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What Values Matter In Arts Grad Training Programs?

This weekend Scott Walters quoted an extensive comment made on another blog about the value of MFA acting programs. The gist is, students are ill served by the programs which need to focus on training students for 21st century opportunities.

This struck a chord with me because I had recently read a Fast Company article about how UC Berkeley’s Business School started to screen applicants based on whether they embodied the school’s core values. The school had decided to embrace these values in the interests of creating a “reduction of overconfidence and self-focus, which are perceived to be excessively present among the business graduates and leaders of the top business schools.”

At the time I read it, I was idly wondering if arts training programs at the master level might do something similar to address any perceived (and real) problems with those they graduate. It had been a long time since I was in grad school so I didn’t feel I knew enough about the state of things write a post about it. Having read Walter’s recent post, I am no more certain than before since it is the view of a single unidentified commenter. I do feel fairly confident in assuming that, as with most things, there is room for improvement.

I will readily admit that given my ignorance of the state of things, I don’t have any concrete suggestions about they might be done differently. I will say that one thing that stood out in the Fast Company piece was that Berkeley-Haas instituted significant changes in their program based on their stated values and then required their applicants to adhere to them.

Most remarkably, they are not simply communication tools but drive operations from the curriculum, research priorities to staff programs, and faculty hiring. The curriculum, for example, has been extensively revamped in order to introduce elements of creativity, innovation, collaboration, ethics, and social responsibility.

They made sure they embodied the values before they required the students to do the same. It would have been much easier for them to decide to implement the change by altering their admission criteria and assuming that choosing the right students would result in producing the right graduates. But that is less likely if the infrastructure surrounding the students doesn’t emulate and reinforce the values the school wishes to cultivate in its graduates.

Successful realization of any goal is easier for any entity if all members are aligned toward attaining it. Probably the most powerful thing an arts training program can do to convince applicants that it can prepare them to ply their craft in the current environment is to point to a major realignment of priorities to that end.

As the commenter that Walters quotes, SayItLoud, notes, theatre training programs often cite successful graduates and places their students have worked or can intern at. As impressive as that is, the reality is the path those graduates took to success may no longer be viable.

What training programs may really need to do is say to applicants, “We’ve changed ourselves from top to bottom and what success requires now is to push you off the conventional path. This is not the place to pursue training in becoming a triple-threat, actor/singer/dancer. You may have become a video editor/painter/acrobat or a ecologist/architect/percussionist or all six plus four things we aren’t mentioning. Do your interests, values and practices align with ours?”

At the very least, it will get everyone thinking about the whole training process. Given that the current conversation is that arts organizations need to change the way they operate and interact with audiences, you aren’t leading students astray by telling them they need to obtain a wider spectrum of skills. Like as not, they will be the ones helping to drive the change with the types of works they develop.

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