My whole view on the progressive vs traditional debate in education was formed during the late 80’s and early 90’s as a beginning teacher of drama. I would argue that more than any other subject drama was affected by this debate and that the ramifications still continue to this day.
Dewey’s ideas that children learn best by doing and that play and problem solving were vital for childhood development best encapsulated through the arts influenced a generation of educators. This found its way into drama education in the newly comprehensive schools not through the teaching of theatre or drama as an ‘Art-form’ with a capital A but as a movement that saw drama as a way of raising issues to engender empathy with the overall aim to feed revolutionary struggles and the ultimate overthrowing of the bourgeoisie. The West End Theatre and other ‘theatre’ was dismissed as hopelessly middle-class so a new form of drama had to be made. Distinct and different, It had to reject the ‘tradition’ of theatre, and also the idea of authority itself, most obviously in schools.
Of course this movement had to be shaped by a tradition and it found it in Brecht and other ‘alternative’ theatres – all proudly of the left. ‘Theatre in Education’ could on the one hand provide propaganda for revolutionary causes, in an ‘agitprop’ form and could also ‘involve’ the young audiences in empathising with the oppressed, or recognising their own oppression. Debate was more central to this movement than the quality of the art, and, it has to be said, the debate was heavily biased towards a certain political view.
This method inspired the notion of the ‘actor-teacher’ or ‘teacher-in-role’, where the educator divests themselves of the authority of the teacher and takes on, instead, various types of character to transmit the thinking that would frame the debate. Methods grew from this such as ‘role on the wall’, ‘hot-seating’, ‘still-image’, ‘thought-tracking’, techniques that had little to do with the ‘art of theatre’ but everything to do with enabling children to express their feelings and opinions within a restricted frame of reference. Children were expected to ‘think correctly’ about issues around status and power, they were ‘expected’ to take the side of the downtrodden and express misgivings or hatred of those who were the oppressor. This was simplified Brechtian theatre, where critical awareness was to be encouraged as long as the criticisms were directed towards the bourgeois class. These drama lessons were rehearsals for a new society and a vehement critique of the way things are and were. That drama teaching in many schools was offering an antithetical approach to society and to authority could be seen as problematic by those in power and, maybe, they were bourgeois and this drove them to see this ‘type’ of drama as being manipulative rather than emancipatory.
For many schools, especially the new comprehensives, this was drama, not the ‘bourgeois’ ‘speech and drama’ which was associated with that other, equally disquieting, form of social engineering: deportment and diction, where young soon to be ladies and gentlemen learned to hide their origins through an emphasis on stamping out dialects rather than engendering a form of dialectic.
The drama in education world began to split into various groupings in the eighties, the hardline political left in drama education continued to see it as a revolutionary form, the more liberal types saw it as a therapeutic, child-centred, revolution of the individual and the other, maybe, more bourgeois saw it as an art form encapsulated in the school play, often Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan. Trying to keep all these different and competing ideologies together would be very difficult. As drama became an increasingly popular examined subject, exam boards tried to devise ways of encapsulating these different forms, often at odds with one another. Many boards enshrined the ‘still-image’ etc. as being part of the art of theatre and managed to ignore the rest of the history of the art form that, in the Western tradition, went back to, most notably, the Ancient Greeks.
Into this maelstrom came the 1989 book ‘Education and Dramatic Art’, in which David Hornbrook argued that because of its history educative drama was tied to progressive education and revolutionary politics and that this was denying pupils the knowledge of a great and historic ‘art-form’, his argument, though rooted on the left, perhaps echoing an argument more akin to that of Bourdieu and Gramsci, sent shockwaves through the drama education community. This was when I entered the world of drama teaching, Hornbook was roundly attacked by the revolutionaries and the child-centred progressives, what heady days! That he attacked Gavin Bolton and Dorothy Heathcote (famous for their works, such as: Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert (1995)) and the whole drama in education tradition was for a new teacher extremely invigorating and, I must say, I agreed with much of it.
Drama is first and foremost an art form, and that includes theatre, film and television. Drama in schools should mainly be about the art of theatre as an end in itself. Music is not often taught as a way into Marxist revolution and though all the arts can be individually and socially significant it should be through the study of the art forms themselves that these secondary effects are most keenly felt. As a teacher I was inspired by contemporary theatre makers like Theatre de Complicité, I brought these methods into my work, yes I loved Brecht but found him a far more interesting and ‘dialectical’ figure than the watered down version that he seemed through the drama in education tradition. The history of theatre is rich and varied; that drama in education got caught up in a political and social cul-de-sac, has made it something that, in some schools, has always been on the periphery of the curriculum. It has certainly been viewed suspiciously by those who wrote the various National Curricula, which, actually, was a Godsend for those of us given the opportunity to devise our own curriculum. That drama is not part of the Ebacc is a disgrace but of no surprise, though, in this, it is accompanied by all the arts subjects, social engineering is never pretty no matter who tries to do it.
Where drama as a subject is of most value is when it is seen as an art form that examines what it is to be human in all its variety, politically, socially, philosophically, physically, and poetically. Where drama as a subject is of least value is when it is seen as a social and political exercise in which the teacher has already made up his/her mind as to what the outcome should be for each child, whether through bourgeois or child-centred socialisation, or revolutionary political indoctrination.