Tony Kushner delivered these remarks as a keynote address to the Association of Theatre in Higher Education’s annual conference last August in Chicago.
America, the country which last year spent less than 20 cents per citizen on federal funding for the arts, and is now led by a Congress the lower half of which has voted to eliminate all federal funding for the arts, has in the same year authorized an expenditure of $250 million, around one dollar per citizen, in federal grants to states to encourage teenagers not to have sex. And this money has been allocated in the form of matching grants: It’s attached to the Welfare Reform Bill, the lousiest piece of legislation since the Fugitive Slave Act. Every state in the United States has agreed to accept the money and to match it, so eventually we’re talking about nearly a half-billion dollars spent trying to convince teenagers not to have sex.
This is extremely unwise: With the NEA gone and almost no arts programs available, into what, exactly, will these horny teenagers channel their frustated, pent-up, unspent orgone? Outbreaks of acne are to be anticipated. The manufacturers of pimple cream are probably behind the whole idea. Even if this is not true you should put it on the Internet and start a big rumor. I furthermore predict a sharp decline in teenage manners, more pierced body parts, more tragic haircuts, more gunnysack/war-trauma clothing, and quite possibly an upswing in adolescent crime rates. If this money is effective, and teenagers give up sex, I hope incredible teenage anger will follow, and a wave of muggings, of mostly Republican victims—who will then insist even more loudly that criminal kids should be prosecuted as adults. The rise in our already world-record inmate population will help justify the justify the big boom in federal- and state-funded prison construction. And then we can spend money trying to get inmates to stop having sex. Except, oh yeah, if they have unprotected sex because we don’t allow them condoms, they relieve the state of the burden of incarcerating them by dying before their sentences run out. So it all works out in the end.
No one is certain how the half-billion anti-sex dollars are going to be spent. And there’s some concern about this on Capitol Hill, though not nearly as much concern as there was over faggot artists getting federal grants. Each state will receive something in the neighborhood of four to five million anti-sex dollars, which it wilI match on a three-to-four ratio. No one will supervise how the states spend the money. Now something that isn’t often discussed in the Age of Newt, when all power is flowing back to the states (as great Americans like Jefferson Davis, George Wallace and David Duke have always dreamed it would) is that it’s easier to become a state legislator than it is to do the macarena! It’s easier to be a state legislator than it is to buy an assault rifle in Texas! It takes many zillions of bucks and a severe personality disorder to become president; you apparently have to sell your soul to the Devil and be a major shareholder in Hell to become a senator; and very few Americans are sleazy, dumb and rich enough to become a House freshman; but to be a state legislator, all you have to be, basically, is sleazy and dumb. It doesn’t cost all that much. You can’t be poor, of course, the poor were disenfranchised last year. But if you have a credit card—and these days household pets have credit cards (thank God we’re about to eliminate the deficit)—you can charge enough to make an independent film, or to become a state legislator. If you choose the latter option, probably you were unpopular in high school and have a secret vendetta against everyone in your country. Anyone in this great nation of ours can be a state legislator, and pretty much anyone is: madmen, bagmen, con-men, Book of Revelation-reading eschatologists. My home-state legislature, in Louisiana, just passed a law creating the option of marriage in which divorce is not permitted. Just so the kids who haven’t had sex as teenagers will have something to look forward to.
So once these state lawmakers get ahold of those grants, we can look forward to all sorts of creative ideas. Chastity belts, hairshirts, electro-shock, Prozac, lobotomies, anti-sex ads featuring the singers the young people love, like, oh, I dunno, Zamfir? LENGTHY homework assignments featuring Bill Bennett’s Monster Morality Readers. Everything except safe-sex education and condom distribution. Gertrude Himmelfarb is going to be made the Ayatollah of Sex in Indiana—it’s a new position they made up. She will peddle her appealing message, BRING BACK SHAME! to all Hoosier teens! Really, I read this somewhere, I’m not making it up! Gertrude Himmelfarb! In mufti! OK, I am making it up, but it’s a good idea, and any closet case in the Indiana State Legislature who secretly reads the Advocate is welcome to use it.
When I was a teenager I was years ahead of my time. I had no sex. OK, it’s because I was gay and I would have been killed, probably, if I’d asked anyone, or at least I believed I would. I love the idea that now straight teenagers will have to see what it’s like, being lonely and ashamed. I think it’s the first fair thing the GOP has proposed since the Emancipation Proclamation. We hold this truth to be self-evident: All are created equally frustrated. But I do worry about the lack of venues for sublimation, and so I recommend increasing the NEA’s budget. Hey kids! When masturbation becomes insufficient, try art! It worked for me! It still does!
I’m not in the best of heads to be speaking to you tonight, though I’m really very honored to have been asked and I hope you don’t hate me for what I’m about to say. I hope my speech doesn’t occasion a purging of the Keynote Speaker Selection Committee and call for the question “Who invited this creep?” to be flung about by executive board members in varying tones of vituperation, acrimony and ire. I hope that what I say tonight doesn’t cause coronaries and apoplexy and eventuate the disbanding of this august institution. Though the speaker’s fee is generous, I don’t think you’ve paid me enough to expect all that.
And it’s improbable that any non-alcoholic playwright not in his or her cups could cause such a stir. And American playwrights as a whole seem to me to be drinking and taking controlled substances with far less enthusiastic abandon than our tradition and heritage dictates. Hence, playwrights are probably better behaved, more presentable in public, and this must be a disappointment to us all. I agree with what the great Pier Paolo Pasolini said: “To give scandal is a duty, to be scandalized is a pleasure and to refuse to be scandalized is moralism.”
I’m not in the best of heads tonight, because I’m in the middle of writing a play and as I’ve noticed time and again throughout the 17 years I’ve been playwriting, something happens to my surety of opinion the minute I start writing a play. Basically it goes out the window, I become fuzzy and tremulous and hesitant, unless I am speaking in the name of a character other than myself; the dialectical floodgates open, and when that happens one’s overarching view of life and the world and all subjects appropriately keynotarian becomes unforgivably maddeningly balanced and relativistic. This state of mind is a painful thing for a thunderously opinionated person such as myself to reveal in public. I will therefore over-compensate for any momentary work-related wishy-washiness by posing as thunderously opinionated person; and this pose will be, as any pose must be, exaggerated— but not unrecognizably so.
Here is my opinion, then, the nominal topic of my keynote address, and if you don’t hear the thunder, well, I tried: I think we should abolish all undergraduate art majors.
If any of you heard thunder when I said that—let me repeat it: I think we should abolish all undergraduate art majors—the thunder probably sounded like this: UNEMPLOYMENT! And you are probably thinking, “Danger! Danger! This asshole is dissing me! He wants me to lose my not-terribly-remunerative-but-absolute- ly-irreplaceable job!” This or something like it is what Marx and all sorts of other people would call “enlightened self-interest” and, to the extent that you constitute a class, and you do, it is class-consciousness. I share in your apprehensiveness. I too teach, and also I imagine, having said “I think we should abolish all undergraduate art majors” not once but twice, I hear the sound of Angels in America being vindictively stricken from the syllabi of several hundred courses in modern drama. It’s only fair.
But of course we should all breathe a sigh of relief in recalling that university administrators, too, form a class with their own class-consciousness and self-interest- ediiess, and since there are such a great number of undergraduate arts majors paying such a great deal of money in tuition, I can say this appalling thing—that we should abolish all undergraduate art majors (I will repeat it many times tonight as a kind of desensitization process. And also it’s fun to say, like burping after drinking bicarbonate of soda, a relief!)—since the undergraduate arts majors mill is almost as profitable for cash-strapped institutions of higher learning as pesticide development and biochemical warfare research, certainly considerably more profitable than liberal arts departments. Since it’s so very lucrative, I can say let’s get rid of it and we don’t have to worry that anything will actually happen.
So my speech is rather like theatre in this regard, and this frees us to consider the validity of my proposal—that we should abolish all undergraduate art majors—as a pure abstraction ultimately productive of nothing more unpleasant than a spasm of conscience and perhaps something as pleasant as a whiff of scandal and a flicker of ire. Let the purging of the committees begin! I will testify at the show trials. I will admit the error of my chosen path. Someone can shoot me in the back of my head. Then I can stop worrying about deadlines and drama critics.
Two points of clarification: (1) When I say we should abolish all undergraduate arts majors, I mean we should abolish the administrative, metaphysical, ontological, epistemological category Undergraduate Arts Major. I am not advising the wholesale slaughter of young people interested in the arts. I have no doubt that will be a plank in the next Republican Party Platform. But I am not espousing it. I like kids. I carry baby pictures of my new niece. Kids are cool, I am down with kids, I real- ly enjoy teaching them.
2) Nor do I mean that we should abolish the teaching of the arts for undergraduates. There should be lots and lots and lots of fine arts elective classes, taught by competent and brilliant and responsible and caring and handsome and tasteful arts educators, such as ourselves. What I am
proposing is that any college or university worth its salt tell its undergraduate students that henceforth they cannot major in theatre, the visual arts, writing, filmmaking, photography or musical composition. Seventeen-year-old dancers and 17-year-old musicians, singers and oboists and the like, should go to good conservatories. All others should prepare to spend the next four years of their lives in the Purgatory of the Liberal Arts; after matriculation from which, of course, all sorts of lovely graduate programs in the arts, conservatories and training programs, writers workshops and film schools will receive the most talented and determined among them with open arms.
I am in fact such a Grinch that I would be very happy to see this atmosphere of purification extend to the liberal arts themselves, where, making sure that no one leaves the auditorium tonight without taking offense, I would be very, very happy to see the elimination of all undergraduate degrees in speech and communication as well.
Two disclaimers: 1) I went to Columbia College for my undergraduate studies, and there were no arts majors, so what I am doing really is revealing how rigid I am and how little I have changed since I was 17, and how I want all children to suffer as I have suffered, though in this regard I suppose I’m no different from most of the people in this room.
(2) Though I have recently started teaching on the full-time faculty at NYU, and have been teaching off and on for years, I know absolutely nothing about educational theory or the status of the debate regarding any of these issues; I am entirely and happily philistinic, altogether the wrong choice to make this speech, and again I urge the public execution, or at least humiliation, of the persons responsible for inviting me.
I come from a family of working artists. My father and mother were musicians. I earn my living as an artist. So do my siblings. I don’t think you have to earn your income as an artist to be an artist. But if you are an artist, then artist is what you do, whether or not you’re paid for doing it; it is what you do, not what you are. I regard artist not as a description of temperament but as a category of profession, of vocation. What we call education in the arts is mostly training—it is, in fact, vocational traning. And vocational training is not what I mean when I talk about education.
Don’t get me wrong: Vocational training is a great thing. The technicians at a major computer superstore in New York, just yesterday, in the process of doing a memory upgrade on my desktop computer, “accidentally” erased all the data on the hard disk—every play, essay, screenplay, poem, letter I’ve ever written—and then they “accidentally’ erased the backup tape. And I think the Almighty might have dragged me through this remarkably hideous experience (which perhaps accounts for my bilious mond tonight) just to remind me that I shouldn’t be too dismissive of the advantages of truly effective vocational training, of which the technicians at this computer superstore have obviously not had the benefit.
Education, as opposed to training, I think, addresses nor what you do, or will do, or will be able to do in the world. Education addresses who you are, or will be, or will be able to be. In your early years the processes of education and of training go hand in hand and are mostly indistinguishable. Practical, useful knowledge and the burgeoning of the imagination and the sowing of the seedbeds of moral integrity, communal responsibility and individual courage and daring all transpire more or less simultaneously in the very young, all can be learned by the stacking of blocks and the tying of shoelaces and the learning of multiplication tables and the successful manipulation of art supplies—and I’d better stop before I turn into Robert Fulghum. I think you know what I’m saying. After kindergarten, with the commencement of one’s formal education, following grade school and up until one has reached young adulthood (which in mv book starts at 21 years of age, or thereabouts): In the grand dialectic of life, in the dialectic between thought and action, one’s formal education ought to speak more to the thesis, thought, than to its antithesis, action.
I think this is so because I have so many women friends who have just given birth and they tell me it really, really hurts to have to squeeze that huge head with its tremendous brain through the birth canal, and I believe them, and it seems to me all that suffering shouldn’t be
for naught. If my friends are going through such misery to introduce new homo sapienses into the world, someone
ought to see to it that these newcomers earn their fancy binomial nomenclature and become as sapient as possible. Someone ought to make sure their massive craniums are crammed as full as possible, otherwise I suggest the purchasing of household pets as a more pleasant alternative to seven hours of labor or a c-sec- tion. I think we should make sure these big-headed hominids become, as a result of being brilliantly educated, as deeply confused, conflicted, complicated, contrary, contemplative and circumspect as only years and years of sustained thought can make them.
While children still, before the end of latency and the onslaught of sexuality sets in at puberty, they should be sheltered trom everything except joy, love, admiration, nutrition and shelter, math, books, and great art—Where the Wild Things Are, The Wizard of Oz, Burl Ives records (or a more contemporary equivalent, but not, God help us, Kerniit the Frog)—and for an entirely salutary taste of the tragic and the unjust, for the best possible religious instruction in the caprices of the Deity, they should all be assigned to really tough sixth-grade grammar teachers. They must be protected from all forms of abuse including nearly everything Hollywood and the networks produce, the repulsive sexualization of public spaces, Channel 1, the learning of bad taste, racism, sexism and homophobia through Walt Disney cartoons.
At puberty, while they are being driven mad with hormones, between ages 13 to 17, all that can be done is to pray that their table manners aren’t irretrievably lost, and otherwise they must be remanded to the newly-funded anti-sex instructors, who will, I am sure, do all sorts of effective counseling against sex. I only wish I could be there to witness it.
At 17, until they are 21, these big-headed hominids should be forced into an atmosphere of the utmost rarification and isolation from life—because by now they have grown large and potentially dangerous, or potentially magnificent, and before they enter the world stage as Actor, capable of God knows what sorts of mischief, they need really good Actor training: Think of the liberal arts, in other words, as meta-Acting Training for Life.
Ours is world which does not like nor protect its children. Ours is a world in which $250 million is allocated to teaching kids to stop having sex in the selfsame bill which terminated a 70-year- old commitment to protect children from poverty. Ours is a world in which millions and millions of children live in conditions of revolting, physically and mentally destructive poverty, in which children are exploited, abused, exposed to toxic chemicals and toxic art and toxic ideologies. Ours is a world in which adults, having failed to grow up, clinging frantically to childhood, avenge themselves with impunity on children, on the young. Ours is a world in which no one ever admits to being middle-aged or old, while real children are stripped of the protections of childhood as soon as is convenient, cost-effective and pleasing to vengeful adults. Hence the new opinion polls that reveal an all-time high in the dislike older generations feel toward the young. Hence the mania for prosecuting 15-year-old offenders as adults. Hence the repulsive merchandising of children. Hence the eagerness to transmogrify higher education into vocational training.
It goes so much against the world’s common sense to suggest that all children, between the ages of 17 and 21, should be given a real liberal arts educa-tion, this trip to the moon on gossamer wings. In a world in which mad, out-of-control profiteering and record disparities in wealth in the midst of catastrophic environmental despoliation is called “downsizing” and “growth” in a robust economy”; in a world in which imbalanced budgets are accorded far more moral indignation than a dearth of affordable health care; in a world in which the refugee and the immigrant are nowhere welcomed and the stranger is despised and barbaric nationalism is recrudescent because the apparently complete ideologcal dominance of the free market teaches everyone to behave as if he or she lived in a starvation economy, regardless of the manifestly gigantic wealth of nations; in such a world, children arrive at the age of 17 about as secure, about as open-minded, about as curious, about as full of the love of life that is the birthright of youth as the bound Isaac watching his daddy hoist up the sacrificing knife, as little Orphan Annie come to stay for a weekend visit with the parents of JonBenet Ramsey. These children with the tremendous brains, they aren’t stupid—they know road kill when they see it. To paraphrase the immortal Pogo: They have met the enemy and it is them. That’s why they dress so abominably, in hobo clothes. Theirs is a world of predators, and their only hope, lacking a social resistance movement, is to skunk the velociraptors awav.
And capitalism isn’t stupid, either. The great social revolution that was the ’60s was birthed, in substantial measure, bv a generation of children whose parents had the wealth to suckle their prodigy luxuriously, and to send them to the four-year summer camps of useless information for the mighty brain that is a liberal arts edu- cation. Many of these bright, beautifully educated pampered brats were excused (horrors!) from military service in Viemam; and these brainy brats read Marcuse, and Paul Goodman, and Simone DeBeauvoir, and Simone Weill, and Trotsky, and W.E.B. DuBois, and the rest—the rest is the ’60s, inspiring history to many of us, and a nightmare that weighs on the brains of the neo-con and neo-libs and Reaganite counterrevolutionaries and Gingrlch ego anarchist radicals and even draft-dodgin’, pot-smokin’, Fleetwood Mac-listenin’ Bill “Bipartisan Compromise” Clinton.
Just as the attack on public elementary and secondary education, in the form of the school voucher, and the attack on affirmative action are intended to defeat what’s left of the African-American civil rights movement, and the slow w’hittling away at reproductive rights is intended to defeat what’s left of the women’s movement, and the Defense of Marriage Act and 36 anti-rights initiatives at the stare level are intended to defeat what’s left of the lesbian and-gay-rights movement—and in every instance there’s a great deal left—the transmogrification of liberal arts education into vocational training is, I think, intended to destroy any possibility of a troublesome, restive student population. Not intended as in someone on the National Security Council sat around and planned it (though remembering Cointelpro and Iran-Contra, I wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money that hasn’t happened), but largely this lamentable state of a flairs has come to pass through what Althusser calls “Ideological State Apparatuses.” The fact that many of your students wouldn’t know what an Ideological State Apparatus is, or what ideology means, and the fact that this general incomprehension is a rather recent development, is precisely what I am talking about. \Ve are being dumbed down. We are being trained, but not trained to think; we are becoming more etficient, by which I mean more exploitable and cooperative laborers, but we are becoming less smart than we can afford to be. Too much action, too little thought: It’s not just the formula for an Arnold Schwarzenegger summer blockbuster; it’s the formula for what we used to call surplus labor, and for the lumpenproletariat, before we all forgot what words like that meant.
I seem to have recovered my opinions. I seem in fact to have become something of a pill.
The vocationalization of the liberal arts undergraduate education echoes the loss in the world at large of interest in the grand dialectic of life, in all dialectics, in breadth, in depth, in thinking as a necessary luxury, in the Utopian. The vocationalization of undergraduate education is, I think, akin to all sorts of social malaises, all of which commenced or burgeoned simultaneously with the death of Utopia as a place about which serious adults devote serious thought; and its replacement by corporate-sponsored Never-Never Land, a place in the name of which Peter Pans and Inner Children, instead of reading, devote serious shopping time.
My point being that it is not multiculturalism which has catalyzed the crisis in education, as William Bennett and his ilk tell us over and over and over again, but rather the budget-slashing this motley crew has either championed or complacently accepted and its concomitant ideology of starvation-based pragmatics. It is not progressive politics nor the left, such as it is, which benefits from the degradation of liberal arts education; the notion that indoctrination by left-wing teachers (and sitcoms starring lesbians) has “sold” the country on the legitimacy of the multi-frontal campaign for social and economic justice, is predicated on the belief that justice is a matter of as much indifference to the majority of people as it is to the ruling classes.
I know how deeply unfashionable it is to speak of the ruling classes—I sound like Clifford Odets on a toot. But there are ruling classes, aren’t there? I mean there are people who have bajilions more in the bank than you or I—isn’t that so?—and there are fewer of them and more of us, instead of the other way around (which is the way it’s supposed to be going), and one way or another we work for these people, and they have gotten richer than anyone in history and we…well, we haven’t. And if the Fortune 500 doesn’t behave like a class, preserving the concentration of wealth, if there isn’t a multinational corporate culture and an ethos created by the robber baronetcy, created by Nike and Disney and Capital Cities and Rupert Murdoch, if there is no such thing as Reaganism or Thatcherism, if these things aren’t so, I will eat the first hat proffered to me.
The death of the debate that used to make it possible to talk about “the ruling classes” without sounding like a cartoon, that’s what frightens me most. That’s the greatest political achievement of, well, of the ruling classes, goddammit. And it is their vision of society, not mine, best served by the vocationalization of education.
The left is not lacking in culpability: There are those for whom multiculturalism has become a new kind of exclusionism, there are those who seek to eliminate the teachings of Plato instead of insisting on the inclusion of C.L.R. James; those who seek to eliminate the study of Melville instead of insisting upon the inclusion of Toni Morrison; those who, in concluding that one must study either Mozart or Miles Davis, rather than both, have bought into the logic of the starvation economy. Only so much time to go around, and to whom is it to be appor- tioned? Mark Twain or Zora Neale Hurston? There are those who have surrendered the all-important fight for integrated education. But these are few and far between, and overreported by the Wall Street Journal’s hysterical editorial board. What really threatens education in this country is when we decide we need more money to go into schools because the Japanese factory workers are (we are told) more diligent, more skilled and less demanding than their American counterparts. The vision of a better world is not served by the death of liberal arts education.
I am a playwright who wants an audience of over-educated dilettantes and wannabe intellectuals—people like me, in other words. I want an audience of people who want to be students forever, who hate it that the world ever tapped them on the shoulder and said “You have to go to work now and earn money,” right in the middle of some great book they were reading or painting they were analyzing or argument they were having that consumed the entire night. How are you going to know that you want to be a student forever (and what possible better audience can there be for the theatre than an audience of real honest-to-God hungry, cantankerous impatient students?) if you were never a student in the first place, if you were never allowed to be, never allowed yourself to be? If all of life is McDonalds and you have always been either only a slacker or a junior trainee, how am I going to get you to sit through one of my interminable plays? Or, for that matter, speeches?
Entirely too much time has passed without sounding my keynote: We should abolish all undergraduate art majors. I travel around the country doing lectures—after tonight I expect the invitations to dry up—and I am generally tremendously impressed with the students I meet and talk with, and generally unimpressed with what they know, and among these impressive and impressively under-educated students the worst, I am sorry to say, are the arts majors. And it isn’t simply that they seem remarkably non-conversant with the pillars of Western
thought, with the political struggles of the day, with what has been written up in the morning’s paper—these arts majors know shockingly little about the arts. Forget literature. How many theatre majors do you know who could tell you, at the drop of a hat, which plays are by Aeschylus, which by Sophocles and which by Euripides? Or the dates of any of those writers? How many undergraduate playwriting majors, for instance, know even a single sentence of ancient Greek, just to have the sound of it in their ears and the feel of it in their mouths? How many really know what iambic pentameter is? How about alexandrines? How about who wrote what in alexandrines? How many know the names of a single Chinese playwright, or play? Or of more than one or two African playwrights? How many have read Heiner Müller? Suzan-Lori Parks? How many have read more than one play by either of these writers? How many have never heard of them? How many know who Lessing was, or why we should care? How’ many have read, I mean really read and absorbed, The Poetics? The Short Organum?
And even if your students can tell you what iambic pentameter is and can tell you why anyone who ever sets foot on any stage in the known universe should know the answer to that and should be able to scan a line of pentarneter in their sleep, how many think that “materialism” means that you own too many clothes, and “idealism” means that you volunteer to work in a soup kitchen? And why should we care? When I first started teaching at NYU, I also did a class at Columbia College, and none of my students, graduate or undergraduate (and almost all the graduate students were undergraduate arts majors—and for the past 10 years Columbia has had undergraduate arts majors), none of them, at NYU or Columbia, knew what I might mean by the idealism/materialism split in Western thought. I was so alarmed that I called a philosophy teacher friend of mine to ask her if something had happened while I was off in rehearsal, if the idealism/materialism split had become passé. She responded that it had been deconstructed, of course, but it’s still useful, especially for any sort of political philosophy. By not having even a nodding acquaintance with the tradition I refer to, I submit that my students are incapable of really understanding anything written for the stage in the West, and for that matter in much of the rest of the world, just as they are incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kristeva, Judith Butler and a huge amount of literature and poetry. They have, in essence, been excluded from some of the best their civilization has produced, and are terribly susceptible, I would submit, to the worst it has to offer.
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 Illyich 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.
You are probably unqualified to teach Tolstoy, Kant or Althusser. I am completely unqualified. I am a dilettante, but more or less unapologetic (this is necessary if one is going to be a playwright) and my playwriting students, who spend their time with me reading books, led by a fraud, are being cheated, because there are dozens of people in the NYU system who could teach the material better than I. I must remember that misreading and understanding Kant made Heinrich van Kleist kill himself, so well-intentioned dilettantism can be a dangerous thing. But reading Kant also helped make Kleist a very, very, very great playwright, full of wondrous uncertainty and dazzling irony, and who knows, maybe one of my students will be similarly gobsmacked. Anyone can teach Kant, and I submit to you that we’d all better learn how.
Another presumptuous suggestion: We should turn our students, and ourselves, into activists clamoring for the preservation, restoration and expansion of the NEA. This, too, is enlightened self-interest. Last year a group of students at NYU tried to start a national movement with precisely those aims. It culminated in the smallest demonstration Washington, D.C., has ever seen. But there is far, far more honor in their attempt than in the safe and dignified and disgraceful inertia and inaction of most of the rest of the arts community. Most of us know as much about activism as we know about Kant. But we have no choice in this sink-or-swim world to make an attempt, and to risk everything in doing so.
I think we should abolish all undergraduate art majors. I think whiIe we’re at it we should give a half billion dollars every year to the NEA. I think Jocelyn Elders should be put in charge of the anti-sex campaign. I think Lani Guinier should be the next President of the United States. I think I should be vice president. We should have democratic socialism, clean air, clean water, clean food. Our children, all our children, should feel safe—should, in fact, be safe. The Messiah should come, or should come again, whichever you prefer. Until then, and to hasten his or her arrival, we must teach undergraduate theatre majors how to read Kant.
Even if that means we have to learn how to read Kant ourselves.
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