On education and creativity

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Dedicated to Ignacio, who inspired this post over a six-hour long conversation and a Gancia Batido.

The first thing that I want to do is issue a warning: I AM A COMPLETE IGNORANT REGARDING CREATIVITY AND EDUCATION. Therefore, instead of forcing a bunch of clueless ramblings on you, I will tackle both issues through Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?”

Allow me to take a little detour. A few months ago I stumbled upon a paper by Paul Lockhart entitled “A Mathematician’s Lament”. In it, he provides a beautiful definition of Math:

“To do Mathematics is to engage in an act of discovery and conjecture; intuition and inspiration; to be in a state of confusion – not because it makes no sense to you, but because you gave it sense and you still don’t understand what your creation is up to; to have a breathtaking idea; to be frustrated as an artist; to be awed and overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty; to be alive, damn it.”

What Lockhart laments is that what is being taught under that name in schools is just an empty carcass, consisting only in “the accurate yet mindless manipulation of facts.” The problem seems to be rooted in a cultural perception, by which the creative nature of Mathematics is dismissed in the face of its evidently useful applications. As a consequence, teaching has been degraded to the imparting of systematized data that doesn’t hold its ground on account of its mathematical relevance, but on the ease with which it can be incorporated into standardized tests. Anything outside the standard is considered wrong, thus creating a set of values that equates success with the ability to follow directions.

So, going back to Sir Ken Robinson’s question: Do schools kill creativity? I think that Lockhart is quite clear when he says: “There is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest on a subject than to make it a mandatory part of school curriculum. Include it as a major component of standardized testing and you virtually guarantee that the education establishment will suck the life out of it.”

As the link between Robinson’s talk and Lockhart’s paper has by now become obvious, I’d like to contrast and compare some of their ideas. In order to avoid making this post overly confusing, I’ll structure the exposition around two of Robinson’s arguments: (a) There’s a universal hierarchy of subjects that defines relevance as useful for work, and (b) Intelligence is measured by academic ability.

Sir Ken points out that traveling around the world he was struck by the realization that schools share a very similar curriculum “everywhere on Earth.” There’s a universal hierarchy of subjects, where “the most useful subjects for work are at the top.” Namely, Mathematics and Languages, then the Humanities, and at the bottom the Arts. Consequently, any talent a person might posses outside this given paradigm is not considered as such, and is probably repressed in order to favor what’s been established as “useful”.

I find this argument interesting, and I could agree with the fact that in the unpredictable world we live in (and the even more unforeseeable future children will grow up to face) it’s absurd to base our education system on a frail notion of what will be useful in say, twenty years. However, I think that it implies the perception of Mathematics as a tool that Lockhart so vigorously opposes. In other words, what Sir Ken criticizes is the existence of said hierarchy, but seems to be OK with the idea that practical applications are what Math is all about. And yet, as we’ve seen from Lockhart, there is so much more to it than that! In his own words: “Music can lead armies into battle, but that’s not why people write symphonies. Michelangelo decorated a ceiling, but I’m sure he had loftier things on his mind.” As a matter of fact, Lockhart concludes that Math would be better off being shunned by school curriculum in the way the Arts are, because then “at least some people might have a chance to discover something beautiful on their own.”

To sum up, even though I agree with Robinson on the idea that a more diverse curriculum would be beneficial, I think that there’s a more pressing problem: what we choose to teach of the subjects we do teach. Education should open our minds to deeper dimensions of beauty, not insert us in the labor market. I think that Lockhart brings this point home showing that there is no more relevant reason why Mathematics is important than the fact that it’s “a meaningful human experience.” And the same can be said about any subject we decide to invest our time studying. There is a beauty in knowledge that is enough in itself. There is a happiness that comes from thinking about the world, from whichever angle one might choose, that needs no further justification.

The second contention I’m going to deal with is that intelligence is mostly defined as academic ability. Sir Ken brilliantly points out that “the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”

Again, I agree with him, but Lockhart pushes the argument even further, because not only does he question our view of intelligence, he casts doubt on the concept of academic ability itself.

What I gather from Robinson is that academic ability means being good at academic subjects, but intelligence is much broader because it’s diverse. So the problem would be that both concepts are equated when they clearly shouldn’t. Lockhart, on the other hand, claims that the reduction of Mathematics to “a set of facts to be memorized and procedures to be followed” brings about two devastating consequences: First, that creative people with the potential to become gifted mathematicians never develop their capacities because their natural interest is buried under the load of standardized data and tests; and second, that those whom we consider to be academic successes in school are those who can follow directions and more easily adapt to standards. Therefore, some people will never know how talented they are because their creativity was smothered at a young age, while others will discover as grown ups that the talent they always thought they possessed isn’t really there. Honestly, I don’t know which is worse.

In the end, defining intelligence as academic ability is not only wrong because it arbitrarily narrows the concept down, but also because our idea of academic ability should be held up for revision. According to Lockhart, students “are being trained to ape arguments, not to intend them.” Are we sure that that’s the kind of approach to knowledge that we want to keep rewarding?

Finally, I’d like to end this post with a personal observation. Juan Carlos De Pablo, my Introduction to Economics professor, defines himself as “serious but never solemn.” I love that. And I think that the same can be said about Robinson and Lockhart: they don’t need to strike a solemn pose in order to talk about serious issues. I find that refreshing after attending conferences that looked a bit too much like Mass. So, that’s another thing I think children should be taught in school: solemn does not mean serious, and poses can never take the place of content.

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