The Dangers of an MFA: The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself before Applying

“Those who know they’re valued irrespective of their accomplishments often end up accomplishing quite a lot.” —Alfie Kohn

In Feel-Bad Education (And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling) Alfie Kohn talks about the dangers of traditional education. One of his essays, titled “Unconditional Teaching,” made me stop and think about the potential pitfalls of an MFA:

All of us want our students to be successful learners, but there is a thin line that separates valuing excellence (a good thing) from leading students to believe that they matter only to the extent they meet our standards (not a good thing). Some people elevate abstractions like Achievement or Excellence above the needs of flesh-and-blood children. Thus, by steering extra resources to, or heaping public recognition on, students who succeed, we’re not only ignoring the counterproductive effects of extrinsic motivators, but possibly sending a message to all students—those who have been recognized and those who, conspicuously, have not—that only those who do well count.

Nel Noddings made a similar point in discussing the kind of teacher who pushes students relentlessly but also praises those who manage to live up to his high expectations (“You are the best!”). Such instructors are often admired for being both demanding and encouraging. However, if “You are the best!” just means “You can do A.P. calculus [or literary writing],” then this suggests that only those who master differential equations [or “serious” writing] are “the best.” Surely, says Noddings, “a student should not have to succeed at A.P. calculus [or literary writing] to gain a math teacher’s [or writing teacher’s] respect.”

Or consider those educators, particularly in the arts, whose professional pride is invested in the occasional graduate who goes on to distinguish herself as a well-known novelist or violinist. There is a big difference between trying to help as many students as possible cultivate a love of, and some competence at, one’s field and trying to sift through many hundreds of students in search of the very few who will later become famous. The latter suggests a profoundly antidemocratic sensibility, one that sees education as being about winnowing and selecting rather than providing something of value for everyone. And, again, all students realize that they matter to such a teacher only if they measure up.

My point is not that we shouldn’t value, or even celebrate, accomplishment. But paradoxically, unconditional teaching is more likely to create the conditions for children to excel. Those who know they’re valued irrespective of their accomplishments often end up accomplishing quite a lot. It’s the experience of being accepted without conditions that helps people develop a healthy confidence in themselves, a belief that it’s safe to take risks and try new things.

I am clearly skeptical of traditional schooling—I tend to value experience over certificates—but Kohn brings up an important question every writer, no matter her stance on schooling, should ask before applying to an MFA program, and that is:

Why do I want to apply to an MFA program?

The question is obvious, but it’s difficult to answer honestly. Look at “The X Factor” and “The Voice,” for example. How many people audition in the hopes of “breaking out” and becoming the next “big thing”? I’d venture to say every single one of them. And that isn’t bad; it’s human.

The problem is, they’re so focused on becoming the next Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood or Jennifer Hudson that they forget why they started singing in the first place—which was hopefully because they loved it, it made them feel whole, and they wanted guidance on how to make singing even more a part of their lives.

And the problem is compounded by the coaches. They are not, as Kohn says, trying to help as many singers as possible “cultivate a love of, and some competence at, [singing].” Instead, they are literally ditching singers every week, sifting through hundreds of them in search of The One.

I realize these shows are contests and meant to be entertainment, but that’s exactly why they’re such excellent examples of the hypocrisy in many arts programs.

So, returning to the above question: Why do I want to apply to an MFA program?

Is it because you love writing and it makes you feel whole and you want guidance on how to make it even more a part of your life? Or is it because you secretly hope you’ll be discovered and become the next George Saunders, Jay McInerney, or Mary Karr?

Once you answer that question, don’t stop there. It’s just as important to flip the question on its head and ask:

Why do the MFA programs want me to apply?

Are they truly looking to help the writing masses cultivate a love of their craft, or are they only looking for their next starlets—the handful of applicants who might make it big?

While no answer here is inherently bad (depending on your point of view), it’s still important to be honest with yourself so that you don’t end up doing something that is hurting you far more than its helping, having forgotten why you started writing in the first place.

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3 thoughts on “The Dangers of an MFA: The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself before Applying

  1. If writing is in your soul and you want guidance, then an MFA is not (necessarily) a bad idea, but people should never forget that it is only a starting point. It’s not the destination. Find a good, well-respected program with qualified instructors. That’s an education that might actually help someone become a better writer. Most of the 700% increase in MFA programs in the past 30-40 years are merely degree mills, which as you point out, can do more harm than good.

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  2. Fascinating post and one I can definitely relate to. While I think there are some benefits to an MFA, those benefits often only apply to a small segment of the writing population as a whole. I often tell people that MFA programs are generally very good at serving a very small group of writers very well. (I’m one of those rare few writers who actually needs the MFA in order to do my job.) But for the vast majority of writers, grad school isn’t necessarily the best fit, and it’s often touted as the only viable option. This is why I’m such a fan of alternative avenues for education, particularly in the arts.

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