Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sir Ken Robinson on Miseducation and Creativity

Watch this video. It's absolutely brilliant.

That said, I wish there was a Q&A session at the end in lieu of a standing O. I have some reservations. I totally agree with Ken Robinson's assessment of the problems with our education systems and the root causes of those problems. I also sympathise a great deal with his critique of the disembodied mind (see my recent post on smell). That said, I think it's too simple to say that the education system is unilaterally responsible for the quashing of creativity in young people. There's something too idealistic about this idea, too Rousseauean, too rooted in the social sciences fallacy that we are all born equally gifted and inclined and it's only our environment that determines whether we turn out smart, artistic, or what have you.

I firmly believe, and science supports this belief unequivocally, that people's differences are fundamental and to a great extent hard-wired. If all children are creative, then they are creative not only in different ways, but also to different degrees. Call it a creativity quotient. No matter how much encouragement I might have received--and I did get some--and no matter how much training I took and how diligently I practiced, I would never be more than a competent musician. I am fundamentally incapable of musical brilliance. (Similarly, I was a very hard working athlete as a young man, but no matter how hard I worked at it--particularly baseball in my case--I could never be as good as more talented athletes, who were taller, stronger and faster than I was. I was good, but I worked twice as hard to get half as far as the star players.) Most people are. Most people, by extension, are probably also incapable of brilliance (or creativity, according to Robinson's definition of it as having "original ideas of value") in any endeavour. I expect that puberty, as much as or more than education, is a major determining factor in the decline of imagination and creativity amongst the least creatively inclined children. Brain and body chemistry change and with those changes come shifts in priority, and most kids who don't see painting or pottery as a good way to get laid aren't going to bother much with it.

Conversely, the kids with a higher Creativity Quotient can't have it bludgeoned out of them by an unimaginative school system. I went to an exclusive private school for grades ten to thirteen, a place where the future investment bankers, lawyers, doctors, software programmers and politicians were molded. And I did extremely well there, in the terms dictated by that place and its system: I scored high marks, played team sports and was given a leadership position as prefect in my final year. My road was paved with golden bricks to the career of my choice. And yet, even after a very successful undergraduate career, I wound up not doing what Robinson says the system was designing me to do--being a university prof--but loading airplanes, serving food and drink and writing poems.

Maybe if the education system wasn't as fundamentally uncreative as it is, I would have followed a different path. But it is that way. And I don't know if it's possible, on a mass scale, for it to be any different. Because for it to be different, it would have to be run and executed by, you guessed it, creative people. And if all people aren't equally creative, which they aren't, you're going to run out of creative folks long before you've got the system staffed. So while I am in fundamental agreement with Robinson's perspective, I'm not optimistic that it can ever be widely implemented, particularly not with the centralised bureaucracy of governments and school boards. In other words, it's only apt to happen in isolated private schools (and here, to be fair to my old high school, they had exceptionally good drama, music and arts curricula and extra-curricular activities), which makes this excellent, imaginative education available only to the economic elite (no surprise that Robinson's services are much in demand in the corporate sector and that, as a Knight and no doubt a wealthy man, he is mainly talking to and about other people in society's upper crust) or those poorer kids lucky enough to get scholarships (as I did; I wasn't poor, but my private education nevertheless put my parents--who believe in the value of public education in theory but saw how poor it was in practice--into debt, for which I will remain grateful forever).

In our present political climate, with most politicians--or at least those getting elected--gung-ho about cutting taxes and reducing spending, it's hard to see this changing for the better in the near future. Not many of our best and brightest go into teaching because a) the system stinks and b) the pay's lousy. Hard to blame them. The former factor has to be a greater one, since many teachers are willing to take a significant cut in pay to teach in private schools. And most teachers in the public system would rather be in well-funded schools in well-heeled neighbourhoods than in the inner city educational jungle.

That said, I think everyone has had those memorably excellent teachers in public schools that have made a difference to the course of their lives in one way or another. This is cause, if not for hope, then at least not to despair. Because people are willfully perverse by nature, there will always be teachers willing to do too much work for too little pay. They deserve an enormous amount of respect.


Anonymous said...

i think the main point of his SKR's critique is that our culture is set up to write off mistakes as failures, that mistakes are negative and unallowable. feeling wrong as a child, especially in school, can be debilitating. your assessment seems to run parallel with the multiple intelligence theories howard gardner. i have my own struggles with experimentation and allowable failures as an artist.

Zachariah Wells said...

Yes, but this reasoning begs the question of what a culture is, doesn't it? Why does "our culture" write off mistakes as failures? Who set it up thus? In evolutionary terms, it makes a great deal of sense for animals to see a mistake as a failure, since a mistake can very easily be the difference between life and death and premature death is the ultimate failure because your genes don't get passed on. This is hardly unique to "our culture" in the west. It is in fact quite a bit more permissible to err and wander here than in many Asian societies.

The evolutionary argument for why we censure error is latent in SKR's argument, but he doesn't acknowledge it. He's saying that our culture is this way because of industrialisation, basically. Perhaps so, but this is a superficial analysis. More fundamentally, it's that way because parents want children, the bearers of their DNA, not only to survive, but to thrive, prosper and reproduce. And children themselves come to want that, once their brains have developed to a certain point. We are geared, most of us, not to want to stand out, but to get along.

In a society driven by art, maybe you wouldn't see this sort of suppression of the artistic drive. But as a species and as individuals, we haven't evolved to build societies driven by art. If we had, we would likely have become extinct by now! There's a reason why a commune of artists is utopian and ultimately unviable. The human world needs rude mechanicals. Yes, they can be creative in their own time, but not too creative--not obsessive about it in the way of artists--or they won't want to fix toilets, hammer horseshoes, or what have you.

The artist, as such, is a pretty rare creature, and for good reason. Artists are not typically very "well-adjusted" people and are often quite imbalanced (more prone to mental illnesses and substance addictions). There is quite probably a biochemical reason, or at least a significant causal factor, for why one kid becomes a painter and another a plumber. Maybe a plumber who paints. And maybe a plumber who paints brilliant, daring, original canvasses. But probably not.

What SKR does is reify his version of "creativity" as superior to a less sexy sort of productivity. I tend to agree with this, but it's very much a personal point of view and I'm not about to dismiss or despise the p.o.v. of someone who values a hard day in the mines more highly than my day of celestial musings and fiddles with syllables.

Again, SKR's argument comes from a privileged place and applies to privileged people, and I wish that he acknowledged that. But I guess that would make his speeches less inspirational. And less useful to the upper tier of corporate capitalists. Yes, we do need more integration of creativity into general life, but you're only going to get it from basically creative people. Everyone has a creativity quotient, just like everyone has an intelligence quotient. It's hard to quantify as data, but this seems to me to be a no-brainer idea that only needs the law of averages for support. With the right kind of training, you can enhance people's creativity quotients, but only to a certain point. It's a fallacy to think you can raise anyone to the level of artistic genius and that the only reason people are one way and not another is something abstract and amorphous like "society" or "the education system."

Mel said...

If, tomorrow, we decided that basketball was a game that consisted of rims ten inches high instead of ten feet high, with a ball the size of a tennis ball instead of one the current size, we'd have an entirely different set of superstars, and entirely different set of the "talented." Your ostensibly innate ability to be creative - at baseball, or basketball, in this case - would not have changed...the way society decided to construct the phenomenon changed.

Thus, it becomes clear that most of the time our notions of what/who is "creative," of "talented," is a social construction...nothing ostensibly "natural" about it. Saying different social constructions advantage varying physical and cognitive attributes is entirely different than saying some folks are born "more creative." I'd like to see us exhaust the comparative take on any list of social constructions before leaping to breeding, a habit we have that springs from the need to categorize, particularly rampant in our culture, our daily ways of seeing and thus being in the world...

Zachariah Wells said...

This is fallacious, Mel, because society doesn't randomly decide to change basketball. The game you are describing sounds ridiculous, no one would want to play it and no one would want to watch it.

Athletic endeavours of any sort are best carried out by athletically gifted people. Many professional athletes are not merely specialists, but were drafted to play several sports. Wayne Gretzky was drafted by a major league baseball team, for instance. Had he played baseball, he probably wouldn't have attained the same level of dominance he did in hockey. But he was still good enough. Athletes possess exceptional strength, speed, vision, reflexes, cardio-vascular systems, endurance and/or rapid decision-making skills. These are not attributes valued because of social constructions. You can say they are, but these are animal virtues.

In your parallel world of ten-inch hoops and tennis balls, there would still be people more innately gifted than others. If playing ten-inch tennisball was sufficiently important for survival and genetic success, the species would evolve to be better and better at it. But a game such as ten-inch tennisball is particularly unsuited to animals the size of humans, so that's never going to happen, Mel.

At any rate, I said that "If all children are creative, then they are creative not only in different ways, but also to different degrees." This allows for your ten-inch tennisball scenario, or any other, while acknowledging the undeniable fact that some people will be better at it than others. And this will not be the result of a social construction.

And Mel, just where do you suppose "social constructions" come from, anyway? Thin air? God? Come on.