Saturday, July 17, 2010

All The World's A Stage

In Sir Ken Robinson's 2006 TED talk, he quite persuasively argues that our schools increasingly sacrifice creativity on the alter of creating "good workers," a concern recently brought to the broader public consciousness by an article in Newsweek entitled "The Creativity Crisis."

According to the article, American CQ (creativity quotient) test scores have been declining, which is worrisome given that "the correlation (of these scores) to lifetime creative accomplishments (is) more than three times stronger for creativity than childhood IQ (intelligence quotient)." As Robinson points out in his talk, we cannot even begin to comprehend what the world will be like by the time our children retire, let alone what skills and knowledge will be necessary five years from now. The only thing we do know is that  the future belongs to the creative and developing this attribute should be considered at least as important as literacy and mathematics.

Now, I have as much skepticism about the validity and value CQ tests as I do any other type of standardized testing ("Using Elastic Yardsticks," Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) and I have no idea if we are really becoming less creative, but I do see that our schools are increasingly elevating math and science ("Dehumanized," Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) at the expense of the kinds of humanities education necessary for a functioning democracy, and kids are lucky these days to get any kind of arts education at all. And even then, as Robinson so hilariously details, we now have a hierarchy within the arts with things like painting and music at the top and artforms like drama and dance at the bottom. It's becoming common for a child today to go through 17 years of schooling without once experiencing the creativity of acting or dancing before an audience, yet these are the very all-encompassing, full-body activities best suited to developing creativity.

And as manifestly good as it is that the Newsweek article is even discussing the importance of creativity I just about tossed my computer out the window, when I came to this part:

Overwhelmed by curriculum standards, American teachers warn there’s no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week. But to scientists, this is a non sequitur, borne out of what University of Georgia’s Mark Runco calls “art bias.” The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.

Researchers say creativity should be taken out of the art room and put into homeroom. The argument that we can't teach creativity because kids already have too much to learn is a false trade-off. Creativity isn't about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. Scholars argue that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way. 

Arrrrg! The author has fallen into exactly the same mind-set that has turned our public schools into voc-tech worker training facilities, tossing in labels like "scientists," "researchers" and "scholars" to make these ludicrous conclusions seem clear-cut and indisputable. We see the term "curriculum standards" and take it as some sort of given that we need standardization in our schools and that creativity can somehow be part of these "standards." Standardization is the enemy of creativity, just as it is the enemy of education.

I don't think it's an accident that our decline in creativity correlates directly with our decline in emphasis on arts education. The proposal to take creativity "out of the art room," is exactly the kind of idea one would expect from scientists who have been taught since birth that theirs is the highest calling. As I read through the rest of this Newsweek article I see example after example of how students are being encouraged to "creatively" solve practical problems like how to reduce noise in a lunchroom. See? they seem to be saying, Creativity is an important vocational skill. It will help Junior get a job.

Nowhere in the article do I see a quote from an artist of any kind, or even an art teacher for that matter. Creativity in this context is just another tool with which we need to equip our children like learning to add, spell or memorize the Periodic Table of Elements. I feel my soul being stomped on when I read the entirely unsupported assertion, "Creativity isn't about freedom from concrete facts." I want to shout, "Yes it is!" but I don't know if I can take the chorus of researchers and scholars asking, "But what good is that? Where is the practical application? How can an employer exploit that for profit?"

I don't know about you, but my child isn't a profit center. She is a whole human being and to shackle her exclusively to the world of concrete facts is to stunt her growth, limit her life, and impede her pursuit of happiness.

Last night, my 13-year-old suggested we take in the Greenstage production of William Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, a play that has been in more or less continuous production somewhere in the world for over 400 years. Shakespeare, arguably the greatest creative genius to have ever lived, a man who, by all accounts, sought only to entertain, spoke directly to my daughter over the centuries. She typed passages into her telephone in order to recall them later, chuckling at how apt they were to her own life here in the 21st century. (She particularly liked Celia's line, "I like this place, And willingly could waste my time in it." I'm so proud she picked out this one!)

And we weren't the only ones sitting there in the grass at Woodland Park. There were hundreds of us.

And Shakespeare had several other audiences in and around our city last night, both in parks and in theaters. Across America and around the world, centuries later, hundreds of thousands of us, perhaps millions, last night found inspiration, joy and edification in the creative works of this most creative human. Some "scholars" like Harold Bloom even argue, convincingly, that "The Bard" actually invented the modern human.

When Touchstone says, "The truest poetry is the most feigning," I hear the direct refutation of the insane assertion by these Newsweek scientists and researchers that "creativity isn't about freedom from concrete facts." They are wrong. Shakespeare at every turn vindicates every musician or painter, actor or dancer who has ever indeed known that creativity is freedom from concrete facts, and finds there the greatest truths and highest beauty, real, but ephemeral, knowledge from which capitalists will never turn their measly profits. Artists know this. Art teaches this.

Certainly, one of the parts humans play is as economic actors, but that is only one of many roles we play in life, and a truly minor one at that. How grim life will be if we succeed in making that the only role for which we prepare our children.

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts."

And paradoxically, that is the most concrete fact of all.

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Scott said...

I totally agree, Tom. I was glad to see a call for more creativity in the classroom. But, you're right. It's more than just practical problem-solving. It's soul sustaining.

Anna G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna G said...

That whole thing about creativity not having to be about art makes me tired. Sometimes I have to justify art education to people, as a tool for getting into college, or something.. but really, what's wrong with art, anyway? What if we all drew things and danced and sang? Would that be so bad?
And, Why can't these rigid thinkers see that artists don't see what they do as genres, or labels? It's just making stuff, or being who you are, or exploring. I so wish people could see art the way young children see it. It makes me want to think of a new name for this thing we do. Let's call it creative thinking, or fun, or learning, or Fred. That'll fool them!

Anonymous said...

It's interesting b/c the school our kids are going to has a big emphasis on art but by the end fo the 6 years all the kids art work looks the same. Art - but perhaps not creativity?

Teacher Tom said...

@Gwynneth . . . I think Anna (commenter above you) says it very well. If all the work looks the same, it's not art, it's a craft. I have no problem with crafts, mind you, but art, as Anna writes, "art is just making stuff, or being who your are, or exploring." I suppose some people would say that I'm not really "teaching" art to preschoolers because what I do is provide a variety of materials that they can use to "make stuff" and "explore." This is how we learn to be creative. When they all wind up making the same thing, I feel I've failed them in some way, because this is how we learn to manufacture.

Anonymous said...

Well said. What an amazing thing to get to share with your daughter and to see her enjoy!

balmieday said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful response to that Newsweek article. I agree that there is a danger in only prioritizing skills that have monetary benefits when we decide what is important for the education of our children. Many of the things that will help our children to create a healthy society moving forward-- artistic self-expression, civic engagement, personal & spiritual wellness, and the even the time and effort they take to raise their own children-- aren't things that will translate into a salary, but will ultimately enrich society beyond what can be tracked by the GNP.

Anonymous said...

There is something magical when a child comes up with an idea then from that idea draws, sculpts, sings etc. We praise it, they receive it and confidence, esteem, importance is instilled. Without creativity where would be be?????