Wednesday, September 5, 2012


A business seminar. An economist, a marketing consultant, a professor, a manufacturer. All have been asked to give their views on how businesses can get the best results in the near future. The economist says "get a more predictable regulatory climate from the government." The marketing consultant says "hone your brand." The professor says "keep an eye on what happens in Europe." The manufacturer says "be creative."

Of all the answers, I am most struck by the manufacturer's. I am surprised by it. But even more surprising is his expansion on it: "More testing in schools isn't going to produce creative people."

"Have I heard him right?" I wonder. It's not what I expect a manufacturer--conservative in dress, manner, and probably politics--to say. After all, isn't it the business community, more than any other, politically pushing the idea that more testing equals more learning? Didn't the standards-based idea that produced No Child Left Behind and the current testing regime get its muscle from the business community? Sure, there were regular Janes and Joes interested, but face it, this is the US of A, where Business is the only voter that really matters.

But is Business saying something different now? Are they thinking, "Oh, standards--that's so nineties!" Whether there is a retreat from the testing regimen or not (I listen for the sound of brakes being applied by the massive educational bureaucracy), the manufacturer at the seminar is far from being alone. Nor is it exactly breaking news: IBM's 2010 CEO survey indicates that the 1500 CEO's surveyed "now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics."

A Newsweek article from the same year invoked the survey and added a gloomy warning of American educational decline, not in achievement, but in creativity. The article mentions an American educator describing the current testing regime for his Chinese counterparts, and they laugh at him, saying that America is moving in the direction of the old Chinese system of education.

(I hasten to say that this is not a criticism of teachers. Nothing makes me cringe more than Pink Floyd's gratuitous "Hey, teacher! Leave those kids alone!" Teachers are the front-line soldiers, the grunts of a misbegotten war. If you want to hear a passionate account of the myriad missed opportunities all but guaranteed by the foregone conclusion to the power struggle between teacher and unwilling student, talk to a teacher. Or watch the movie The Class and put yourself in that guy's shoes.)

You don't have to look very far to see that schools aren't just not good at creativity, they are in many respects quite bad. Here are a few examples: marching band, marching band, and marching band. Oh, and its whipping boy, football, that freakish distortion of the idea of physical fitness for all.

It almost seems that there is an inverse relationship between schooling and creativity. It's not rare for people who are both driven and smart to see the disconnect between school learning and the reality of their lives and figure out a way to cut loose. Look at all the illustrious CEO dropouts: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. (Granted, they're college dropouts; but just think how much richer they'd be if they'd quit earlier.) Why should anyone believe that school-based education holds the key to the future when those people are the shining examples of creative business success? And this is nothing new: Thomas Edison didn't even go to school, at least not much: he famously home-schooled himself in public libraries.

Those, however, are the success stories, the rare cases. We're not supposed to advocate dropping out, but if you have a passion for something and, according to Malcolm Gladwell's formula for the success of outliers, 10,000 hours to spend on it, why not? Of course, the vast majority of dropouts experience nothing like the success of Kupferberg et al. But they do experience the same disconnect between school learning and the reality of their lives. How much creativity is being wasted because of that?

More importantly for creativity, what about the majority of students who don't drop out? If we're getting worse at creativity, it's not because schools are getting worse at teaching it. It's because they're sucking more spare time out of kids' lives. If we want more creativity, we have to figure out some way to cut back the dominion of schooling. Or change the way schooling works.

Much as I should like to be alone in my folly, in this particular case I am not. If you google "schools" and "creativity," your top result will be a lecture by Sir Ken Robinson, luridly headlined "Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity." The ideas expressed in the lecture appear in expanded form in Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, which was first published in 2001 and re-released , "fully updated," in 2011.

Robinson's essential point is this: Schools, with literacy as their core function and with an industrial model of production as their modus operandi, serve only to promote effective test-takers and, ultimately, academics. What about those with other interests or abilities? "For them," he says, "education has always been an alienating experience."

Furthermore, subjects thought to be the most relevant to the adult world of work--math, science, language--are regarded as most important.  What about the arts? What about design? What about working with your hands? What about working with people? (Other than the non-credit variety known as bullying.) Robinson espouses a view of intelligence that comprises all areas of human achievement, not just the narrow band of subject matter "knowledge." Lest anyone think he means to detract from literacy, he says, "This is not an argument against developing academic abilities: it is for an expanded concept of intelligence that includes but also goes beyond them. If we fail to promote a full sense of people's abilities through education and training, some, perhaps most, will never discover what their real capacities are."

The emphasis on that last sentence is mine. Why do we persist with a system of education that we know to be not only hugely wasteful as it is, but just the reverse of what we should be doing? As a librarian who believes that learning and creativity are lifetime endeavors whose wellspring is the interests and passions of the unique individual, and that these endeavors deserve the support and encouragement of society at large, I am appalled at the wastage we tolerate, simply because we have a system in place that has "always" been there. One symptom of our societal blindness is that very few people regard libraries as having much to do with the education project, when in fact they should be one of the cornerstones.

Robinson seems to have a sense that part of the hope for transformation lies in broadening our understanding of how learning happens:
Nowadays, "school" refers to particular sorts of formal institutions that provide organized instruction, especially to young people. I am going to use the term here in a broader sense to mean any purposeful learning community, whether for children or adults, public or private, compulsory or voluntary. I include formal institutions and voluntary gatherings, from pre-kindergarten to universities, community colleges and home-based learning. Education is often associated with children and young people. By "education," I mean all of it from pre-kindergarten to adult education. When I use the word "student" I mean anyone who is engaged purposefully in learning, whatever their age and whatever the setting.
One can only hope that such a holistic, communal sense of learning takes hold. One can only hope that "no child left behind" will become "every child in front"--meaning not that there should be an equality of outcome but that there should be an equity of resources and a commitment as radical and binding as a Hippocratic oath to the value of the individual.

There is a saying commonly mis-attributed to Socrates that "education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel." Plutarch happens to be the most likely source of that sentiment--Socrates, after all, only asked questions--but, regardless, the vessel--our desire to learn--is already full within each one of us. How is it to be lit? Hmm, a question. Maybe it was Socrates after all.