Teaching as a Primary Practice

Imagine if teaching were a central value, a touchstone of our culture. Imagine if pedagogy were considered a core practice, perhaps even the most central practice, and the achievements of art and science were understood as secondary to the transmission of knowledge, including embodied knowledge.

Focusing on teaching as a primary practice puts the emphasis on the long term. It also tends to deemphasize what individuals may be capable of through talent or luck, and points instead to what remains possible over time (from generation to generation) because of the care invested in hundreds or thousands of unique teacher-student relationships.

That teaching is not currently valued in this way  is everywhere apparent, not only in the continual encroachment of standardized tests on primary education but also in the lack of financial support for projects of teaching and transmission. Grants for performance have been steadily shrinking over the past decades — but grants for high-level pedagogical projects are a figment of my personal imagination.

One manifestation of pedagogical questions is the gap between hard-core technical training and the more recent (historically speaking) notion of critical thinking and education as a crucial part of democracy. For me this is just about the most fascinating question in the performing arts today. There is such a clear schism between, on the one hand, the seemingly archaic “training” practices of conservatory schools, a few performance ensembles, traditional song and dance lineages, and the military; and on the other, the new “contemporary” generations of visual and performing arts, which have so strongly rejected technique, discipline, and craft in favor of direct engagement with the socio-cultural moment.

Two approaches to education and to the place of pedagogy in society? A search for or negotiation of the balance between pedagogy as training / kn0wledge transmission and pedagogy as a practice of freedom, empowerment, and mutual discovery? What do teachers know? What do students learn? I have had this conversation so many times, in so many different contexts. Still it seems muffled, underground, unnoticed. Whereas I believe it is a central question for our times.

Urban Research Theater has organized a four-day intensive workshop in theatre/performance (August 2-5) with guest teachers Kameron Steele (The South Wing); Brooke O’Harra (Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf); Gian Murray Gianino (SITI Company); and Daniel Irizarry (Columbia University); as well as Maximilian and myself. Each teacher will offer one or two introductory training sessions, and in the evening will discuss or present excerpts from their work.

I would like to think that this kind of workshop represents a step towards the moment in which theater (in the U.S.) will catch up to dance (in the U.S.) in its tackling of questions of pedagogy and transmission. It would be great to have some MR folk there.

Ben Spatz
Artistic Director
Urban Research Theater
MR-AIR 2010-2012

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