12/07/2012 01:18 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Society Is Killing Schools' Ability to Encourage Creativity

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Sir Ken Robinson's TEDTalk on "Schools Killing Creativity" is enormously entertaining and so rousing that one feels sheepish about questioning any of its parts. Of course, he begins with the dual advantage of being very funny and very British, a combination that audiences in America, at least, tend to find irresistible.

He also operates on a level of generality that brooks almost no opposition. Who, after all, is against creativity? (Well, perhaps certain members of the United States Congress, but we will leave that for another column.) Who does not wish to see our children flourish? Who can resist a good joke at the expense of college professors, who make such delicious targets? His line about faculty members treating their bodies as vehicles to carry their heads from meeting to meeting is one that I can assure you I will steal.

Sir Ken -- another advantage of being British is the opportunity to be called things like "Sir Ken" -- makes what is essentially a Romantic argument about the inherent creativity of children and the tendency of schools and other social institutions gradually and inexorably to stifle those creative impulses. This is the argument made by Rousseau in The Social Contract, which begins with the famous observation that "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." It is the central premise of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," in which he laments that "Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing boy" as he matures. It is among the main subjects of Dickens' Hard Times, whose villain Mr. Gradgrind declares, "Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life" -- only to be proven disastrously wrong through the ruination of his own daughter.

Schools would not fail so regularly in fostering creativity if we did not make the choices we do through our school boards and selection of funding priorities and, most broadly, in how we choose as a society to allocate our resources. - Brian Rosenberg

Mostly I agree with Sir Ken's contention that school systems around the world are in their structure and curricula biased in favor of what we think of as left-brain activities like mathematics and language-use and are too quick to dismiss, or even diagnose as pathologies, many of the creative activities associated with the right-brain. Among the negative effects of this bias are the rapidly rising number of students who arrive at colleges on medications to treat behavioral disorders and, more broadly, the growing belief that education generally and higher education in particular can justify their existence (and their cost) only by providing very narrowly defined vocational training.

Here is what I think is important to add to Sir Ken's description of the current state of education. First, the impact of the bias he describes is not evenly distributed. Here as elsewhere throughout our educational system, the negative effects are felt most powerfully by those who are most economically disadvantaged. Children who are fortunate enough to attend private schools or well-funded public schools in affluent neighborhoods may not be utterly free of socially-imposed stifling, but they do in fact get the opportunity to dance and act and draw and sing both inside and outside of the classroom: perhaps not as often as might be ideal, but more often than most students in most places at most times in history. For the many children who are not so fortunate, however, those opportunities are limited and diminishing in number. I do not think this is because second-grade teachers in public schools are, as Sir Ken seems to suggest, looking to educate future college professors. I think it is because they are provided with neither the time nor the resources to include in their curricula creative activities whose importance they generally recognize.

Second, I would feel more enthusiastic about encouraging right-brain activities if we were doing a better job with the stuff on the left. If, that is, our school systems were churning out legions of math and language masters, it would be a little easier to imagine lessening our emphasis on such things as addition and grammar. But all evidence suggests that we are pretty bad and getting worse at providing our children with quantitative and linguistic skills that are essential whether one will be working in a bank or running a dance company. As long as we understand the nurturing of creativity as something our schools do in addition to rather than instead of teaching children to be comfortable with numbers and words, I am all for it.

Finally, I am not sure whether it was Sir Ken or the TED folks who entitled his presentation "Schools Killing Creativity," but if it were up to me I would change it, perhaps to something like "Society Killing the Ability for Schools to Encourage Creativity," though I confess that this is much less catchy. It is easy and tempting to blame teachers or unions or professors for the problems in our educational system, but the reality is that here -- as in the political institutions about which we so passionately complain -- we get what we deserve, or rather, we get the natural result of the choices we make. Congress would not be such a disaster if we did not elect many of the people in office. Schools would not fail so regularly in fostering creativity if we did not make the choices we do through our school boards and selection of funding priorities and, most broadly, in how we choose as a society to allocate our resources.

As long as we keep spending more on armies, for example, than on education, it is going to be pretty darn hard to encourage more children to dance.

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