Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!
So that was the opening paragraph from Charles Dicken’s great satiric novel, Hard Times.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast. How’s it goin. Howy’re yis all doing out there? Hope yis are all doing well.
This is episode 6 of my series of episodes on Imagination and creativity, based around my book Create.
Last time I talked about how Imagination can encourage us to move away from the Wall of co-opted Creativity, inspired by the wonderful Urusla K LeGuin. Some of you mentioned that my call for “abandoning Creativity” because of first, linguistic reasoning, and secondly ideological ones were too late, which were valid points. Yes, ‘Imagination’ is an abstraction, a conceptualization, an abstract noun rather than a dynamic act, like creativity, but creativity is no longer associated to the same extent Imagination is in contemplating, meditating the images inside you or “picturing oneself”. As I said at the outset of the last episode, I gave examples of how Imagination has been co-opted too, but this is no way to the same degree creativity has. More important again is the way I see it as a lexical prison, an idea I’ll talk more about in the next episode. When I say imprisonment I mean we have to become aware of the conditioning around the words we use in whatever culture we’re living in. Creativity has crossed cultures, but it is far less a meditative act than imagination is, especially in the sense that the Romantics or Blake or LeGuin meant. Imagination is being captured, or trying to be captured by corporations, but it is freer to me, a word that envisions more a part of the act and process of creation. You could say it doesn’t matter what you call it, but it does. I quoted the wonderful Stephane Hessel in the second episode:
To create is to resist; to resist is to create.
The machines will gobble words to their ends, but we have to resist them. We have to create a new understanding of our words so we use them to our ends, not the ends of the machines. As a friend just wrote to me from Australia, we have to reclaim the word creativity. But to reclaim it we must first understand what has been turned into, and find a new via media, a new word. To me that’s Imagination, to others it may be something else. What’s important is the realization, that to create is to resist, and to resist is to create, lexical prisons, ideologies created by big pharma, academia, capital.
Today I want to talk about school and education. Because the subject is a large one the episode may run a little longer than the usual 30 minutes or so.
So, facts alone are wanted in life. This is the character of Thomas Gradgrind, a wonderfully satirical Dickensian character, a doubting Thomas in the wrong way, who grinds grades, to use the inventive name Dickens gives him. Gradgrind grinds grades and facts into the heads of children so Imagination can never live there. He is a true villain to these children’s Imagination. Dickens explained the theme of his novel by saying,
“My satire is against those who see figures and averages, and nothing else.”
Even though the book was published in 1854, it’s still relevant today. There’s a wonderful oil painting by the Swedish artist Peter Tillberg, done in 1972, which also reflects this uncreative Gradgrind worldview. I’ll put an image of it on my website.
The painting is called “Will You Be Profitable, My Dear?” It depicts 27 students facing us, sitting in uncomfortable wooden desks with almost nondescript faces in a gray and very depressing school room, waiting, to be taught. Trying to imagine any child in that painting being allowed to have a creative imagination is, well, unimaginable. It’s as if the energy has been sucked out of them, out of the whole drab room. And this is where we want to inspire kids? The lights hang down like lost balloons imprisoned in the ceiling. All the pictures on the bulletin board or tacked up there is precise rows, just like the precise, perfect rows of desks. The children seem more like the lights and pictures, imprisoned and tacked into place. What could have been an opportunity to inspire Imagination and inspired learning has become rote facts, as in Dickens’ novel.
How many of us remember our class rooms in straight lines where we sat bored out of our minds most of the time because of all the uninspired facts been dished out to us. Unlike schools like Exeter in New Hampshire, as well as many others, where the collaborative circular table of say the Harkness method is not simply for preschoolers. This image of education is completely different. Instead of all the children facing one person, each one perhaps suffering anxiety over unfinished misunderstood homework, or an impending exam, at the round table we have teachers and students facing each other, inclusive, having a conversation, creatively looking at learning, promoting inquiry and inspiration instead of trying to dismantle it by regurgitating dead facts.
And what happens to children in drills of tables sitting to attention waiting to download facts? Well, like the children in Dickens’ novel, when they don’t have Imagination, they fall into despair.
Gradgrind’s daughter falls into a loveless marriage to a morally bankrupt and ugly banker, while his son Tom turns into a man without any scruples of conscience, a thief who makes an innocent man take the fall for his crime. Witnessing the degradation and downfall of his children, Gradgrind realizes that his own misguided principles have ruined their lives.
In an interview, the Irish writer Alice Taylor, had something to say about children and the Imagination:
The glory of childhood. Children have their own magic. I have my own grandchildren and I can see the older in there eyes about things. It’s great. That children would have time to be children. [We] have to give them time to be children, not to cram their lives with too much activity. I don’t mind them getting bored. I think it’s good for them to be bored. They start exploring then, poking around, and using their imagination. I think that’s our greatest gift, our imagination. As Blake said “Imagination is evidence of the divine.
People are educated to stay in the box. Society’s educational system is based on this broken model, that of the mathematical mind created during the utilitarian Industrial Revolution Dickens so wonderfully satirizes in his novels.
American author, activist and intellectual, Noam Chomsky, in his book based on the great documentary of the same name, Requiem for the American Dream, talks about what he calls the 10 principles of concentration of wealth and power. One of them is Principle #2, “Shape Ideology” and under it, the sub heading of “Education and Indoctrination” where he says the following:
There was an article in the New York Times quoting some doctors who give drugs to children in impoverished areas to try to improve their performance, knowing perfectly well that there’s nothing wrong with the children – there’s something wrong with the society. In fact, the way they put it, we as a society have decided not to modify the society but to modify the children.
The article he refers to was published in the New York Times by Alan Schwarz on October 9, 2012, and it’s called Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School and makes for some disturbing reading, especially a bit where Dr. Ramesh Raghavan says,
“We as a society have been unwilling to invest in very effective nonpharmaceutical interventions for these children and their families,” and “We are effectively forcing local community psychiatrists to use the only tool at their disposal, which is psychotropic medications.”
Leading contemporary educational philosophers are asking many questions, one of the most important being: Do Schools Kill Creativity? That’s actually the title of Sir Ken Robinson’s inspiring TedTalk from back in 2009, where his talk makes an entertaining and profoundly moving case for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity. People are listening to him too. The video has been viewed over 63 million times. I’ll leave an embed to the video on my site.
There’s a part I love in his talk where he says:
life is not linear; it’s organic. We create our lives symbiotically as we explore our talents in relation to the circumstances they help to create for us. But, you know, we have become obsessed with this linear narrative. And probably the pinnacle for education is getting you to college.
His point is that we need to bring a learning revolution to the educational system, not try to put bandages on a heart attack. A whole new system needs to be created, not one that caters to bandaging the many negative symptoms of what is wrong with the old system that even Dickens’ characters lived in. It needs to be more in keeping with what the word school actually means, from the Latin and Greeks roots, “leisure time”, in addition to gymnasium, the training of the body to create a virtuous young person. And of course, Robinson advocates for an educational system based on creativity.
Another wall to creative education is the contemporary advent of helicopter parenting. Today, we’re reacting to situations and parenting based on a 1 to 3% risk of something happening. It’s kind of mad. But why is this? If a kid doesn’t take risks then how can they evolve as creative beings?
When I was a kid jumping ditches and schooling through the fields – isn’t that a wonderful colloquial verb, schooling through the fields? Anyway, when I was scaling trees and chasing cattle I never had my parents running after me wondering whether I was going to be molested or kidnapped. If I hadn’t had that freedom to play and be creative in my day I would never have been able to educate myself away from my parents, with other kids, to overcome the fear of jumping out of a tree or climbing one when I have vertigo. Or to get back up after being nastily fouled playing gaelic football. If my parents were there all the time I would have probably stayed on the ground crying looking for attention instead of getting back up and going after that ball again.
This does not mean there are not inspiring, extraordinarly creative teachers out there. Robinson, in his book “Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education”, mentions many schools and inspirational teachers. An Australian novelist who came to La Muse told me and five other shocked people on retreat once that all of her teachers were inspiring, that all of them had become friends of hers. Myself and the other five creators, in all our years at school and during all our degrees thereafter, could only think of one or two inspiring teachers, three at most. I had one. That’s when we found out about Atlantic College. And Round Square schools, and Steiner schools.
This type of creative teaching, this type of creative learning, is not linear or square. It’s inspired. It’s out of the box. This is inspiration and creation. We need to be planting the seeds of imagination in our children so they move towards Imagination not away from it like Gradgrind’s children, or into drugs because the schools are underfunded in impoverished areas.
Also, another thing, which I’ll address more in a later episode on Failure and Success: fact, if you go to the right schools it’s much easier to get the established jobs. It’s that simple. This is something I used to tell every young creator who came to La Muse. Not to be so hard on themselves. Yes, it’s about getting lucky, but also about who you know. If you went to the right school for writing, or art or building, then you have a much better chance of getting ahead, getting the job. Most young creators are not aware of this and beat themselves up over not being successful, thinking that going to the right schools is some kind of urban myth or conspiracy theory. Well, it’s not. It’s just simple fact, and if creators are aware of it then they know they just have to work harder to get their creations out into the world.
For example, if you’re a highly creative young woman who wants to change women’s rights through political activism your chances of becoming a minister are no way as strong as a student who went to say Sciences Po, The Paris Institute of Political Studies. The school’s alumni include many of the French and international political elite. 7, yes, 7 recent French presidents studied at Sciences Po. 13 French prime ministers studied there. 12 foreign heads of state or government. The same goes if that young woman wants to be a creative executive. There are the six CEO’s of France’s largest companies who went there.
And that’s just France. The private schools like Eton and Harrow in England, which are ironically called “public schools” or Belvedere College in Ireland or the many Ivy League universities here in the states, or as they call them here in the states, “colleges”, all give access – a very important word that, access. They give access to positions of creative power or more importantly, access to the tools for so called creative “success”, economic, social, cultural.
I’m not saying this means you have to go to college, or one of those colleges, but it helps, a lot, even if there are many, many exceptions to the rule.
Ray Bradbury talked to host James Day about his career, back in the early seventies, on the show Day at Night. This is what Bradbury has to say about about college for a writer:
I never went to college — I don’t believe in college for writers. The thing is very dangerous. I believe too many professors are too opinionated and too snobbish and too intellectual, and the intellect is a great danger to creativity … because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth — who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.
I’ll embed the youtube interview on my website. It’s wonderful.
Then there’s another American writer, the same one I quoted in my first episode, Kurt Vonnegut:
What I hate about public school systems is that they cut out the arts because they’re not a way to make a living – it is such a human thing to do, and it is the experience of becoming if you make something that wasn’t in the universe before. And that feels so good to human beings, and to cheat kids out of that is criminal. Everybody should be painting now or drawing or whatever, just as they should be singing or taking walks or falling in love or whatever. It’s so human. And not to teach kids how to do this is to cheat them terribly.
That’s a quote taken from part of a wonderful conversation Kurt Vonnegut had back in September of 2005 when he was talking about book A Man Without a Country. Again, I’ll put a link to the audio in the transcript of this episode.
So, I have two degrees, one of them an honors Masters degree. But school never helped me on my path in any helpful way to creating our artists and writers retreat in the south of France. It never helped me write novels. It never helped me create this podcast.
After secondary school, I went to the nearest place I thought you could learn how to write, university. However, Ireland in the nineties was not the place to study creative writing. They had the university of East Anglia in England. They had the whole creative writing cottage industry in America. Ireland? Nothing. Not one course.
What did I do? Studied English, of course. Wouldn’t that help me write? Studying Shakespeare, novelists, poets? No. It was a nightmare. Hermeneutics. Cultural materialism. Post Structuralism. New Historicism. Isms polluted my poor head like Gradgrind’s children. And every time I wrote an essay it had to lean towards that specific lecturer’s political “ism”. It was about as creative as hitting your head off a concrete wall.
When I did my degree in Greek and Roman Civilization, Marcus Aurelius, one of my favorite writers, was never mentioned. Maybe I missed something, but I never even remember a footnote where the man was mentioned. It was only later, fifteen years after my degree, that I discovered his wonderful “Meditations”. Then, the movie “Gladiator” came out. Remember the old king? Yes, he was Marcus Aurelius. That’s when I really realized how incompatible my “education” was with actually educating me about creativity, about what inspires me.
After two honors degrees, I went directly into the service industry where, surprise, surprise, I learned nothing about writing, again.
How many teachers during your whole educational experience really inspired you? I mean someone who took the time to really care and help you understand what it is you’re on this planet for.
I had one, for one semester.
Over the last two decades I’ve asked that same question to a lot of creators and they’ll say anywhere between one and three teachers. I mentioned the lady earlier who went to Atlantic College. She’s an aberration. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the education she received was the norm?
Some of the writers and artists who go to La Muse are also secondary school teachers. On one retreat we had six teachers from four different continents. Two of them had jobs creating the new curriculum of two different subjects in their country. I asked them if they had watched Ken Robinson’s TedTalks. They didn’t know who he was. I asked them what they thought about the United World Colleges, Round-square schools, Steiner, etc. They hadn’t heard of them either. This scared me. How can there be so much passionate discussion about issues in education that don’t make it into schools? If I, just some guy living in the middle of nowhere in the south of France, seemed to know more than career teachers about what seems like vital stuff in regard to the philosophy of education, and how important creation is for children, it’s no wonder the system isn’t changing. Don’t get me wrong. These teachers were wonderful people and they love what they do, but if they’re the experts and they’re the ones writing the curriculum, well then, that worries me.
But, the problem is not the teachers, it’s the educational system. A recent example would be “The No Child Left Behind” program in the States which seems to leave the majority of kids behind. Because of it over 70% of school districts in America have gotten rid of, or cut back on, their arts programs. Schools teach for testing, not learning. If the system doesn’t empower creative teachers how are they supposed to help motivate children?
We’re squeezing the arts out of the curriculum. In England, the government wants “core subjects”, the Ebacc, sciences, English, maths, a language, geography or history as compulsory for secondary school kids. This decreases access to dance, art, music, drama. In America, there’s the same over-emphasis on “core” science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so called “STEM” subjects.
Ironically, it was only when I arrived in America that I discovered there were whole departments full of lecturers actually teaching creative writing. I was just a little bit frustrated you could say. Why didn’t they have them in Ireland, the home of so many Nobel prize winners in fiction — Shaw, Yeats, Beckett, Heaney, not to forget people like Joyce?
Our aptitudes are completely different from those of the person sitting beside us. The educational system doesn’t cater to that. Never mind that, if you get ten people into a room to learn something, all of them will not learn the same way. Isn’t that a creative opportunity, both in how we teach and how we learn, to harness an imaginative way forward.
Also, if you think because you were bad at school then you’re not alone. There are so many creative people where school was not a place they excelled. At school, Rodin was described as the worst pupil. He applied to France’s most prestigious art school, École des Beaux-Arts, but was rejected three times. His uncle called him uneducable.
Then there’s Beethoven. He was awkward with the violin and preferred to play his own compositions instead of improving his technique. His teacher called him hopeless as a composer. Stephen Spielberg was rejected by the University of Southern California School of Cinema Arts, twice. Louis Pasteur, the father of microbiology, was a mediocre pupil. He preferred fishing and sketching. In 1841, at the Collège Royal de Besançon he failed to get his degree in science with special mathematics. He finally got it in 1842 from Dijon with a bad grade in chemistry. Again, he failed the entrance test for the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1842. He finally succeeded in 1844.
Don’t let education or schooling be a Wall away from Imagination. For the most part education doesn’t teach you creative intelligence, how to create what you want to create. You want to educate yourself in what you want to create? Don’t give up. Learn by doing.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from Dickens and as usual I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. This one literally means: Heavy is the load of ignorance. Or in English english: Ignorance is a heavy load.
Is trom an t-ualach an t-aineolas.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.