In Warsaw many years ago I was invited to attend a demonstration of the graduating class at the National Theatre School. The students had prepared scenes from the works of Shakespeare, Molière, Schiller, Chekhov and a number of classical Polish playwrights. The choices reflected a real knowledge of the Shakespearean canon: Rather than the obligatory audition scenes from Hamlet or Macbeth, students tackled Titus Andronicus and Henry VI. From talking to them I learned that they were expected to know—and not merely to have read—the major works of Western dramatic literature during their first year at the school.
On the same trip I was fascinated to discover that in France and England, most aspiring directors prepared by “reading” philosophy at the Sorbonne, Oxford and Cambridge. Rather than concentrating on stagecraft, they learn how to synthesize, correlate information and think conceptually. The rigorousness of their education came as both a surprise and a delight to me. At a series of season-planning meetings I attended at London’s Royal Court Theatre, a great deal of time was spent analyzing the social and economic trends—in addition to the arts activity -that had transpired in England during the previous year, before the conversation turned to the impending repertoire. The discussion had its roots in the social sciences; it was about issues that had had an impact on their society, and not about shows that would sell.
I am reminded of those experiences because of two unrelated but equally important reports issued recently about the crisis in our education systems. Because the vitality of the arts is inextricably linked to the quality of the education that a society provides, these documents will unquestionably have an impact on the entire arts community.
As a result of a Department of Education study meant to send “warning signals” about the quality of recommendation in favor of modest increases to the higher education in our 3,000 colleges and universities, the National Endowment for the Humanities has just issued the report of a panel convened to discuss the role of the humanities in higher education. The highly distinguished panel included president Hanna Gray of the University of Chicago, president John Silber of Boston University, John Sawyer, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and William Arrowsmith, professor of Classics at Emory University. This report does considerably more than send “warning signals”—it boldly condemns the failure of the institutions “to provide an adequate education in the culture and civilization of which they are members.” The report goes on to point out that 72 percent of our colleges and universities will grant bachelors degrees to students who have taken no courses in American literature or history. Less than 20 years ago, 90 percent of all schools required foreign language study. Today, it is required in only half those institutions.
The panel concludes by emphasizing that “the humanities are not an educational luxury…They are a body of knowledge and a means of inquiry that convey serious truths, defensible judgements, and significant ideas. Properly taught, the humanities bring together the perennial questions of human life with the greatest works of history, literature, philosophy and art.” The report characterizes much teaching in the humanities as “a self-service cafeteria through which students pass without being nourished.”
Where will we find our future if their shared heritage is photo-journalism and computer courses? Art responds to, and is informed by, a cultural heritage embodied in the humanities. Ignore the source material and you have simply “kitsch.” How much more meaningful Lanford Wilson’s plays become when Chekhov’s works are known; how much richer Philip Glass’s music is when Bach has been heard!
Last month in these pages we reported that, despite broad bipartisan support, the President—for the second time—vetoed the already diminished funding Congress proposed to sustain the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Funding had previously been so reduced that CPB’s ability to develop original programming was seriously impaired. With further cuts, public television as a vital national cultural asset could cease to exist.
During the last four years we have seen the Administration repeatedly request reductions in the appropriation to the National Endowment for the Arts and we have seen Congress brush aside the Endowment. Last year’s appropriation to fund the arts throughout the country amounted to .00018 percent of the national budget. Will that minuscule appropriation now be eroded in the name of “fiscal responsibility”?
As long as we permit the continuing erosion of our educational infrastructure, we will be causing grave damage to all our arts. And we will be leaving our children a legacy of destruction out of which they will in turn be forced to construct a culture.
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