Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dumbing Up

by Paul Gordon Emerson

There is a tendency in arts education -- maybe in most education -- to "dumb down," to assume that people, particularly children, won't get it if you challenge them. It seems to come from a place of insecurity. Not the insecurity of the people to whom you are presenting, but of the people doing the presenting. And its never, ever the right answer. And, if there's a place where its even more not the right answer, its with kids. If anything, you have to dumb up. You have to take your preconceptions as an "adult" who "knows" and raise the barre from what you think they're going to take in. 

I remember as a kid always having that reaction when some adult was talking to me. Anytime someone who was 20 years or more older than I was said "you'll understand this one day" I wanted to either crawl under a rock or hit them with the rock. 99% of the time I got it then. And, as Josh liked to say in West Wing, my IQ doesn't exactly break the bank. If I got it, then all those kids in front of us week after week are just as able to get it. More, probably. 

Whatever it is that makes us talk to kids like they're suffering from some sort of cognitive dyspepsia, where challenging them just results in intellectual heartburn, we are constantly reminded by our audiences that we've got it wrong. If you talk to them like they get it, then they'll go with you, and they'll not just get it, they'll get on it. They'll take a story in. They'll take the enchantment you offer and do it with enthusiasm. If anything, kids have a "bull____" meter that is better than ours as adults. 

Jungle Books has been a clear and present reminder of this. From the 5 year olds at the front to the 11 year olds at the back, their questions are smart and their attention to detail is startling. And they are completely willing to be enchanted. Its really just a matter of making sure that we, as the people at the front of the room are genuinely willing to, interested in and inspired to do the enchanting honestly and with passion. If you offer that, if you offer the best story, at the highest level you can manage, dancing and story-telling for 400 kids goes from being a challenge to being a delight. Why we make it more complicated than that -- that's the question, and the place where we get dumb ourselves. Maybe we should just make sure every performer spends a show sitting in the middle of the audience. 

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