Danielle Weiser-Cline Sees Live Theater as Inspiration in Education

Some people may regard live theater as a frivolous luxury. But Danielle Weiser-Cline sees it as crucial to effective education and essential to civic engagement in a democratic society.

Even more fundamentally, she regards live theater as a component of ‘human flourishing.’ Aristotle defined this ancient concept — the inventor of logic — as an effort to achieve self-actualization and fulfillment within the context of a larger community of individuals, each with the right to pursue their own purposes in life.

Weiser-Cline is Director of Enrollment Management and Student Services at Kent State University Geauga Campus. She is also in the dissertation phase for a Ph.D. in Cultural Foundations of Education at Kent State University. Her area of research is the educative aspects of live theater, and her dissertation will focus on how K – 12 student access to live theater performance educates for civic engagement in a democratic society, particularly in rural communities.

She presented a paper, “The Arts and Human Flourishing: Thinking Educationally About Theater,” at the 2019 Ohio Valley Philosophers of Education Society Annual Conference in September. Weiser-Cline discussed the ancient Greek philosophy of human flourishing within the context of education and its role to inspire students toward responsible citizenship, self-improvement, and civic engagement.

This humanities-based concept has fallen out of favor in recent decades, Weiser-Cline explains. Instead, metrics-based achievement measurements, as exemplified in No Child Left Behind legislation, have overtaken educational philosophy.

“Nowadays, education is more economics-focused, gearing students toward work training rather than learning for curiosity’s sake,” she says. “Even our elementary school students are being told they need to know what career they plan to pursue by fifth grade.”

As she advises college students at KSU-Geauga, Weiser-Cline helps them to reach beyond their “connect-the-dots worldview of economics and scheduling convenience” when they have decisions to make regarding Kent Core electives. Rather than choosing a course that dovetails directly into their chosen career path, Weiser-Cline encourages students to use this opportunity to delve into another subject that they find most interesting and enjoyable, so they can nurture “a love of learning for learning’s sake. I want to ignite their love of learning, which is truly innate but is gradually lost over time as we get older and are taught to follow certain pathways.”

True to the ideals of ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, Weiser-Cline is appealing to a holistic approach to education, where each individual has a purpose, and the function of each life is to attain that purpose or calling. Accordingly, earthly happiness or flourishing can be achieved through reason and the acquisition of virtue. According to Aristotle, every person has a natural desire and capacity to recognize the truth, to pursue moral excellence, and to work out their ideals through action.

Live theater is just one avenue to achieve these ideals, but Weiser-Cline says that current events are a testimony to its effectiveness. She argues that theater works to increase audience awareness of others, and this awareness prepares the public for participation in the American democratic process. She points to the fact that 40 percent of the student activists who survived last year’s mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and went on to fight for stricter gun laws were theater students.

“Their participation in theater and the arts gave them the ability to stand up and say unpopular things because they understood this was an exercise in democracy,” Weiser-Cline says. “Theater involvement is an engaging, collaborative process that equipped them to manage projects and time, see others as equals, coordinate talents, and get things done!”

Weiser-Cline sees this example as a reflection of her own skillset: pulling information together from disparate sources like education, theater, and democracy to establish a call for shared understanding of the power of theater to create better citizens from our youth. Providing easier access to the arts in general — and live theater, more specifically — is the first step toward this ideal.