Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Changing the Riverbed, Part Two: Education and Class

Lately, we've been talking about class and education, and its effect on theatre. First, let me say that my interest in this topic is strong, obviously, and is so because I am an educator in a theatre department who was a first-generation college grad from a working-class family. I grew up in a city of 100,000 that had the greatest amount of industry per capita of any city in the entire United States (Racine, WI). In my family, the main career question was whether you would work on the factory floor or in the office. I started out on the factory floor: I spent a couple years soldering gun barrels together at Sheridan Air Rifle. I didn't finish my undergraduate degree until I was 28 because I had to drop out for several years for financial reasons. I attended the University of Minnesota for undergrad, Illinois State University for my masters, and City University of New York Graduate Center for my doctorate - all public schools. It took me seven years to write my dissertation because I was working a full-time job as an administrator at Illinois State and researching and writing nights and weekends. I am now 51 years old, and I just paid off my student loans last year.

My interest is also strong because I believe in the power of systems to shape day-to-day life. Theatre exists within a economic, social, and political systems that shape every aspect of the art. And the theatre itself is its own system, one that responds to the larger system, but also one that reflects ideology and historical decisions. I do not believe that the discipline of theatre as it currently exists came about "naturally," the inevitable and irresistible result of outside pressures. I have discussed, for instance, how our current centralized theatre system is the result of decisions made in the late 19th century by powerful people involved in the Theatrical Syndicate.

A system is larger than an individual. The things I have written about the system that supports the so-called "Big 7" MFA programs, for instance, should not be seen as a slam about the individuals who graduated from those programs, who are doubtlessly talented and hard-working and deserving -- they would have to be in order to get in and, more importantly, stay in. Nor are comments I've made about the homogeneous nature of that system meant to say that every single person who attends such a program or emerges from such a program is the same, either in terms of their background or their aesthetic. When discussing a system, however, it is necessary to look at the general trend rather than individual cases. The fact that I am employed, for instance, is not a refutation of the fact that our economy is in a severe recession.

The education system in the US is a system, and theatre education, undergraduate and graduate, is a part of that system. For the moment, I am going to discuss undergraduate education, because it is what I know personally, and because it is what I have data about. While graduate education is somewhat different, there are enough parallel to make this illustration useful.

Let's look for a moment at Harvard. Admittedly, Harvard is not one of the Big 7 for graduate theatre education (or at least for graduate work in playwriting), and it would be better to have to hand data for Brown, say, or Yale. But like the majority of the Big 7, Harvard is an elite private school, and the parallels are fairly strong.

One of the things necessary to being admitted to Harvard is the SAT. The idea of the SAT, which is only one part of the admissions process, is that it can serve as a predictor of college success. However, as Nicholas Lehman points out in The Big Test, what the SAT more effectively correlates to is Annual Family Income. Here is a look at the numbers from the College Board's College-Bound Seniors 2004: A Profile of SAT Program Test Takers:

Average Family Income: Average SAT Score
Less than $10,000: 872
$10,000 to $20,000: 887
$20,000 - $30,000: 926
$30,000 - $40,000: 960
$40,000 - $50,000: 989
$50,000 - $60,000: 1005
$60,000 - $70,000: 1017
$70,000 - $80,000: 1033
$80,000 - $100,000: 1057
More than $100,000: 1115
What you're seeing here is the effect of privilege I discussed in a previous post: quality high school or private prep school, good teachers, abundant extra-curricular activities (because Harvard will look at that, too), likely an SAT prep course -- all adds up to a 250+ point increase on the SAT.

Now Google "Harvard SAT Scores," and you will come up with this answer on WikiAnswers: between 1400 and 1580 -- this represents the middle 50% of incoming freshmen; 25% scored lower than 1400, and 25% scored higher than 1580 (remember, 1600 is a perfect score). Got an 872 SAT that is the average score for students from poor families -- good luck with that. You better have a backup. Following Lehman's assertion about the SAT tracking family income, how does that average Harvard SAT correlate with incomes for the families of Harvard students? According to Walter Benn Michael's book The Trouble With Diversity, "almost 75% of Harvard students come from families with incomes over $100,000 per year," compared to 20% of America in general. And a whopping 90% of Harvard families have incomes over the median US family income of $54,000. So there is definitely a preponderance of upper-middle class and wealthy students.*

How does this affect racial diversity? According to the Fall 2008 Harvard Fact Book, there are 20, 320 undergraduates enrolled. Of those, Asian/Pacific Islanders represent 12.8%, Black/Non-Hispanic 6.3%, Hispanic 5.2%, and a variety of other ethnicities less than that. In fact, all told the White/Non-Hispanic portion of the Harvard student body is only 43.1%. So if you were sitting in a Harvard class and looked around, about six out of ten students would be non-White, and you'd think "Man, this place is really diverse. That is so cool!"

Unfortunately, class isn't visible. If it were, and all students whose family made more than the national median income were green, you'd feel as if you were in an Astroturf factory. Everywhere you look, green green green. So while Harvard's students are phenotypically different, they have in common two things, as Michaels notes: "very high SAT scores, and, not coincidentally...wealth."

To my mind, this sort of undermines the claim for diversity at Harvard, even though it has a student population with races represented roughly according to their proportions in the US in general, and is the 40th-ranked university in the US for diversity. Nine out of ten of the students all share the same economic background, the same experiences of American society, the same privileges. Now, it could be that at the graduate level in theatre programs this trend is totally reversed because of the emphasis on talent, and to some extent this is probably true, but not enough to reverse the overall trend: there is probably a good amount of racial diversity, but a pretty above average group economically.

This is why, at meetings like the one I attended at Arena Stage, there is a reluctance to include a discussion of class as part of diversity, because all of a sudden most of the room turns green, which kind of takes all the wind out of the conversation. During the Harlem Renaissance, W. E. B. DuBois rested his efforts to affect racial equality on what he called the Talented Tenth -- the elite of the African-American community. Today, Harvard culls its student body from exactly this group.

This is the problem with the Big 7. Graduate schools have a tendency to draw their students from a pool that got their undergraduate degrees from similar elite schools. If you look at the well-known contemporary playwights who are old enough to have gone to school when playwriting graduate programs were becoming well-known (born after, bsay, after 1960 or so), you'll notice something that they have in common: most went to elite prep schools or high schools in wealthy suburbs, and/or they went to private elite undergraduate schools. Doesn't matter what their race. Several of them come from families of modest means, others come from wealthier backgrounds, but one thing they have in common is that they spent their young adult lives among the privileged. And that just isn't diverse.

It's something we don't like to acknowledge, because we like to think it is all about talent. But the road into the profession is pretty narrow, and follows a pretty specific path.


* By comparison, at the University of Michigan or University of Illinois, both public institutions, 40% of the families of students make over $100,000 -- about half as much as Harvard, but still pretty wealthy compared to the US population in general. College is increasingly a middle-class and wealthy activity.


silent nic@knight said...


I'll return to this in more detail later, but for now this statement is false in my experience re graduate theatre programs.

"This is the problem with the Big 7. Graduate schools have a tendency to draw their students from a pool that got their undergraduate degrees from similar elite schools."

Scott Walters said...

I look forward to it. Before you return, take a look at those playwrights who have been acknowledged as important. I looked at the Pulitzer winners, and most of them came from elite backgrounds or went to elite undergraduate schools. Not the same elite school as the grad program, but another elite school. Again, we're looking at the track, and the general trend.

Ron Bashford said...

I also haven’t found graduate programs in theater to be especially tied to the Ivy League. To the extent that they may be, I would suggest it's not about a system track, but about those schools’ commitment to excellent programs at all levels, grad and undergrad. Your post simply doesn’t provide enough relevant evidence to demonstrate your implications.

Also, grad school admissions are quite different than undergrad admissions, in all fields. And if you don't give a good audition, it doesn't matter where you went to college. Also, the top grad schools employ arts professionals, usually not academics who are tied to undergraduate programs at the same institutions.

It makes sense that well-known playwrights of a certain generation went to competitive schools. Is this surprising? Maybe those places were good places to learn to write, and to learn about literature and culture more generally. But that doesn't tell much of a story, does it? And the field is more diverse than it used to be. This also has to do with the market of audiences for plays. I think that culture plays as much of a role as some “system”.

Diversity is a laudable goal at the undergraduate level, and the class of schools you mention have been working pretty hard at it in recent years, though change takes time. I would suggest that they are further along than you imply, at least in demonstrated intent. Harvard now charges no tuition for students with family incomes under $40K. Amherst now has eliminated loans entirely. Socio-economic diversity among all races is now a firm goal at elite schools. But academic excellence also matters. They can't do it alone, but what they have been doing recently is pretty impressive.

In fact, the elite schools that also have superior financial aid resources provide more learning experiences in the area of diversity than do more homogeneous non-elite schools. Diversity is about getting real people together to exchange views and engage in negotiations. It's not only about trends or tracks, or statistical snapshots taken out of historical context. What good is a school’s "diversity" if it doesn't put the affluent face-to-face with the less affluent? That’s where real cultural change can take place, and it’s happening at elite colleges and universities. There is still room for improvement, but it’s happening. Look who’s president. He didn’t grow up affluent either. And he went to Columbia and Harvard over twenty years ago. Probably got a good education at those schools, too.

You say it’s not all about talent, and you are right. The competitive grad programs in theater are not Hollywood talent scouts. They require demonstrated evidence of adequate preparation, aptitude for further training, and a history of commitment and achievement. It’s not surprising that a competitive undergraduate education that includes literary and cultural understanding -- and a competitive attitude -- would be an advantage.

Furthermore, such programs are not cosmetic in their orientation; they teach real skills to real people. But I don’t know how many students currently enrolled at Tisch or Yale went to elite schools. Do you? By was of anecdote I can tell you that I know a Tisch grad actor from a lower middle-class background who went to Chico State, a Yale grad designer from a middle-class background who went to UMass. I also know an African-American woman who is currently in the grad program in directing at Yale. She went to Princeton, but I don’t know her economic background. She did, however, assistant direct the recent production of Joe Turner on Broadway, which probably looked like a good qualification. She’s very down-to-earth, whatever her family income may be. I also know a current acting student at Yale from a working-class background. He went to the University of Tennessee, and likes to go hunting with his dad.

You might be interested in this, too:

Scott Walters said...

Ron -- Your defense of the "elite" grad schools is missing the point. First of all, you are right, Harvard has eliminated tuition for students whose family makes less than $40,000 a year. The point is that 90% of their students' families make over the median income of $54,000 a year, so that represents a pretty small number. Furthermore, as the SAT data showed, SAT scores, which are used for admittance, track family income, and Harvard has SAT scores that are through the roof. When you add in several other criteria used for admissions -- rigor of academic curriculum (i.e., whether the student took college prep courses) and extra-curricular activities -- the weight is swung toward elite prep schools or public schools in wealthy suburbs, because inner city and rural schools can't afford to devote resources to special college prep courses and extra-curricular activities. Go to NCTC, Ron, and check out where the students are from. What you'll find is that you are not recruiting "talented students," but rather talented and well-funded theatre programs from a very few schools in NC. What you are ascribing to talent and hard work is actually a system of privileges that leads to the "peak," which is the elite MFA programs. What then happens is that graduates of those programs, who often are initially accepted into the grad program because of their connections combined with their ability to afford to take low-paying internships, find it much easier to gain entrance to The Profession, and so the privilege continues.

If you would skip back to my posts starting on December 9th, and then also follow the Twitter discussion that accompanied the original Arena Stage convening on "defining diversity" (the hash tag is #newplay), you will get a better picture of the discussion, which is about getting more diversity IN THE THEATRE ITSELF. My contention is that until we broaden the pathways to the profession, diversity in our regional theatres will never happen. Until we stop thinking that our current system is totally based on merit, and acknowledge instead the many varieties of privilege that leads to success, we will simply be tinkering at the edges.

I believe that the realities of class is a bigger problem for theatre than race, gender, or sexual orientation. When you throw in the geographical bias, it becomes quite clear how narrow our theatre has become, and why the theatrical fare on regional theatre stages is so homogeneous.

Ron Bashford said...

For brevity's sake please excuse my sarcasm in response to your passively voiced obviating:

You must be right. Life is unfair. Just a few select data make this very clear. No need for individual stories. Time to be right. The system must be changed, especially one that doesn't include us all. Since merit is suspect, it's a myth that we value excellence; we are deluded by the system.

We can't think or act for ourselves. Our values are corrupt because we are deluded. The fact that social justice has not been achieved proves that. We are victims of the system. What's authentic diversity? Class. Anything else is trivial. What we need are people of insight who understand how the machine really works. When enough people are convinced, the system will change.
Unless, of course, people have other interests. Individuality is pesky that way.
That's not a promotion (or understanding) of diversity, Scott, it's armchair neo-intellectual fascism, dressed up as liberal earnestness. And it's exactly what a portion of the academy you decry promotes, elite and otherwise.
Create your utopian, egalitarian non-professional theatre Scott, and I'll come. There's room for whatever anyone has the guts and cleverness to create.

ukejackson said...

Scott, I'm enjoying you're line of thinking here, and in part 1.

Today in my blog I wrote a piece titled 'Class Warfare and Corruption in the Pennsylvania Arts "Community" and Beyond'.

If you have time, I'd love to hear what you think:

alanna said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Thomas Garvey said...

Scott, I'm interested in, and applaud, your consideration of class in the arts and our elite colleges. Still, one has to wonder - is there data showing that the high end of SAT scores tracks family income? Because obviously, since Harvard doesn't accept many applicants with average SAT scores, the data you show may not be relevant. Also, it would be nice if you could suggest a method of admission acceptance that was more "objective" than the SAT - after all, remember the SAT became popular in part because its standards actually offered a way around the prejudices entrenched in the college admission process. Which leads me to the most glaring aspect of Harvard's class-bound consciousness, and one which you don't even mention: its legacy admissions. Legacies have declined somewhat in recent years, I understand, but they're still there at almost all the elite schools. In effect, kids of alumni are held to a less exacting standard than others. This more than anything helps keep Harvard's privileges all in the family.

Scott Walters said...

Thomas -- Your point about legacy admits is well-taken, and something that is so patently unjust (although financially lucrative for Harvard) that I didn't even mention it. It would be interesting to see what percentage of the lower 25% SAT scores comes from legacy admits. Your question about whether the SAT scores continue to track income as they reach higher is a good one, and I don't have that data. What you are asking, I gather, is whether "giftedness" is an outlier without a connection to income. I may not be able to get that info until after the New Year, since the school library is closed for two weeks. As far as a different model, yes, I do have an idea, one I'm stealing from someone else (I have to try to find it -- I think I blogged about it a couple years ago), and in some ways it might also be a way to approach play submissions or hiring. I'll post it soon.

Ron -- I consider it quite an accomplishment to be a neo-intellectual fascist AND an egalitarian. Shows I can multitask.

I'm sorry you don't find my data as persuasive as individual experience. I'm certain that, when you attended grad school, you were given the family background, high school and undergrad data, SAT scores, and FAFSA records for your fellow students, which would, of course trump data from a neutral source. Dopey me.

More to your actual complaint, yes, I do believe that creativity should not be a specialist activity that is sold to a passive populace. I actually think creativity is something that is broader than a handful of MFA's. How fascist of me.

joshcon80 said...

Thank you again for this.

In all my writing on this subject I think what is most surprising is how much some people do NOT want to talk about this or acknowledge it.

Scott Walters said...

Joshua -- I don't find it surprising at all. We are all taught the American Dream, which is that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough. We don't want to admit that the game is rigged, particularly if you have managed to get a slight toehold. Nobody likes to feel privileged, especially when it feels like life is a struggle. And it is a struggle -- there is no doubting that making a career in the arts is a very, very difficult thing. But it is more difficult for some than for others.

Thomas Garvey said...

There is, however, a sting hidden in some of that data, I imagine - I've heard that the "lower bound" for legacy admissions is roughly the same as it is for athletic scholarships and yes, those controversial "affirmative action" placements for the disadvantaged and underserved ethnic groups. You can see how intentionally complicated the admissions process thus appears. Of course why we need "affirmative action" for athletes and rich white kids is anybody's guess. To my mind, a policy of legacy admissions should result in a university being ineligible for any and all federal aid.

Kate said...

I have a couple thoughts-- and again, my experience in theater today is a bit more New York centric I think than yours just since that's the community I live in. Also, as a non-musical theater artist living in New York, my experience is also not very Broadway-centric. Ok, disclaimer done. :)

Here's one thought I have about the theatrical landscape and why it seems to be several steps behind everything else:
Working as an artist is not like most other industries. The retirement age for successful people (particularly playwrights and directors) is practically non-existent. Most of these guys (usually white and usually past the age of leaders in other industries) also teach, so then they send their disciples out into the world, have them assist on projects and THESE people (often students from the elite institutions that the big dogs get great pay from because they are "top" of their field) go out and direct and write in similar ways to their mentors. Add to this how difficult it is to make a living and be financially successful as a playwright, director or actor and the pool is reduced again (I believe that the magical potion for success in theater is a combination of talent, who you know, how long you can stay in the game and luck). So is the creative field teeny? Yup. The biggest "secret" is that because it takes so friggin' long to gain any traction and make a reasonable living, if you come from money (or somehow came into it) and can float yourself until you work starts working for you, you have a distinct advantage. I agree that money helps you "make it"-- not so sure it's MFAs and class (though people with money often come with the latter two). And really not so sure it's Harvard that helps at all, mostly because I think SAT or no, if you want to be a theater artist and you choose Harvard for undergrad you're dumber than you look on paper. :)

Kate said...

"I actually think creativity is something that is broader than a handful of MFA's. How fascist of me."
I'm assuming you mean playwrighting MFAs (correct me if I'm wrong). I absolutely agree with you. The work I see here in New York is vibrant, varied, not always playwright driven, edgy, political, and incredibly underfunded.
How do we expand the thirst and interest in the audience beyond just the aristotle play model that us rich kids are taught? How do we get money so that the artists don't have to have it themselves? I think that's the question that will help and encourage the artists who do not have many financial options. MFA is one symptom, general cultural ignorance and disinterest in performing art is closer to the disease.

Kate said...

Ok, last thought on this (I promise):

SATs are a smarts measuring stick that need to go anyway, if you ask me. They do not encourage any kind of creative or critical thinking. I did ok on mine, on the low end for my undergrad, but I'm not the kind of person who really cares to figure out how to do something that won't help me in life. Learning to read between the lines of a standardized test has NOTHING to do with your aptitude, your chances of becoming a leader in your field or how much you'll inspire your professors, your classmates and eventually your colleagues. It's just learning how to read between the lines of a standardized test... and the people who do the best are the people who pay the testing company to take the special class that will only teach them to take the test. It's like Stop and Shop charging people to take a class on how best to navigate a grocery store. It doesn't really matter whether you're really fast at it or not. It only matters if when you take the grocery shopping test you get a high score so that means you have access to the super yummy stuff in the back or something. It's just a way for the testing company to make more money. Many big colleges don't require them anyhow. This is beside the point on your class argument, Scott, but I just wanted to vent a bit about it.

silent nic@knight said...


Thanks your diligent research and data on the Harvard undergrad. However, your speculations and assumptions of how any of this applies to the Big 7 graduate theatre programs is pure conjecture.

But before you qualify it, you do make a statement in which I am in total agreement:

“Now, it could be that at the graduate level in theatre programs this trend is totally reversed because of the emphasis on talent”

Exactly. The quality of the audition or play submission is the primary determinative for admission to these graduate schools. And there is nothing more democratic than this "American Idol" method. (probably "classless" also, in both senses of the term)

You are googling a few Pulitzer winners’ backgrounds. And I only have anecdotal evidence from the pool of playwrights I know personally. Neither is authoritative or expansive enough for forming any assumptions and speculations about the backgrounds of the playwrights attending these Big 7 graduate theatre programs. So without any real data there is no real point in arguing our beliefs on this.

Anonymous said...

I'm very interested in the conversation about diversity in the theater, both as it applies to racial and economic diversity. But really, it's all about variety of experience, right? I mean, that's what we're going for, ultimately. We want to be inclusive of all experience.

Now, I can't speak for everyone who has come out of a graduate theater program, but I can speak for myself and, to an extent, my classmates. I'm currently enrolled in one of the "Big 7" programs and I'm putting myself through it. And I have it on fairly good authority that most of my peers are as well, and I'll tell ya... it's not because our wealthy parents are shelling out the dough. On the contrary, most of us are working one or two jobs and have leased our limbs for student loans. Some of us were lucky enough to receive fellowships or scholarships or we're trading work in the theater spaces for tuition reimbursement. Not only that but there is a huge variety of experience in my group (3 continents and 5 countries are represented in a graduating class of less than twice that number). And only one of my classmates went to an Ivy League undergraduate program.

I understand that we don't want theater to be an ivory tower -- I know that's not the business I dream of working in -- but I also don't think that we can point at one thing and say, "This! This is what is to blame! We just have to fix this!" Regardless of whether "this" is class or race or gender or sexual orientation. And I don't think that pointing at the people who are working their asses off -- and we are doing just that, trust me -- out of love and passion and devotion... I don't think pointing at our schools and saying they are to blame is worthwhile either.

If I had to offer an answer, I would say it's all about education. Unfortunately, I haven't come up with anything brilliant beyond that. But I will certainly try to do so.

Anonymous said...

Please show us the facts that support the claims made in the paragraph below.

"Graduate schools have a tendency to draw their students from a pool that got their undergraduate degrees from similar elite schools. If you look at the well-known contemporary playwights who are old enough to have gone to school when playwriting graduate programs were becoming well-known (born after, bsay, after 1960 or so), you'll notice something that they have in common: most went to elite prep schools or high schools in wealthy suburbs, and/or they went to private elite undergraduate schools. Doesn't matter what their race. Several of them come from families of modest means, others come from wealthier backgrounds, but one thing they have in common is that they spent their young adult lives among the privileged. And that just isn't diverse."

It will help your argument - particularly if you deal in trends, not individual cases.

Anonymous said...

Still waiting for the facts.... any fact relating to your case that everyone who goes to these grad schools "spent their young adult lives among the privileged."


Mr. Academic Guy.... please show us your scholarship.