The Progressive Myth of Creativity

Creativity has been a big theme in progressive education for more than 75 years: We are constantly lectured that kids need music, art, theater, etc. This theme is now metastasizing into an oppressive dogma. But, why?

Ken Robinson, the guru of creativity, is famous for saying  "We are educating people out of their creative capacities." The premise seems to be: if kids do arty things, they will end up being artists. Empirically untrue. Conversely, Robinson says that if children do something rigorous and academic, they will be prevented from being creative. Dangerously untrue.

Rearranging knowledge in new ways is arguably the very essence of creativity  It follows that the systematic acquisition of knowledge is one of the best things you can do if you want to be creative. 

Furthermore, there are habits of mind or consciousness that can be developed only through practice and discipline. It's always been understood that students learn by mastering basic skills and then by completing more and more difficult projects, not empty make-believe projects, but real projects such as speaking French, understanding American History, or figuring out how computers work. 

Professor Robert Weisberg wrote a book called "Creativity, Genius and other Myths" where he stated: "There is evidence that deep immersion is required in a discipline before you produce anything of great novelty....There is this concept that genius has leaps of insight way beyond everybody else. If you look at the background of these people, there is much more of a progression. They don't make leaps -- they build in small pieces." In short, Weisberg says that drills do not stifle creativity. They engender it. 

It's fascinating to observe how many famous writers started off as doctors and lawyers. What could be less creative than a premed and medical curriculum?  What could be more stifling than studying to be a lawyer? 

John Grisham, Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, Wallace Stevens, Henry Fielding, Louis Auchincloss, David Baldacci worked as lawyers. There is nobody more creative than Wallace Stevens.

Zane Grey, Anton Chekhov, Robert Ripley, Michael Creighton, Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Robin Cook, and William Carlos Williams were doctors.

Question for education professors: Anthony Trollope was a postal inspector. He wrote three hours each morning before going off to work. He published 47 novels. How would you propose to make Trollope more creative?

Let's stipulate that creativity is a good thing and should be encouraged. So are sports a good thing; but nobody proposes that we transform schools into gymnasiums. The problem is Ken Robinson's overstatement  "Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status." The next sound you hear will be children struggling to read, and traditional textbooks being tossed in the trash.

The pattern for the last century is that our Education Establishment is always looking for ways to justify dismissal of the traditional curriculum.  One day they'll assert straight out that academics are a waste of time. The next day they'll argue slyly that we need to devote more time to nonacademic goals, such as creativity, critical thinking, or dressing for success.

The key to understanding all this confusion is to note that "progressive" educators are socialist educators. They want children to end up more or less equal (a result which they call social justice). So they pretend to care about creativity. But what they really care about is making sure that little time is left for children to learn who George Washington was.

Ken Robinson made a famous speech about creativity several years ago. He railed against the so-called "factory method of education." One video has been viewed 11 million times. There are only 3 million teachers in the US. Apparently, our Education Establishment loves the message in this speech and forces it on everyone. "Factory method" is code for children going to class on time, sitting at desks, and memorizing stuff. "Factory method" is what most education has been for thousands of years, long before there was a factory. Such schools are orderly and designed to achieve educational progress. That seems to be what progressive educators can't stand.

Robin Eubanks, an attorney who wrote the new book "Credentialed to Destroy: How and Why Education Became a Weapon," sees the road to serfdom everywhere in our educational system. In a recent blog she wrote: "Only an electronic color billboard in Times Square could be more explicit. It is indeed slam dunk time in our effort to show that the education reforms known as Common Core or 21st Century Skills or social and emotional learning are actually a means of gaining much broader transformations." 

That would be the same "fundamental transformation" that Barack Obama bragged of achieving. That would be the drive to impose socialism on this country. 

Does that strike you as something new?  It's not. John Dewey launched this offensive a century ago. Our Education Establishment is defined by this offensive. A word to the wise: whatever these people recommend is probably designed to do the exact opposite of what they claim. More creativity?  No, you'll just be an ignorant serf.

Robin Eubanks wants a different future: "Unfettered by government seeking to restrict what any American can know or do, we can prosper again."

Finally, can creativity even be taught? John Saxon  who created Saxon Math and other highly successful curricula, famously said that creativity cannot be taught. All you can do is create a context where creativity can express itself.

But I've often wondered, if creativity could be taught, how do you do it? Speaking as a writer and painter, I don't think you teach ordinary students to be creative by having them do so-called creative things. What then? What would fit in with elementary school subjects and work for everyone? I start thinking about mazes and optical illusions, puzzles and riddles. I start thinking about checkers, bingo, Chinese checkers, and card games such as as Go Fish and War. And let's not forget simple machines, models, electric circuits, and tools. Especially let's not forget Aesop's fables and maxims of all kinds. (Why is it true that a stitch in time saves nine??) Kids do most of these things for fun. They stimulate the mind to be more flexible and opportunistic. You see problems, you try to solve them. So it would be easy to build an enjoyable "creativity curriculum" from toys and games, a curriculum that would encourage creativity and logic, and as well arithmetic and reading.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site

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