The seminar course from which this unit grew was entitled, "Ethnicity and Dissent in American Literature and Art." Nine fellow New Haven Public School System teachers and I perused novels and poetry, and examined visual art, comparing thematic treatments of growing up with a cultural heritage and beliefs different from those of the prevalent culture. We looked at the power of culture to determine roles and even identities through acculturation, hegemony, deracination, normalization, and the telling of selective histories. We surveyed cultural histories of African-, Hispanic-, Japanese-, and Native-American writers and artists. All told stories of opposition, resisting the identities forced upon them.
I teach Theater at Connecticut's only public arts high school, Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School, (Co-Op.) The students come from fifteen different towns, selected through a lottery system, to train themselves in a discipline of the performing, visual, or writing arts. The student population is broadly diverse in all respects. Many ethnic, educational, and economic backgrounds abound. The biggest challenge, in all of the five classrooms I facilitated this past year, was getting the students to work respectfully and cooperatively.
The students, when asked to divide themselves into work groups, or when eating lunch in the cafeteria, socializing or seating themselves at school assemblies, will usually align themselves with the same race or ethnic background as themselves. In the classroom, many students display hesitance to speak freely of their own cultural values and beliefs. Likewise, they are very reluctant to take creative risks because they fear that their being different will exclude them from belonging to a particular group, or set of peers. Their reticence leaves them reserved to the point of not seeking self-actualization, and to the point of mocking differences among other students.
In the theater classroom, the imagination is viewed as a muscle that needs to be stretched. Stretching comes through taking creative risks. Taking risks can be scary, as it usually entails delving into the unknown. Each student must feel safe and supported to even consider taking creative risks. These kids are afraid of taking necessary leaps into their own imaginations. Reasons why they feel this fear, and allow it to dictate their reserved behavior, have been postulated for centuries. It is evident that mass culture acculturates them to not deviate from the mainstream. The teenagers internalize the values of extreme self-consciousness, instead of self-actualization.
An influential and insidious form of hegemony in the United States is perpetuated by the entertainment industry collectively represented by Hollywood, and by mass media creating mass culture. We are a society, according to mass culture's formative effect, of hypocrisy and paradoxes. Often, the student's decorum both at school and in society reflects mass media's influence. Their behaviors do not reflect the paragons of the public school system, nor the values which their families attempt to imbue, nor the ensemble environment achieved in the theater classroom. These examples of behaviors are generated primarily through the acculturative effects of mass media, industries whose primary goal is financial gain.
Television programming, the movie industry, and even the newspapers allegedly exist to entertain and edify viewers and readers. Their purpose is to generate financial recompense to the promoters and sponsors. Do adolescent viewers realize this? The writers of such television and cinematic scripts do not necessarily believe or proscribe to what the characters are saying, and very different principles may guide the writers' actual lives. Mainstream America has a set of values dictated by completely fictitious, and often scurrilous, characters. So how can the values of these characters be readily applicable to our lives?
In the case of public television and documentaries, students still require more exposure to systems of critical analysis to evaluate the premises and information purported. According to Dr. David Walsh, founder of the National Institute of Media and the Family, "who tells the stories defines the culture."1 Today's children hear many stories, but usually through electronic media, and not in person. Dr. Walsh conducted a survey which revealed that the average American teenager spends 37.5 hours a week in front of a screen, including computer games, the Internet, and television, and only 1.5 hours per week speaking with their parents.2 In my curriculum unit, the participants will learn the importance of questioning authority in the context of dispersing information.