production of Death of a Salesman. While his idea became famous, it required significant rewriting of the script by Miller, a lot of revision to Kazan’s thinking and the postponement of the originally planned opening date. Why? Because the designer made a careful analysis of the script, as it existed at the time, considered what he thought would allow this script to be most effectively, then to draw on his knowledge and skills to come up with an idea which seemed likely to be more effective than the playwright’s original conception, and to communicate it effectively enough to convince the others that it was worth the effort to use it. That’s the collaboration we often talk about in the theatre. That’s precisely what a “Liberal Education” is intended to help provide the ability to accomplish.
I could (but won’t) go on to discuss the rather well accepted idea that the best paying “skilled” jobs in much of general business and industry are, more and more, being taken over by machines and it is (or at least was) pretty accepted that many of the jobs which exist today won’t in a few years and that the majority of young people won’t just change jobs several times during their working lifetime, they will change careers. If that is the case, what is needed from education is permanent knowledge: how to acquire information; how to see the connections between different ideas; how to determine what we know from what we don’t (and to find out what we need to know); and, how to communicate the results of this thinking and investigation to others.
That’s what a Liberal Education is all about! I don’t think this is important only in the arts (although that’s the area I’m most familiar with), I think it’s likely to be true throughout society. Someone who can do the things discussed above would seem to have the skills necessary to survive in almost any situation. Even with a finely honed skill set, one becomes irrelevant when a machine is invented which can duplicate those skills.
Perhaps we (as a society) need to rethink what we should want from our educational system. Perhaps the specific skills needed for placement in a narrowly defined “job” isn’t the best road for the long haul. It may get you a job today, but that job may not exist five, or ten, years from now. John Bardo once told me a story about a conversation he had with the Grandfather of a student he was recruiting who expressed grave doubts about the idea that his grandchild might get a “liberal” education. This really isn’t a political idea, it could be the most important survival skill of our society.