On my birthday of this year, one of the greatest minds in education sadly passed away. He was also, one of my inspirations.
Sir Ken Robinson gained prominence for his 2006 TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”. In the talk, he laid out, what I believe, is a very significant thesis: We currently live in a world where massive change takes place on an almost daily basis — but are we educating our children to live, contribute, work, and survive in it?
His thesis seems even more powerful when you take a look at what’s transpired globally in the fourteen years since Robinson asked that question. Consider what has happened in the world naturally (hurricanes, floods, fires, a global pandemic); politically (the rise of authoritarian governments, election interference); economically (the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of computer automation); socially (social networks); and truth and reality (social networks, fake news).
In just the last fourteen years, life has changed massively.
One of the things significantly impacting all of us here in the United States is political divisiveness. It seems that we are currently unable to talk about anything, especially in a civil tone. I yearn for the days when politics or culture were discussed, different viewpoints were considered, perspectives were acknowledged, and the conversations ended with a feeling of semi, if not mutual respect. Perhaps not everyone agreed, but no one was thrown out of anyone’s house, or blackballed from family gatherings. Thanksgiving wasn’t cancelled. Again, there was a tone of mutual respect.
One key element of American society quickly becoming a casualty of divisiveness is the literal subject of Robinson’s talk: creativity. Our unwillingness to listen has meant a decline in ideas. This has also led to a decline in thought. The want to not agree with anyone except those who think the same way has closed us off from each other ⏤ and not just epistemically, but emotionally as well. We are slowly becoming incapable of connecting to someone who does not share our views. We hear the words “liberal” or “conservative” and immediately create an image of someone in our heads. This image is filled with other assumptions ⏤ and before we have even gotten to know or listen to a person, their thoughts and ideas have been dismissed.
Where are we without creativity? Without emotion? Where are we if we don’t share a collective sense of common good and decency? Where are we if we can’t talk to each other? Where are we if civil discussion, respect, and new perspectives are gone? Where are we if we can’t sit in the same room with someone who does not share our political views? What kind of message is this divisiveness sending to our children? What does the future hold?
I have a favorite photo of jazz great Miles Davis taken during the recording sessions for the landmark album Kind of Blue. In the photo, Davis is leaning over the shoulder of pianist Bill Evans. The two men are looking at sheet music together, and are in a deep moment of collaboration. Evans is seated at the piano and Miles is, literally, leaning on his shoulder. What’s amazing about the photo was it was taken in 1959 ⏤ a time when, in many parts of the United States, black men were not allowed into the same rooms as white men; not allowed to use the same water fountains as white men; and had to sit in the back of the bus separate from white men. Yet, here were two men ⏤ black and white ⏤ (literally) leaning on each other for ideas and creative input. The Civil Rights Act wouldn’t be signed into law for another five years, but that did not prevent the two men from using their combined talents, intelligence, knowledge, ideas, and emotions to create and make one of the greatest American statements known throughout the world.
I look at that photograph and I always think to myself That’s who America really is: Two men, black and white, coming together at a time in our history when they weren’t supposed to be together to create something that will go on to influence and change people. It will continue to change societies as well as entire cultures.
The United States gave the world the polio vaccine; put men on the moon; dressed the world in Levis; served them Coca Cola ⏤ and then taught them how to sing the blues. All of these accomplishments (as well as countless others not mentioned) required the collaboration of citizens who maybe didn’t agree with each other politically or morally. Maybe they were of different ethnic and religious backgrounds ⏤ or weren’t supposed to be in the same room together ⏤ but they came together as humans to solve problems, collaborate on ideas, connect socially and emotionally, and put plans into action.
We need to remind our children of this. The message to our kids should not be “stay away from them” it should be “come together”. Our history is proof that we’re at our best when we are working together, openly discussing, respectfully arguing, acquiescing, and reluctantly agreeing because we know it’s the right thing to do. That’s creativity.
The great Wynton Marsalis (I like jazz trumpet players…ok?) once defined the writing of the US Constitution as “…a sterling example of group improvisation on a grand, human theme.” To me, that’s the perfect way to define the crafting and writing of that document. It alludes to the fact that we Americans like to wade into something, listen to the theme (respectfully), let it get messy, try out a couple of things, and let it ride. Is it going to be perfect? No. But we can (and typically do) always return to the theme and try it again.
Trace American history: It is a series of repeats and do-overs; adjustments, and readjustments as well as a willingness and openness to revisit ideas, concepts, policies — and possibly change them. It’s just how we do it.
If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose that quality. We have to make sure our children know that hearing the theme and improvising off of it is the American democratic process. But that process takes respect, listening, focus, the ability to work together, hear other ideas, connect emotionally — and even be inspired by someone who may not look like you, or agree with anything you say or believe in. We have to be open to, at the very least, listening to ideas and voices that are different from our own.
Robinson concluded his 2006 TED talk by saying:
“[we have to see] our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being.”
Educate their whole being. That means making sure our children are open to all ideas, all people, all perspectives, and all thoughts. That’s the job of not just education, but for all of us as humans.