Fall is upon us once again. A new crop of students will begin doctoral studies, and many more will take classes in preparation for applying to PhD programs. It seems the ideal moment to share an old favorite.
Working in higher education, I deal with helicopter parents and lawnmower parents on a daily basis now. Overparenting is an incredible disservice to children and young adults. Not only do they experience setbacks, negative feedback, and garden-variety frustrations of life as insurmountable failures and barriers, they often lack the savvy to safeguard themselves from actual dangers. I see expensive gadgets left unattended and personal safety measures ignored at night, and I am often asked for help with various questions and issues (sometimes it’s more of a demand than a request), apparently because I am a female who looks sufficiently older than a student. It makes me both sad and concerned to think that these young people were raised to expect a benevolent world of surrogate mothers taking care of them, only to find, as we all must, that life is harder and more unfair than that. I suspect that a child who has to live with the consequences of having a smaller item stolen would not, at 19, be so careless with a laptop. The child who had to struggle and learn by doing her own homework might not need her mother to call a college professor about an unclear grading policy. The child who was taught to hope for the best but be prepared for the worst may be able to be delighted by the good things that happen, and not crushed when problems arise.
One of the first TED talks made available online in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” remains the most-watched talk on the TED.com website. In addition to the speaker’s excellent rhetorical techniques (which, indeed, have helped set the tone for many future TED and TEDx events), the subject matter, if anything, rings even truer now than it did a decade ago.
Robinson builds his speech on the themes that, in his opinion, the whole conference shares:
The extraordinary range and variety of human creativity
The impossibility of knowing what the world will be like even five years into the future
The innate capacities children have for innovation and creativity
All kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly… My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.
After telling two humorous anecdotes about the fearlessness of children to be wrong, Robinson concludes:
You’ll never come up with anything original — if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.
While many other TED talks have discussed the variety observed within educational environments around the world, Robinson focuses on the hierarchy of subjects that he finds universal within them: that mathematics and languages (the subjects that supposedly make a person employable) are at the top of the hierarchy, and the arts on the bottom. Even within the arts, he notes, drama and dance rank below art and music.
Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution. And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, 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. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.
Robinson tells the thought-provoking story of Gillian Lynne, who, as a child, performed poorly academically until a doctor suggested taking her to a dance school, where she met other people like herself, “who had to move to think.” The story concludes:
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.
All in all, we would have to agree that the 20-minute talk does deserve its place of prominence among the TED collection. Robinson explores his topic in further detail in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything [library]. He has also given several more TED talks, which we will eventually feature here.
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