• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

Title

I’d Rather Learn How to Create Than to Criticize

What should colleges be emphasizing to their students -- creation or criticism?

November 19, 2019
 
 

As much as I loved my own college experience, and as grateful as I am to my professors, I wish I had spent more time learning how to be a creator rather than a critic. It’s a story best summed up by my experience doing an independent study with a faculty member who held a dual appointment in the departments of theater and education.

It was from her that I had my purest education in critical theory. We read Paulo Freire, bell hooks and Augusto Boal. Even though many of the theorists we read had devised strategies of constructive change, my professor never got to those in our sessions. We focused on the critique, the diagnosis of what was wrong, not the solutions.

Toward the end of the semester, my professor invited me to attend a dress rehearsal of a play she had written. Children are one of the most oppressed groups in our society, she told me, so she wrote a play her my graduate students that put kids at the center of things.

I attended, made notes throughout about all the ways that the play itself was a tool of oppression, and then during the talk-back session at the end, I stood and read off my list. At the top of the list was a critique of the scene where one of the kids, after a fight with a parent, retreated to his own room to review his thoughts and feelings. The intention was to show the child’s perspective to an audience that might instinctively sympathize with the adult. But I was primed for critique, so I stood up and scolded my professor and her graduate students -- in front of the entire audience -- for racism and classism by writing a character that had his own room. “What about all the families where kids don’t have their own rooms? Or the families that don’t have houses? Don’t you realize that your play is only further oppressing them?”

The cast stared at me in disbelief. There were no more questions or comments from the audience. My critique had been the first word, and the last.

It took a couple of days, but the email that I knew was coming finally arrived. My professor said that her students, who had worked so hard on the play, were deeply hurt by my comments. She was hurt, too. Why hadn’t I offered constructive suggestions, she wondered? Why had I been so merciless with people who had worked hard to create something positive?

I started typing a response, something like, “I was basically doing what you taught me to do. In virtually every study session we have, you tell me to look for things that are wrong and have the courage to point them out. Isn’t that what I did after the play?”

I don’t remember if I pressed “send” or not.

I am, of course, embarrassed by that moment. I also wonder why a professor who was clearly a skilled creator -- in this case, of theater -- had spent an independent study with me emphasizing critique rather than creation. As I look back on it, I wish I had been in the class that wrote that play. I would much rather be part of a small, imperfect improvement on the world than a macro-level purist critique that makes the people doing the hard work of human-level social change feel bad about their contribution.

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