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.

Here, then is the important part which I would claim both skews the argument and, I think, explains the 29 million hits. I will quote from the transcript of the TED talk:

[Lynne said:] “We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet; they did tap; they did jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down. (15:50 and on)

There’s the thing. From ill-behaved child to wildly successful, pleasure-giving-to-millions, multi-millionaire in less than a paragraph. With a sentence left over at the end to bash the doctors who treat ADHD with medication.

John Coltrane, one of the best jazz musicians of the last century, one of the innovators of free-jazz, and post-bop, practiced almost twenty four hours a day. He probably knew thousands of chord progressions, having also invented many. He worked at this day and night.

Andres Segovia, one of the best classical guitarists of the last century, demanded fidelity to the classical tradition.

Pablo Picasso painted every day of his life. He first studied painting (as a child) with his artist father and then went to Paris to continue his studies. When he grew bored of the teaching he went to museums and studied art that was hanging there and painted from life.

Just like these three, Gillian Lynne also worked hard at her craft for decades, in schools, with great teachers. Creativity is not a thing which creates its own substance. Creativity—even if we accept Robinson’s definition of it as “the process of having original ideas that have value”—is not something that exists on its own. There is no spontaneous generation of creative ideas which might have value.

Why then does this matter now? Two reasons. First, I see this as part of a more general assault on the profession of education and on teachers. (Yes, I know Robinson has a PhD in education. However, part of his shtick is making fun of his PhD in education.) If what we actually want our children to have is creativity and not those subjects in which facts and analyses are transmitted by well-trained professionals, then why are we paying these so-called professionals? Why actually do we need them? They are just beating the creativity out of our children.

To this I say, there is nothing we need more in today’s world than creative thinkers who think about and act in the highly complicated world we live in. This requires knowing a lot—languages, cultures, science, etc—and also approaching that knowledge in new ways. The thing that draws many of the 29 million people to Sir Ken’s TED talk is the myth that creative people do not need that nasty middle step of actually learning stuff.

Secondly, in a narrower frame, “creativity” has now become the buzzword of Jewish education also. The most important thing the kids need is creativity. Rabbi Benay Lappe has a very succesful ELI talk (called “An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take”) which has had almost six thousand hits (which is about twenty nine million in Jewish). I agree with Rabbi Lappe’s bottom line, which is that we have no idea what the Jewish future holds, and the current “crash” will yield a future that will be unrecognizable—and that that will be good. Listen to it. It’s good.

Lappe’s model for a crash which led to a very welcome “unrecognizable future” is the Rabbinic tradition which survived the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70AD. The Jewish sages who lived during the time of the Temple would not have recognized the Judaism that the Rabbis practiced a mere century or so later, yet it is the reason that Judaism survived. Lappe credits the existence of the Rabbinic practice of sevara or creative interpretation as the reason for this survival and also for the fact that the results were unrecognizable. The Rabbis, however, as Lappe notes, also stressed gemara, that is the study of the traditions.

In another form, the Rabbis in the Talmud spoke of the necessity of both sinai and oker harim, that is both those who collected traditions that were handed down and also those who literally “overturned mountains.” Essentially, the one group would not survive without the other. It is in the radical interpretations of the given traditions, and in the broad and fluent knowledge of the traditions that one is able to create radical new interpretations.

Spontaneous creativity which is significant and of lasting value almost always demands hard work, professionals who can mentor and guide that work, and some institutional culture which can house it. While popular culture idolizes the myth of the creative genius who comes from “nowhere,” in reality, that genius had teachers and a tradition which they were initiated into and then rebelled against or made over in their own image.

Everything else is castles built on sand.

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