Michael Stauffer

Theater: A Way of Knowing in the Liberal Arts

Michael Stauffer  

Dr. Michael Stauffer 

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time.”

                                                                                      ...F Scott Fitzgerald


In order to accomplish this difficult task one must possess a healthy sense of self-living in the community of others and a deep curiosity about the nature of world in which he lives. This knowledge is the product of a liberal arts education that provides the opportunity to explore what it means to be deeply human in a context that can help him function purposefully within the local and global community.

To hold two opposing ideas in your mind requires the attitude that there may be differing perspectives on an issue that may require careful and thoughtful consideration. The recognition of this diversity of thought and opinion is created out of a respect for the other. It creates a richness of experience that will expand one’s life and may lead to a greater sense of fulfillment.

The most important thing I do as a professor at a liberal arts college is to facilitate opportunities for my students to notice the world in which they live and to act on their moral responsibility to do something about what they see. As we seek to educate whole and effective Christian young adults, we must design an educational experience that will provide these students with opportunities to develop self-knowledge, social responsibility, aesthetic appreciation and global awareness.

While working on this education, the student will gain tools that will equip her to function as an essential and necessary part of her local and global community. These tools include the ability to experience empathy for the other and to act out in compassion for the other. It requires acting out of the courage of conviction that is developed out of a set of core values that are embedded as habits of the heart. These habits are best embedded through the practical experiences one gains in an education that is able to move beyond a product orientation to embrace an ongoing process of exploration and development.

Nachmanovitch suggests that we often make the mistake of confusing education with training. “Training is for the purpose of passing on specific information necessary to perform a specialized activity. Education is the building of the person.”

(Nachmanovitch 118) As educators and mentors we are certainly interested in assisting our students to find employment that will support their ongoing development and sense of fulfillment, but our emphasis is specifically placed on developing the vocation – the sense of calling that will create meaningful ongoing understanding of the context in which they will need to find this employment.

“To educe means to draw out or evoke that which is latent; education then means drawing out the person’s latent capacities for understanding and living.  Education must tap into the close relationship between play and exploration; there must be permission to explore and express.” (Ibid)

Theatre in the liberal arts college serves as a laboratory to explore and practice those skills that can lead to an embedded value system, a sense of self worth and ability to see the world more clearly, more honestly. This practice is the entry into direct, personal and interactive relationships. It is indeed an essential ingredient of any thriving community.  It is the linkage of knowing and action. (Nachmanovitch 73) Practice comes from playful, compulsive experimentation and from a sense of wonder. Practice becomes an essential part of the creative process. In practice, the student is able to play with ideas that may lead to a clearer understanding of herself and the communities to which she will commit herself throughout her life.

As a place of encounter, theater generates necessary dialogue – both physical and vocal. Dialogue is about getting people to talk and listen. There is a need to be in conversation, an opportunity to explore our similarities and differences. A liberal arts education is about establishing and continuing this dialogue, and a dialogue assumes different points of view. (Hutchins in Borstel and Lerman 36) Theater in this liberal arts context gives the student an opportunity to try ideas, actions and responses on for size, to experience vulnerability that she may not allow herself to experience so freely in the real world of professional expectations.  The primary activity of dialogue is to see things as freshly and clearly as possible. (Bohm in Hosking and Hutt 36) In so doing, theater serves as a laboratory, expanding the definitions of what it means to be deeply human.

Dialogue is not about winning an argument, but involves suspending judgment and listening with on open mind – “it is based on the assumption that by sharing all points of view and exploring new possibilities, we can learn from the difference and create common wisdom.” (Fritts in Hosking and Hutt 19) Such participation develops a range of requisite tools necessary to function effectively in community including: attentive listening, the capacity to enter into the world of  “the other,” receptivity and empathy. The work requires the capacity to “hold” complexity, enter into the unknown, allow vulnerability and accept strong feelings.  In so doing, courage, spontaneity and flexibility are needed. (Hoskings and Hutt 24) These are the virtues that we would certainly want to see learned and demonstrated in our students as practicing members of their functioning communities and are the outcomes of an effectively facilitated liberal arts education.

Theatre is an essential part of the Christian liberal arts curriculum because it provides one of the only laboratory experiences for the students to explore what it means to be deeply human. Values become embedded – becoming habits of the heart, when students are given the opportunity to personalize them – to put them into practice. Theater then becomes a lab experience to intentionally “rehearse” the necessary virtues of life, which are at the heart of any effective liberal arts education.

Works Cited:

Borstel, John and Lerman, Liz, Critical Response Process, Takowa Park, MD:

            Dance Exchange, Inc., 2003.

Hosking, Bev and Hutt,Jenny, Playback theatre: A Creative Resource for

            Reconciliation, Boston: Brandeis Univ., 2003.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen, Free Play – the Power of Improvisation in Life and the

            Arts. New York: Tarcher/Perigree Books, 1990.