Fourteen years ago, Sir Ken Robinson took the TED stage to answer the question the greatest writers have grappled with: “How to get a book deal?”
The answer: Give a great TED talk.
Sir Ken has given the greatest TED talk by various interweb estimates and the question he really asked was this: Do schools kill creativity?
The talk is a dig on the education system and about how the system is designed to make its participants well-rounded nincompoops. Uncreative. It’s mirthful, poignant, and makes you want to hug your art teacher. With Sir Ken’s passing last month, rewatching the talk again was a snivelly twenty minutes.
I had just finished high school when Sir Ken’s talk had come out. While I wouldn’t see the talk until many years later, I had no courage to question what it had done to my creativity. No one around was doing that either. Everyone was happy I got out of school on time.
Art class was a joke. Only Anand took it seriously and that is the account of how he would come to be known as Penis-less Anand for the rest of his life. The teacher didn’t give a shit what we did. Because she knew as much as we that art had no test. It was so bad her only request was that we talk softly. We assumed we had a cool teacher until we heard the highly probable rumor that she was homeless and the school was her cover for half the day.
So why exactly do I want to be creative again?
Society outsources its supply-chain to schools, and schools in turn produce whatever is best for its customer. Schools have become a microcosm of society instead of the other way around. And society has treated creatives with the same solemn pitiable despair it has reserved for people about to be hanged: “At least the suffering has ended.”
At school, creativity gets confused with collective talent. This talent takes a grotesque form. Everyone wants to get on stage, to get a piece of the song, the dance, the play because – the attention you crave over a month – it brings that to you on a single day.
Parents, with that demented pride stuck to their faces, applaud their child’s fraught flourish while quietly gobsmacked by how every other child can be so talentless and ugly. It’s worse now what with every kid getting on stage because, haven’t you heard, everyone is special. Yeah. Like Penis-less Anand.
A kid doesn’t display his talent because it moves him to a great depth unknown yet in his little head. He doesn’t have the same naive understanding of creativity that adults do. He does it because it keeps him occupied. His innocence allows for his creativity. Along the way, he may become good at some of it, which is when the vultures circle over his head, waiting for him to fall dead of starvation if he ever took it seriously.
Some kids can draw/dance/sing/write poetry/make art better than other kids and that makes them no more creative than a beaver that washes its food before eating. Because creativity isn’t a relative enterprise. There is no better or worse. Your kid isn’t special. Parents who get pissed reading that are the same people who will threaten to jump off a bridge when, someday from now, their kid tells them he wants to be a Philosophy major.
Creativity requires something that goes against the very point of schools (and by extension, society): disobedience.
Creativity kills schools.
When I began writing, I actually considered going back to school to learn how this worked. I was so bad I was sure school couldn’t make me any worse. But I knew this was the primordial trick to keep me occupied; with anything but writing. It used to annoy me when I read about creativity and stuff like perseverance, patience, and fun would come up. Painters to poets to musicians, they all said the same stuff: Creativity does not vary across art forms. Because it is not performance. It’s a process of ongoing disobedience. An ongoing discovery of how to live.
The disobedience is not disruptive. Not different for different’s sake. Not empty contempt. This disobedience is the origin of all art. It’s why artistic fame destroys art: You begin to obey.
Writing is my hour of disobedience. Most days I discover the same thing: I suck. But there are also those days, the days when I forget all about writing and showmanship and, briefly, find something about myself. A glimpse of creativity. A let go. I still don’t know if it’s fun, but it sure makes laughing at myself easy. I realize what I am doing here for the most part isn’t creative. Because I am working behind the veil of talent (that doesn’t even exist). It’s how I have been codified by the system. It’s how I have been rewarded. In school. In life.
Schools have become organizations for knowledge. And no organization can help you learn how to live your life. In fact, if you do the opposite of what most organizations preach, you may just have the canon for how to live a good life. Like how doing the opposite everything they tell you about marriage will help you find the meaning of love.
To thumb-nose the classic idea of success needs a slight madness. A bleeding relentlessness. A solitary joy. In the obedient lives we live, scrimping for and accumulating talent, we have enslaved ourselves to perfection. Talent is a corpse. Creativity, life.
Creativity is a discovery. It’s finding something that makes you remember this moment. The moment when you discover something beautiful was inside you all along. It’s a scary feeling. Because now you want it to last forever. And that’s when the moment is broken.
The point of school is to help you to pay attention to these moments rather than long for the attention to find them. Sir Ken is a hero because he told us this was possible at a time when we were content with the literacy schools were dumping on us. He got up there and opened our minds to something we had never considered: creativity is as important as literacy.
For that to come true we need to preserve whatever is left of creativity. And it’ll help to remember what kills that.
When you think everyone experiences the world and feels for it the same way you do. When your object of discovery becomes an object of show. Of performance. When your experience turns into an expectation. When school becomes your approval mechanism. When society becomes your muse.
That is what kills creativity.