The Progressive Myth of Creativity

RottenAppleby Bruce Price   11/25/13
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.[pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

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.[pullquote]In short, Weisberg says that drills do not stifle creativity. They engender it.[/pullquote]

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.”[pullquote]The pattern for the last century is that our Education Establishment is always looking for ways to justify dismissal of the traditional curriculum.[/pullquote]

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.

Article originally printed at AmericanThinker.
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Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org
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8 Responses to The Progressive Myth of Creativity

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    This is a foundationally terrific essay and observation by Mr. Price. We may ask why the Left has these Utopian impulses for us all to be artists, dispensing with the hard stuff, and living on our parents’ dime in some kind of extended adolescence. But they do.

    Maybe this springs from the Left being comprised of slackers. Maybe it’s just the “something for nothing” mentality of that sort being exposed. But as Bruce clearly knows, and what anyone with any sense at all knows, is that any creative endeavor requires learning the rudiments of the discipline.

    And note that word. That tells us everything you need to know about this subject. “Discipline” is a synonym for “field of study.” And that includes the arts. You have little chance of being artistic without first learning the basics, and the advanced basics. And that requires oodles of discipline and maybe an ounce or two of creativity, at least at the beginning.

    You can’t run until you’ve learned to walk. A friend of mine recently said that in any task, if you want to be good at it, requires putting in your 10,000 hours. Whatever it is, you have to expect to put in that much time if you wish to be really good at something. There are no shortcuts.

    There are always prodigies, of course, whether talking of Mozart or Richard Feynman. But both still had to do the work. Those who make something look easy most likely make it look easy because of all the hundreds of hours of practice and struggle behind the scenes.

    It’s no different for creativity, even if you (as the Left is want to do) view it as an end in itself, which it really isn’t. That kind of “creativity” as a goal is simply a naive utopian impulse. Real creativity is pointed at some task and truly takes a lot of hard work to nurture.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Ayn Rand was a fierce critic of the intellectually destructive nature of modern education, both in her major novels and in articles.

  3. Kung Fu Zu says:

    It seems to be a modern educational conceit that all little kiddies are very creative at heart, but this creativity will be stifled if too much discipline and learning are imposed on the little ones. But I wonder how much this meme is simply the cover for the dumbing down of the populace. Ignorant people are easier to fool.

    “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy”

    This type of thinking has led to a load of absurdities in the arts, where “originality” trumps technical competence and in order to be considered “original” one must be, all too often, simply outrageous.

    Large swathes of the population have lost the ability to discern the differences.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      It seems to be a modern educational conceit that all little kiddies are very creative at heart, but this creativity will be stifled if too much discipline and learning are imposed on the little ones.

      Yes, indeed, Mr. Kung. And that made me think about First Principles in regards to the Left’s Utopian mindset.

      One prime element is that the idea of “discipline” has been redefined to mean “repression.” There’s a Freudian quack element that has throughly entered our culture. One must always be “expressive.” To do otherwise is “repression.” And “expressive” always make the world better, or so they say.

      But as Dennis Prager wisely notes, “repression” is just what we often need to make the world a better place. Those who never shower are truly “expressive” and natural (natural being another big word for the Left). And it is quite unnatural and “repressive” to take a shower. But the world is a better place because we do.

      This childish idea of “repression” is consistent with the Utopian, forever-juvenile mindset of the Left which, in a nutshell, could be called the forever battle against one’s parents who are the ultimate disciplinarians of childish impulses (impulses which, more often than not, are dangerous or destructive). The Left envisions the creation of the Peter Pan society where no one ever has to grow up.

      I’m fully sympathetic to the idea of a child or adult falling under too much discipline where the attempt seems to be to force upon another person (particularly a child) one’s own self to the exclusion of the individual underneath. And as we know regarding every instance of Leftist malpractice, they will take just one instance of this to justify completely overturning the applecart and declaring “discipline” to therefore and forevermore be “repression.” Again, we are dealing with a utopian, juvenile mindset.

      What’s the right balance of discipline/rote-learning to individuality? Well, again, we do come up against this reality that it’s not necessarily either-or. Little Rambunctious Brad had to be sat down in a chair and taught his ABC’s whether he liked it or not. And when Little Rambunctious Snot-Nosed Brad was finally thus able to read, it opened up a new world of adventure and creativity to him. But in the short term, all that discipline and rote learning seemed decidedly un-Utopian, and certainly not creative.

      Also, core to turning discipline into a bad word is the result of the success of feminism which has declared that the female is the ideal and the male is an aberration, something needing to be cured. Part and parcel of the male outlook is toughness, discipline, and bucking up instead of whining about everything. When the man goes missing, there can be little discipline and thus little growth. And where there is little growth there is little chance of creativity unless figuratively flinging your own feces at the wall is to be considered “creativity,” as is the mindset of the Left. Thus, as Dennis Prager says — particularly in regards to the arts — everything the Left touches they make worse. Much of their art is indeed scatological or, as you said, to be original is to be outrageous.

      There are surely other core First Principles attributable to the Left that help explain their pining for a naive, disembodied “creativity,” including the boredom of teachers in regards to rote learning, an element Thomas Sowell has noted. But I think those are a couple of them.

  4. Glenn Fairman says:

    Many years ago, I filled in for a teacher for several days who used the whole language method. Everyday, students were told to write in their journals for 5 minutes whatever came into their minds. It became apparent that none of the kids understood the importance of grammar or spelling, and in fact, they were told that those were ancillary to the goal of communication. But since I could not understand what was in their journals, was communication going on? For two days I asked them to raise their hands and ask me how to spell any word that they wanted to use—a flood gate opened up. Communication, like math is governed by rules and logic and playing at learning left these youngsters at a disadvantage.

    Pan forward 20 years. High school readers are on the average performing at a level that was once high elementary level. Any creativity not based in rudimentary knowledge devolves into anarchy and grammar itself is thought to have racist overtones since it discriminates between intelligence and a crowning stupidity. Last Monday the students were so creative that one lit a joint in class while I was reprimanding a student outside. An intellectual free-for-all under the aegis of encouraging the muse soon devolves into a moral and intellectual free-for-all and children become clever beasts who have lost their claws. If you find rap music beats as creative and not degenerative, then you are part of the problem. Once you begin the deconstruction process there is no stopping it, until existence itself becomes not worth the bother.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The Daily Caller has an article on a UCLA education professor accused of racism for correcting the spelling and grammar of minority students. His response is as comprehensible as you’d expect from his specialty.

      An interesting satirical take on where standard-less education can lead can be found in the 30th book in the Destroyer series, Mugger Blood.

  5. Kung Fu Zu says:

    During the Reagan administration, a blue ribbon commission studied the USA education system and concluded something like, “if a foreign country had gone about to trying to undermine the USA, they couldn’t have done more damage than was being done in the education system at that time”. I can’t recall the exact wording, but it was extremely damning.

    And over thirty years on, things have only worsened.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      There is a line of thought, Mr. Kung, that these newfangled programs were never meant to work. The socialist/leftist/fuzzy-progressive mentality is that there are things far more important than actual achievement (and achievement itself is a threat to the idea of “equality”). Schools are first and foremost an important tool for breaking the influence of parents and traditional values. This is apparently working. Rush Limbaugh cited some anecdotal sources the other day. It seems that kids have an innate trust in government. They’re just not skeptical in the least.

      To the Left, not only are the state schools useful for indoctrination of statist attitudes, but the socialist/leftist/fuzzy-progressive has other higher priorities than academic achievement. And it’s a monstrously wicked an confusing mix of influences that go into this. You have everything from the murderously hard Left influence of the William Ayers types to the soft-fuzzy useful-idiot influence of those who put “self-esteem” or a general “kumbaya” over academic achievement. I just did a business card for a local school district. On the back of the card it say it wants to “inspire” a community of students “equipped to explain, explore, engage, elaborate, and evaluate in a global community.”

      Some might think that it’s far more important to be able to navigate a book of written English, the one set before them locally. As you can see from this bizarre “word salad” of phrases, it’s all kumbaya bullshit. This is about the state schools being an instrument of politics, or at least of psychology. Nothing in the above mission statement talks of academic excellence or competence. The people who regurgitate these silly phrases probably have no idea what Cultural Marxism is. As Thomas Sowell frankly notes in “Inside American Education,” the academic standards for teachers themselves have been extremely dumbed down over the years. So you literally have the blind leading the blind. There may be a few good teachers intermixed. But they can’t help but be worn down by the idiocy that surrounds them.

      I think there is no way to reform the state schools. Yes, by all means, wipe out the Dept. of Education at the national level. But as Thomas Sowell notes about the government school system, it combines two of the worst traits: a government monopoly combined with union control.

      We therefore might make some inroads here and there in terms of fixing things. But the system itself is broken and prone to the influences of the Deweys and Ayers. All of this stuff should be handled at a very local and private level. If universal education is considered a greater good, there should be nothing more than vouchers. Let the free market then compete for students. That doesn’t guarantee a quality education. But it yanks the system out of the hands of the William Ayers types and the legions of useful idiots who somehow think it is their job to create “global citizens” instead of a young man or woman who is literate. As Dennis Prager would no doubt say about these useful idiot types, they are “nice” but not good.

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