I was recently asked to view this TED talk and provide some feedback. Here’s the talk.
Here are my thoughts in virtually un-edited form:
To begin with, a few seemingly-random facts: Sir Ken Robinson is has a PhD from the University of London. He’s speaking as part of the TED program, which was implemented by Chris Anderson, an Oxford graduate, and his Sapling Foundation. This video was delivered on the World Wide Web, which, despite Al Gore’s protests to the contrary, was the creation of Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, who studied at Queen’s College at Oxford. All of this is computer based, and many attribute the creation of the computer largely to John von Neumann, a classically trained Hungarian mathematician and physicist who, in an effort to bring himself some peace on his deathbed, quoted from memory large swaths of classical poetry in their original Greek and Latin. I am currently writing this on a computer in my home that uses Linux, an operating system (i.e., Windows and Apple’s OS X) created by Linus Torvald while he studied at University of Helsinki. While many might never have heard of it, Linux is the most used operating system in the world, running on 80% of the world’s super-computers and probably closer to 95% of the servers that make up the Internet. Finally, I am writing this in a country that in the history of the world is and has always been quite unique for its constitutional freedoms, a country that was created by a group of men that experience classical education in its truest meaning.
So it’s deeply ironic that Robinson and all of the individuals who created the technology to view his speech were products of this very education system that Robinson suggests needs reforming. Robinson suggests that we’re stifling innovation and thus we need to have a revolution in education but he says so on a platform made possible by this age of unprecedented innovation, an age that is the product almost exclusively of classical education and its modern kissing cousins.
Robinson suggests that modern education is killing creativity. Yet to be creative, one must have something to be creative with. Otherwise, creativity consists of only the basest instincts, as we have seen here at Hughes on the eighth-grade hall with the recent behavior of two of our students. Their hideous act (and if you don’t know what it was, it’s best not to ask), in their eyes, was brilliantly creative. But as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. If we start with nothing to be creative with, we will be creative with our basest instincts.
We traditionalists often suggest that we need to have a wide liberal arts education before the specialization of college in order to ensure the continuation of culture, but it is less esoteric than that. Creativity comes from having something to create with, and all great creative endeavors have stood on the shoulders of the creativity of others–I know I’m mixing my metaphors here, but I’m only intending a first draft of this, so bear with me. Picasso, for example, did not start with Cubism; he learned all the rules, then he decided how he wanted to break them. Faulkner did not begin by writing run-on sentences; he mastered his craft and then learned how and when to break the rules for effect. Linus Torvalds did not create the Linux operating system in a vacuum, and Jef Raskin, Bill Atkinson, Burrell Smith, and Steve Jobs did not create Apple’s operating system from nothing: they both used UNIX, an older, very stable system, as a starting point. So when we start pushing this individualization, this specialization from graduate school to college to high school to middle school, we decrease the amount of raw materials we provide students to be creative with. Despite Robinson’s contention to the contrary, it is based on “the idea of linearity.”
The truth of the matter is that education is linear: one has to learn addition before algebra, and one has to learn algebra before calculus. One has to learn to read music before embarking on a Chopin Ballade. One has to learn basic coding before attempting to create an operating system. There is a hierarchy of knowledge in any discipline, and one must learn things in that hierarchical order or else it’s simply chaos.
I understand Robinson would not dispute that. He’s not suggesting we let students begin wherever they want. He’s talking about an organic model that allows students to follow their own interests wherever they lead them. To do otherwise, he suggests, is soul-killing: We “have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education, and it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies,” says the man who quotes Yeats, a product of this very education, an education that, in Yeats’s time, was much more linear than anything we have today. My point is that, as with creativity, to be organic, you have to start with something: life, art, technology, or even existence does not start from nothing.
But there’s more to it than that when we consider the fact that we live in a democratic republic like America. Robinson suggests that students should be able to create learn “with external support based on a personalized curriculum.” This is going to result in a highly fragmented society, with very little common knowledge–i.e., cultural literacy–to share. It is nothing short of Balkanization. E. D. Hirsh, Jr. writes in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know about the impact of highly-specialized knowledge on democracy:
No modern society can hope to become a just society without a high level of universal literacy. Putting aside for the moment the practical argument about the economic uses of literacy, we can contemplate the even more basic principle that underlies our national system of education in the first place–that people in a democracy can be entrusted to decide all important matters for themselves because they can deliberate and communicate with one another. (12)
In other words, for democracy to work, everyone must be informed about the basic issues and be conversant about them. That this is not the case in America today is painfully obvious when watching the gotcha viral videos that show people struggling to name one single American senator, to find a given country on the map, and other ridiculous ignorance. Should we create a completely personalize curriculum, many of our students would study video gaming and rap music, leaving very few who are interested in the functions and institutions of our government. It’s easy to see that this becomes an oligarchy quite quickly.
So Robinson can’t possibly be suggesting complete topical freedom for students. He would have to accept the fact that there are some basic things that everyone needs to know in order to function in a modern Western democratic society, but the instant he does that, he’s undermined his own argument. What we have them is not the revolution Robinson is claiming but a bit of feel-good tinkering around the edges. Or complete chaos.
What then is the problem? Why does our education system not work anymore? I suggest that it’s not the education system that’s broken: after all, as I pointed out, it has created all we see around us today. It’s culture that’s broken. Why does the same educational system of the early 20th century no longer work? Because it doesn’t mesh with the 21st century culture, which demands instant gratification, complete and blissful entertainment, and absolutely no hard work.
Furthermore, education doesn’t kill creativity; our modern culture kills creativity. We turn on and tune out with our huge televisions, mobile devices, and gaming systems, then wonder why we aren’t as creative as we used to be. We serve up to our children mindless entertainment that requires no imagination, then wonder why they don’t have imagination. And like always, we blame it on our education system, the system that created Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. And what do most people use these men’s amazing inventions to do? Foster creativity? Hardly.
So can this proposed Robinsonian revolution solve the problem? Well, I don’t think as Robinson presents it, it really is much of a revolution. A total revolution would look like this: the dissolution of the grade-level system in exchange for a mastery-learning program with a basic curriculum that fosters general civic, mathematical, linguistic, scientific, and technological literacy. This program would let students learn these basics at their own pace, but it would require mastery before moving on. If takes a student three years for one topic in math, then it takes that student three years and she stays there until she shows mastery; if it takes another student three months, that student moves on in three months. Once students master these basics–what used to be about an eighth-grade education but now is probably more like a twelfth-grade education–students can move on in a similar setting to explore any interest he or she wants. And if that means a student stops his education then and gets a job in construction, then that’s his choice. But that is too radical a reform, and still more important to policy makers, the fiscal cost of such an education would be relatively staggering.
Yet that wouldn’t solve the underlying cultural problem. That, I’m afraid, is out of the purview of public education. It’s a pessimistic view, I understand, and I’m sure some might wonder how I could be a teacher with such a bleak outlook.
And so in final response to Robinson and to more succinctly and beautifully sum up my thoughts, I too turn to Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?