Critical reflection on the talk of Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?


Students keep sending me this link in the hope of my agreement.

A 20 minute TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson asking the question: Do schools kill creativity? Not actually researching through questioning but rather concluding that education kills creativity and trying to convince the audience to agree with him.

We at the pop department of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam are actually developing and sharpening a critical understanding of the relationship between education and creativity.

When a student gets stuck in his/her creative outlet it’s easy to blame the educational system as it is always easier to blame outside conditions than to work on the inner issues. The assumption that all students would be creative, if only they would not be educated the old fashion way, does extreme damage to their ability of honest self confrontation and most of all critical thinking, a very necessary ability. Any creative professional needs to critically explore inner issues that could have an effect on once creative potential.

Although put in a funny and witty way, the idea’s that are presented in this talk can inspire a dangerous populists notion of what education today is and what creativity is all about.

Let’s take a look at Robinson’s assumption of what education today is.
First of all there seems to be a lack of historic context. For instance education as we know it has not started from the 19th century serving the upcoming Industrialisation, having an aim to create either scientist or robot like factory workers serving economic production.
Education is still based on the ideals of developed European humanists like Erasmus and Comenius who re-discovered Plato and Socrates and inspired universities to be places of learning, based on the Greek and Roman forums as a place of dispute where ideas could be explored.
Holding the Greek example as a high ideal (Greek culture being very much focused on physical beauty and health) physical development through gymnastics always has been an important part of education. Those physical ideals of health and fitness have played an important role in shaping today’s educational systems (think of the sports competition between Cambridge and Oxford, think of the athletic scholarships in the USA etc.). This ideal has even played a dangerous role in history: think of the consequences of the healthy mind in a healthy body obsession!

Music and literature as part of the arts always have been very important to the complete humanist educational ideal as the multiple gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon (music, poetry, drama and such) played a very important part in the total human experience mirrored by the archetypical mythologies.
Who does not know families who burden themselves economically by paying costly tuition to give their children piano, flute or violin lessons as part of a respectful middle class upbringing?
In most schools children perform at the end of the year songs, dances, drama or musicals and exhibit their drawings throughout the year in the class rooms and corridors. Mind you not all children like to do this, not all children like gymnastics or like to invent, need to be ‘creative’ (most children’s drawings are anything but creative).

This leads us to the next assumptions presented in the Ted talk on creativity posted by Sir Ken Robinson.
It is such an uncreative worn out cliche to put down intellectuals by ridiculing an assumed lack of dancing skills or an inability to keep tempo much often a very severe lack in creative music and art students themselves. Assuming intellectual people only live in their heads is such a limited postulation that I’m amazed there is no critical out cry. Why not explore the idea that intellect like musical talent is an expression of creativity?

At the symposium Managing Your Talents hosted by the Conservatorium of Amsterdam in 2013, the audience was surprised to take note how many elite athletes where highly gifted intellectuals, another bias debunked.

For my art education the idea of an opposition between creativity represented by dancer (musician) versus intellect represented by the scientist (theorist) is a dangerous opposition that will not stand the test of an in depth analyses of both human abilities interacting with each other within the human brain. Many intellectuals are fine dancers and musicians producing and consuming creative objects. Many creative dancers, musicians are fine intellectual exploring scientific subjects in a highly mental way.

I think right now the danger lies exactly in the opposite direction of what Sir Ken Robinson presents as being the case: education lacks a focus on developing intellect.

An important educational goal would be demanding a critical reflective way of thinking. Many people carry the very popular notion of being creative, mimicking a toddler’s believe that they are natural born geniuses who know how God looks and will tell us in a minute. They only need teachers to confirm this notion and appreciate this sign of imagined ‘creativity’.
I have noticed many of our students are not trained from a young age to bear the stress of disagreement while remaining eager to discuss, stay tuned and open minded to another point of view, without taking disagreement as a personal assault. Many people react to disagreement just like the same toddler will react once you will not agree on the presented picture of God with either attacking or withdrawing. Education then, can be blamed for killing creativity while all it does is give a highly needed critical reflection on the object of creativity.

I have noticed that trying to change, add or even just challenge another person’s way of thinking (once known as: educate him/her) has come into a bad light; like some sort of evil brainwashing attempt: “You try and make me think another way…..your way, but I only want to do my thing!” Later complaining: “Help me out I am stuck, I’m doing the same thing over and over again…I would need some education.”

Above observations are a dangerous sign of the time, and a big challenge for our education in the arts.
Developing intellectual exploration could play an important part in understanding and exposing ways in which education can support creativity, ways in which intellect is not only integrated in the arts but a valid and valued member and co-producer.

The attack on intellectualism and the assumptions that we are all born to be creative is a very populist view. Creating a conflict between intellect and creativity is even more of a dead end. It seems easy to score a big applause with telling people what they like to hear, while what we need is to understand how to serve the human potential without exploiting an imagined antagonism.