Everything you know about creativity might just be wrong

“Creativity” is the latest buzzword in education. The most watched TED talk ever is a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006 called “How schools kill creativity.” It has had almost twenty million views.

Sir Ken’s main point (which is later joined by his second main point) is that creativity is as important in education as literacy and should be given the same status. His second main point is that children are not taught creativity, rather they are educated out of creativity. This means that all children are naturally creative and the educational system beats that creativity out of them, scaring them with the ideas that there are some things that are right and others that are wrong, and that it is important to know the difference between them.

The other fifteen minutes or so of the talk is filled with anecdotes, quotes, bashing of academics and schools (delivering the necessary truism that our educational system “came into being to meet the needs of industrialism”), and pithy good humor (the talk is definitely worth a listen for the jokes). The climactic anecdote is about the dancer and choreographer Gillian Lynne. Gillian Lynne, who went on to become very accomplished and famous was having a hard time in school in the 1930s. She was characterized as not being able to sit still or concentrate. She might have been diagnosed today as having ADHD. Who knows. In any event, here is the turning point—she was sent to a doctor who listened to her mum’s complaints and then walked out of the room with her mum and left her by herself with some music. She then starting moving, dancing, jumping, etc. The doctor told the mother (according to Robinson): “Gillian isn’t sick she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” And her mother did. Continue reading

Matzah, teachers, and labor unions (On the Perelman Jewish Day School Decision)

The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”

It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.

It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.” Continue reading

Counting Jews, Again. So what?

The just released Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, has let loose the usual round of teeth gnashing, gloating, critique and analysis. Everybody, it seems, has jumped on the study as a prooftext of what they have been saying all these years anyway. The Conservative movement is doomed. The Orthodox are marching on. The Orthodox aren’t going anywhere—fifty percent of people raised Orthodox are leaving Orthodoxy. The Reform movement is the only movement keeping its numbers. But those numbers aren’t from within the Reform movement, they come from outside—everybody just rolls downhill.

So, in the spirit of this open air of inquiry, I want to suggest that the most important line in the report is found on the bottom of page seven: “This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole –not just Jews –increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).” Continue reading

Revelations and Revolutions: Thinking about Shavuot

Last year good friends visiting from Israel brought as a gift a CD by Gal Ziv, which put to music some wonderful contemporary Israeli poems. One line sticks with me. It is from the poem “Ibn Gvirol, Tammuz, Future Tense” by Tal Nitzan. The poem is sung with a hauntingly beautiful melody. I am assuming that the poem was written around the time of the Israeli tent protests which captured the passions and imaginations and participation of tens of thousands of Israelis in the summer before the Occupy movement started. I hear the words through the filter of Occupy LA.

Coins dive down to the musician’s bag

with the audacity of small change, feet

will wallow in the detritus of the demonstration

what was spoken and shouted will be swept up

life is much stronger*

And I hear the words echoing with the youthful wistfulness of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.”

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial

Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while

And I hear the words resonating with the fleeting nature of revelation as we move toward Shavuot, when we celebrate the necessary distance between people and God by wallowing in the gift of interpretation, of midrash, of study.

And then, in the very next moment, as we look upon it from the perspective of time past,  those same people dance around the Golden Calf. The idolatry that is born of a need for concretized meaning and the intimacy of being able to point to a thing—the incarnation perhaps of a divine desire—and say: “This is your god”, overcomes the experience of revelation. Life is much stronger.

The move from rethinking the way the world might work, in which the space that is created between a people and the divine endlessness of Torah writ large, to the small narrow space of concretized and static deity is almost incomprehensible. How does one, let alone everyone, move from the frenetic liberating energy of infinite possibility to the “audacity of small change” which rings hollowly but can be sighted and pointed at. And yet, it is this move, more than revelation, more than liberation, which seems to define history. The day after, when the street sweepers come through and collect the detritus of passion and revolution, and tourists look at the gated off gardens and parks and plazas where righteous anger brought forth a dream of difference, a vital vision of a more just future—that day after regularly saps our spirits and dampens our drive, giving way to the demons of the day to day: “life is much stronger.”

And yet, we return each year with Sisyphean regularity performing the possibility of redemptive reading, hoping that this year the creative discourse of friends and allies hunched over texts ancient and modern, sacred and secular, profound and profane, will propel us into a future more full with the promise of perfectibility.

The future is still covered in the thick fog. With so much in the balance, perhaps this time when the fog clears it will be the dancing of holy revolutionaries singing the psalms of justice that we will hear.

I’ll see you at the foot of the mountain.


* The translation is mine.