Friday, May 22, 2009

Reflections on the Picasso Affair...The Incurious and The Unserious

First, a fact or two. Three shows over May 16-18 drew a grand total of 11oo people. As a result, somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four thousand dollars was donated to a scholarship fund for LHS students.

Not one person supporting the ban on the play consented to appear on the Sunday panel discussion. Whether any such persons attended the play is unknown; certainly the most public figures in the controversy ie... superintendent Larry Glaze, complainants Melissa and Bret Jackman, school board candidate John Sprenger and pastor Tim Gerdes did not even though I had entreated each of them personally to do so. The latter individual did telephone me the day after the show closed asking me when the show was going to open and where he could get tickets. Incredulous, I collected my wits and informed him that the show was over. He paused and said rather weakly, "Well, I hope the dialogue can continue." Indeed.

While I freely concede that the decision to go to a play is a personal choice and should not in and of itself be made some kind of litmus test, in this case I am struck by the irony. The aforementioned persons and all of those who stood with them were united in their determination to prevent members of their community (1100 of them it turns out) from staging and participating in a high school theatrical experience which they felt would be worthwhile and educational.

Presumably, the play banning crowd would have stayed away under any circumstances, but since they advanced in a very shrill and public way the argument that the play was terrible, that it was unfit for high schoolers, that it would corrode the moral development of the young people involved, one would have thought that at least some of these people, moved by intellectual honesty and a desire to have all the facts would have at least subjected their claims to the test of experience. Not one of these people will ever be able to speak from first hand experience about what the play actually turned out to be, even though every one of them had the opportunity to do so.

Alas, it seems that the actual experience is irrelevant to such people; it seems that they would rather cherish their prurient, sensational and speculative claims about the experience to the more nuanced and unmediated thing itself. I have begun to think of these people as the The Incurious and The Unserious. It is not that TIATU are incapable of being serious. They are in fact most grave about certain matters of doctrine and policy, but they are wary and mistrustful of experience. The TIATU prefer to manage and massage experience, to make it conform to their expectations rather than be surprised or (heaven forbid) enlightened by it. They prefer their educational objectives to be sanitized, bureaucratized and, if at all possible, measurable.

We are, it seems to me, at an epistemological stalemate here. Notwithstanding the enormous amount of support shown for the play by the hundreds of enthusiastic community members who gave the actors standing ovations and who applauded not just their performances but their educational odyssey, there are members of the TIATU highly placed in our educational establishment here in La Grande, including the middle school, the high school, the school board, and the university who are committed to preventing such educational experiences in the future. These people both espouse and model a view of learning that is divorced from the world of experience and the spirit of inquiry. There's nothing new under the sun for them to learn; it's already been written down and there are no new chapters waiting to be authored.

But a lot of the young people I work with are animated by a belief that there are discoveries to be made, that their gifts and talents may serve to bring something new and beautiful and meaningful into this world. I could, I suppose, just remind them that there is nothing new under the sun, and urge them to do a quality reprise of some old standard (and sometimes I do just that) but nothing beats going an adventure into the unknown with an intrepid group of young people. It's impossible to predict in advance just what the lessons of such an adventure will be, but, if there is an integrity of purpose and if there is good faith, one can trust that the lessons will be worthwhile for all involved. Chief among those lessons will be the importance of integrity and good faith in our dealings with one another.

It is always illuminating and often poignant to witness high schoolers grapple seriously with difficult and complex problems. Putting on Picasso at the Lapin Agile afforded me an extended opportunity to observe and sometimes shape my cast and crew members' approaches to solving problems. Because they are young, they are prone to mistakes of judgment, to lapses of good sense, and to impulsive and sometimes intemperate behavior with other people. But given the opportunity and the time, they learn about such things. One of the great rewards for any coach is the opportunity to witness such growth. They are not exactly the same at the end of the journey as they were at the beginning. And even if they are not radically different individually, they have been transformed as a group. What they have learned, however, is more than they can tell. They cannot yet verbalize it for it resides within a deep experiential level that is not easily reduced to words.

The skeptic might be tempted to say, "How convenient! An outcome that cannot be verified or evaluated and therefore beyond or above any attempt to dispute it." To which I would reply, "Fine. Don't trust me; trust your own eyes. Go to the play, watch how the kids perform, appreciate the scope of their effort and the quality of the results, and see what the evidence suggests to you.

That would, of course, require a curious and a serious mind.

We educate children, but we graduate adults. We adults would do well to reflect on just what that means.


Anonymous Linda D. said...

After talking to a friend about the play (who didn't see it) she wondered what my son thought of it because he had told her that he thought it was a little inappropriate (after reading the newspaper etc..). So I asked him what he thought after he saw it and he responded "It wasn't inappropriate in fact it wasn't how it was portrayed in the paper at all". I made him go because his sister was in it and he really liked it. As a side point, Gregg and I were watching U-Tube versions of other productions of the play and couldn't help to think that our actors were better then all the ones we saw (I'm talking about community adult cast versions). You did a fantastic job with helping them to develop into their parts. As certain people said "this play will affect these children for the rest of their lives" and I think they were right but not in the way they expected. Thanks for everything Kevin and All!

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Madison said...

"We educate children, but we graduate adults."

I think I see tshirts in the near future...

10:44 PM  
Blogger isha said...

by the way congratulations!

it's interesting-- as I was reading I kept noticing similarities with the attitude of some of your "protestors" to the attitudes of some of the hondurans I know here.

In general there seems to be a lack of creative thinking, and an un-willingness to accept something "un-traditional"

I've been on this fairy-tale research kick lately, and it's interesting how parts of society have constantly said "back to value, back to morals" when in reality the past was usually less moralistic than the present is. (at least with regards to the original gruesome fairy tales)

at any rate, I wonder how much religion trains the mind that way. As a mormon/LDS I believe in current revelation. god gives me new laws for today and can help guide me with "current understanding". Catholics and many other religions don't believe in current revelation (although I guess the pope kind-of counts) and I wonder how much that carries over into other"no new technology can be good" and such.... I'm not saying that religion is to blame, I'm just making comparisons.

Most of Honduras is catholic, and the religion is much more involved in moral-setting and government than in the states. We see HUGE problems with lack of ingenuity/creativity, lack of political will, etc.

anyways, just some un-edited musings...

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found your blog and just want to congratulate you on the play. I recently moved here and was really saddened and disturbed by what happened with the suppression of free speech and yes, the spirit of inquiry and education in this community. It was a wonderful play- the students did a great job. I actually wrote a letter to the local newspaper about it, and it was not published. I think that we need to look at experiences like this to help us understand why we have excellent students here who want to get out of this town as soon as possible (the actor who played Picasso, for example) and go somewhere like the U of O where they will get a real education and develop their minds. At least EOU's student Democrats stood up and supported this play so that it could be performed here on campus. I can't say the same for the President, although I deeply wish I could.

3:33 PM  

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