What is the role of arts education in public universities, especially during tough economic times? Is drama an “after school extra” or an integral part of education for younger students?
Theater studies are disappearing at the University of the District of Columbia — see feature report — as part of a plan to “right-size” the university, focusing students on majors leading more directly along a “job” path.
UDC is in a “21st century version of the Booker T. Washington/W.E.B. DuBois struggle. [The District has] no concern for development of the mind, to live as a constructive citizen. [We’re] getting a lot of pressure to move away from broad education and just train for jobs,” according to the Faculty Senate minutes.
This action makes such studies less accessible to residents with limited finances. DC residents lose an affordable path to careers building directly on drama experience — sound engineering, lighting, arts management, drama therapy, and theater in schools — as well as other fields, such as business and politics, which benefit from drama background. In addition, curtailing theater in higher education delegitimizes the field as a serious academic endeavor, discouraging younger students from pursuing it…. all this in the second largest theater market in the country, behind New York City.
Meanwhile DC Public Schools are reducing funding to arts programming for preK-12 students, reducing exposure to one of the fundamental tools of human expression. Arts are regularly treated as a “luxury” to be cut whenever funding is tight, instead of as an integral way to engage students.
Is there a way to turn this trend around? Can community members convince officials that a broader view is essential to rounded education? Do parents believe that arts are essential?
Listen to the May 23 edition of The Education Town Hall. Add your own comments below.
Deborah Simmons, award-winning correspondent with the Washington Times and regular voice on The Education Town Hall. Deborah is a longtime, sharp observer of DC’s education landscape.
Julia E. Christian, who directs the Anacostia Playhouse, soon to be opening near We Act Radio’s studio, also says is a right-brain learner who thrived through active, arts-based education.
Katie Ryan added perspectives of the Theater Alliance, currently housed on Good Hope Road and soon moving to the Anacostia Playhouse.
“It’s dangerous what you’re teaching these students. Self-expression, much good that’s going to do them. They’re Negroes. The world will only give them so much.”
This speech appears in a new work of historical fiction by local playwright Jacqueline Lawton. Set in the 1940s, “The Hampton Years” follows the intertwining dramas of Jews attempting to start a new life after the Holocaust in Europe and African American students attempting to carve out a place in the unwelcoming art world.
Margaret and Viktor Lowenfeld, fleeing Austria, reject a position at Harvard to settle in Hampton, Virginia, an isolated spot for Jews. There Viktor struggles to establish an art department, over administrative opposition, at what was then Hampton Institute. He helps launch careers of students including muralist John Biggers and sculptor Samella Sanders Lewis.
Drawn initially to the career dramas, Lawton says, she didn’t initially realize how much of the Hampton story was about fighting for the arts themselves and their importance in education. And she didn’t expect to find herself in the midst of a parallel story. But that is what happened.
As a visiting professor at the University of the District of Columbia, Lawton watched the theater program struggle and then disappear. She was left, not unlike Viktor, supporting disheartened students in an environment that devalues their work, while battling to keep arts education accessible at the only institution available to many students.
Spring Faculty Senate minutes describe the UDC situation this way: We’re in a “21st century version of the Booker T. Washington/W.E.B. DuBois struggle. [The District has] no concern for development of the mind, to live as a constructive citizen. [We’re] getting a lot of pressure to move away from broad education and just train for jobs.”
In other words, Lawton reports, “I’m living my play.”
The article, “Booker T., W.E.B., Hampton, and UDC: A 1940s arts drama replays in 2013,” appeared in the April edition of East of the River and is available on-line. Since the article’s publication, the Theatre Arts minor Lawton helped develop was removed from UDC’s website.
– Virginia Spatz
for the Education Town Hall with Thomas Byrd
We Act Radio, WPWC 1480 AM
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