Being Better

I don’t often play the citation game in these blogs. Usually I’m rambling about this, that, or the other thing. Or another other thing. Last week I was writing about oxen for goodness sake. This blog is madness.

Anyway, I’m moved to share a quote with you that moves me. This quote has shown up in a bunch of my recent academic articles. For those of you who read my scholarship. Or any scholarship at all for that matter.

The quote comes from W.E.B. Du Bois. A pretty smart person. I stumbled on the quote years ago, and I continue to return to it in my thinking about improv, race, learning, and pretty much everything else. Get ready for a real academic citation. Prepare yourself. Gird your loins. Here goes:

DuBois (1940/1997, p. 222) wrote of anti-racism that “simple knowledge” will not “reform the world” and, instead, people “must be changed by influencing folkways, habits, customs and subconscious deeds.”

Whew. Did that last paragraph feel academic to you? Let’s double down here in my quest to remind you that I’m a professor. Here’s a citation:

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1940/1997) Dusk of dawn: An essay toward an autobiography of a race concept. Transaction Publishers.


Okay, now I’m going to do the thing where I write about the words I just cited. Hashtag scholar.

Du Bois wrote that, in order people to resists racism, knowledge isn’t enough. Folkways, habits, customs, and even the subconscious has to be changed. Information is helpful in urging us to change. But it isn’t enough. Our subconscious has to be different. We have to be moved to move through the world differently.

Look, Du Bois was writing about race in the United States. He was very smart about race. And I’m convinced he’s right. We have to live differently to resist racism. Which is why I’m not a fan of simply sitting through a workshop about race and pretending that knowing more changes the way people live. It’s more complex than that. What is? Everything. Always.

This quote by Du Bois also makes me think about improv.

It’s one thing for an improviser to know that they should say “yes, and” during a scene. Or that they should be non-evaluative. It is a whole other thing for them to actually do it. I’ve worked with improvisers as a teacher or a director for years. There seems to be few things harder than helping improvisers to say “yes, and” or to participate without evaluation in their work. Even if they say they understand before they get on stage. It’s not a matter of saying the right thing. It’s a matter of being changed from the inside out and actually doing the right thing over a sustained period of time.

Which of course has lots to do with teaching and learning.

So I’m not convinced by discrete moments where people say and do the thing they are supposed to. You know, tests. Instead, I’m moved by people who are transformed in habit, deed, and subconscious towards something different. This is true about race, improv, and pretty much anything else.

There’s the part where I write about the qoute.


Du Bois was smart.

Here I am living my life in 2022. In these fine United States. The country feels like a powder keg. A basic knowledge of history should illustrate to you that the sort of polarization and nationalistic loyalty to political party we are seeing here always leads to death, destruction, and desolation. And yet people keep doing what they always do. Hurting people who are different than them and, in so doing, hurting themselves.

Democracy is an experiment in doing something differently. Dewey wrote that laws and constitutions are all well and good, but democracy (or the work of sharing power in a society with others who are different than you) lives within people and is won or lost at the level of the heart. In the subconscious. Not in an election.

Here, I’m going to be a scholar again. More citation. Here is a quote from one of the final talks Dewey gave. This was as fascism was spreading through Europe, just before World War II started and Europe, so far as I see it, tried to commit collective suicide. Here you go:

Dewey (1939/2021) wrote the urgent task ahead is “to get rid of the habit of thinking of democracy as something institutional and external” and “to realize that democracy is a reality only as it is indeed a commonplace of living” (p. 61). Dewey wrote these words as fascism spread through Europe. Dewey described the work of building democracy as “one that has to be carried on day by day” and that it must “go beyond what exists” and “continually open the way into the unexplored and unattained future” (p. 62). In other words, seeking democracy is a disciplined and improvisational quest after a future that cannot be predetermined.

Want a reference? Why not:

Dewey, J. (1939/2021). 9. Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us (pp. 59-66). Columbia

University Press.

Woof. Du Bois and Dewey are smart. The heart of both of the passages above, to me, is the idea that we need to work hard not to hurt ourselves or others. That’s worthy work. Whether you call it anti-racism, democracy, or just not being a jerk.

That’s what I’m after. Not being a jerk. Worth work. Hard work too. That’s why I like quotes. They help me in the difficult work of trying to be better.

Now, one last thing before we finish. And this is very important. Gird your loins is an insane thing for me to have written above. Can we all agree to that, at least?

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