By Michael Tiemann
Chair, Board of Trustees
University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Education reform is a topic that dates back to at least Plato and the ancient Greeks. Adam Smith wrote about it in The Wealth of Nations. Thomas Jefferson advocated for it as a democratic necessity. Abraham Lincoln effected it by passing Land-Grant legislation that his predecessor vetoed. Maria Montessori informed the subject with scientific evidence that has been validated and reinforced by more than 100 years of subsequent experiments and study. It has become part of my daily work as Chair of the Board of UNC School of the Arts as we reform ourselves to provide artists with a 21st century Conservatory experience. And it is a necessity to achieve the strategic initiatives laid out by the UNC Board of Governors as articulated by President Margaret Spellings in her inauguration address (video link).
But before we accept reform for reform’s sake, we should look at a cautionary tale from the 20th century. A little more than 100 years ago, a prominent Southerner, who would later go on to become President of the United States of America and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, first tried his hand at education reform, starting with this problem statement1:
I suppose that what perplexes every man to-day in every walk of life is the extraordinary complexity of modern life as compared with the life in the midst of which our grandfathers found themselves, as compared with the life in the midst of which the generation immediately preceding ours found itself. The life of the present day is incalculably complex, and so many of its complexities are of recent rise and origin that we haven’t yet had time to understand just what they are or to assess the values of the new things that have come into our life. Not only is life infinitely complex in our day as compared with the previous age, but learning is correspondingly complex. In the old days of the fixed curriculum of the college and the school one could say with a degree of confidence that the elements of these curricula did contain the main bodies of knowledge, by specimen at least. But who can say that any curriculum that can be packed into the years of school life and the years of college life combined contains all the elements of modern learning?
Indeed, Woodrow Wilson’s problem statement is so fitting a description of the challenges we face today that we might expect that, like wisdom from the ages, the solutions he proposed might likewise apply. Alas, the solution proposed by this reformer is decidedly out of step with today’s 21st century values and realities. This is what Woodrow Wilson proposed2:
[W]e want to do two things in modern society. We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks. You cannot train them for both in the time that you have at your disposal. They must make a selection, and you must make a selection. I do not mean to say that in the manual training there must not be an element of liberal training; neither am I hostile to the idea that in the liberal education there should be an element of the manual training. But what I am intent upon is that we should not confuse ourselves with regard to what we are trying to make of the pupils under our instruction. We are either trying to make liberally-educated persons out of them, or we are trying to make skillful servants of society along mechanical lines, or else we do not know what we are trying to do.
As America examines its deep divisions across racial lines, across gender lines, across economic lines, across generational lines, across the rural/urban divide, across labor and management, and especially across educational lines, one cannot read that statement without seeing those lines being more sharply drawn, not less. But he is unapologetic, based on a premise he gives as a preface to the proposition above3:
It is imperative that we distinguish between education and technical or industrial training. And before we distinguish between these two it is necessary that we distinguish between the individuals who are going to take the one and the individuals who are going to take the other. There is no method in American life by which the state or any public authority can pick out the persons to be educated in the one way or the other. The vitality of American life, and the vitality of all democratic life, lies in self-selection; it lies in the challenge put upon all to make up their minds as to what they want and what they intend to do with themselves. It is absolutely essential that we should start with that or we can never have any system of education.
In other words, in America, as long as people are presented choices, it does not matter how terrible or stupid the choices are, because the freedom to make a choice is more important than any options represented by that choice. But freedom to choose from among bad choices does not ensure a moral result. In a zero-sum game, such as the Donner Party faced in the winter of 1846-1847, some may survive only because of great sacrifices of others. But virtually all economists who have written about education agree that education is not a zero-sum game. It is a public good in which the lifting of the individual lifts the whole of society. And indeed we find this thinking enshrined in both the first and second Constitutions of the State of North Carolina.
Article XLI of the original (1776) North Carolina constitution states “That a school or schools be established by the Legislature, for the convenient Instruction of youth, with such Salaries to the Masters, paid by the Public as may enable them to instruct at low prices; and all useful Learning shall be duly encouraged and promoted in one or more Universities.”4 The 1868 Constitution5 was slightly less specific about the scope and goals of education in North Carolina (Article IX, Section 1 states “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”), and much more specific about the costs of such education (Article IX, Section 9, which says “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”). The value of education has never been in dispute, neither in North Carolina nor in America. Yet we continue to fight over access, affordability and efficiency, definitions of student success, optimization of economic impact, and, most frequently, about the quality of the institutions themselves. As if the fighting itself – choosing between a set of wrongly defined options – is more important than defining and achieving better options for all.
President Spellings has made a great start in reframing the debate around the principles that education should be a civil right, and that the UNC System should be dedicated to offering and advancing “all useful learning.” I would like to highlight how UNCSA has anticipated and already incorporated that thinking into our curriculum and our strategic plan.
UNCSA’s School of Design and Production (D&P) is a 21st-century success story. We boast more than 95% industry employment. Our graduates design, build, and manage the sets, lighting, sound, costumes, props, wigs, and makeup on stages around the world. They also produce large-scale non-theatrical productions, pyrotechnic displays, installations, and public exhibitions for some of the most reputable global companies. Each April I look forward to reviewing the portfolios of our students and seeing the progress from first year to fourth year, from undergraduate to graduate-level work. D&P could have been just a training school, teaching students how to hang lights and engineer scenic turntables. But such training does not fully educate a person, let alone an artist. D&P liberally incorporates the liberal arts into its curriculum, which explains why every portfolio presentation reads not only beautifully and imaginatively, but as literate, critical, and intelligent.6 Which explains why our graduates are in such demand that during the spring job fair; there were more than seven times as many jobs offered as there were graduates in our program last year.7 And once in the industry, they excel.
The musical Hamilton, based on research from Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of Alexander Hamilton, created one of the biggest sensations Broadway has ever seen.8 Hamilton exemplifies the synthesis of liberal education and the arts. It set records for box-office pre-sales and earned a record-breaking number of Tony award nominations last year, not to mention a Pulitzer prize for Drama. 36 seconds into a documentary about the making of the musical, Hamilton’s America, Lin-Manuel Miranda explains “I know there are certain actors who are, like, ‘Once I get the wig, once I get the shoes, I know who the character is.’ I don’t know that I’m like that. I do know that my posture certainly changes when I’m in the clothes. But it really doesn’t start for me until I see everybody else in their costume.”
A great costume design not only fits the actor’s character, it creates the visual language that connects the entire cast to one another, to the scenic design, to the narrative, and to the audience. It weaves together not only threads of wool and silk, but hopes and dreams, adversities and loss, triumphs and truths of the whole story. UNCSA alumnus Paul Tazewell (BFA 1986) made the magic happen for Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton, winning the Tony Award the Best Costume Design of a Musical in 2016. Other alumni also won prestigious nominations or awards in 2016 for their work.9 10 11 12
The UNCSA Manifesto states that:
Artists enrich our culture, enlighten our society, lift our spirits, and feed our souls.
Integrative arts education from an early age sparks a lifetime of creative thinking, powerful self-expression, and innovative problem solving.
Rigorous artistic training empowers our students and graduates to engage our communities, advance local and global creative industries, and inspire the world.
Arts organizations improve the quality of life and place in big cities and small communities, transforming them from merely livable to truly lovable.
UNC School of the Arts nurtures the talent, hones the craft, and develops the unique voices of emerging artists. We realize the full potential of exceptionally creative and passionate students to do their best work and become their best selves.
It is a manifesto that recognizes the artist as more than a trained performer, but an active citizen within their community, fully participating with other citizens to make their communities the best they can become.
The UNCSA strategic action plan is a logical consequence of these beliefs: that we can enhance the living and learning environment for our student-artists, that we can launch transformative programs and curricula, that we can foster a quality workplace, that we can become a creative incubator, and that we can catalyze arts-based communities and economic development. These goals are not costs we attach to society, but the dividends we return on what the public invests in us. They reflect a plan for reform that honors the institution, the artist, and the citizens who entrust us with their money.
When it comes to education, we should not seek policies that divide and conquer the curricula, the administration, the teaching, or the role of education within our State. Instead, we should seek to create the best educational system that welcomes the greatest number to become their best selves. And to become whole in the process. That would truly be an honorable service to society, and would represent the offering of an honest and moral choice to every one of our citizens.
1 Woodrow Wilson, The Meaning of a Liberal Education, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Meaning_of_a_Liberal_Education
6 When Shakespeare says “All the world’s a stage,” our designers can respond by making a stage that can also represents all the world as relevant to the interpretation of the play and the players. That is what is meant by a “literate” design.