Thanks to Scott Goodman, who sent me this essay analyzing Sir Ken’s presentation on TED in response to my own piece on Sir Ken Robinson. Scott’s analysis focuses more than mine on on Sir Ken’s technique and the way that he seduces his audience with flattery. All comments welcome.
So, if you are reading this, your curiosity got the better of you.
This essay originated as a long letter to my daughter, who had sent me the link to Robinson’s talk as part of her justification for ending her post secondary studies. In talking to me and in statements on her Facebook page, she made it clear that she thinks that what Robinson has to say is “wonderful”. I am afraid that I don’t share that view. The fact is that I have had a great deal of experience, as a teacher and in other areas of interest, with the claims of people like Robinson and my view is that such claims as his are not only wrong, but mean-spirited, destructive and dangerous. To explain why I take that position requires that this essay be quite lengthy. This is often the case when replying to blithely uttered rubbish. A single sentence full of nonsense can take many paragraphs to expose as such. Please be patient while you read it.
Now, Robinson is without doubt a charming, witty and engaging speaker. I have to give him credit for having a few genuinely funny jokes. However, having said that and having seen and heard many like him (at teacher Professional Development day seminars for example) over the years; I came to realize that humour is often a rhetorical tactic deliberately employed to put an audience into a receptive mood for a message that would otherwise be unpalatable. Today, I pay attention to the content of the message rather than the charm of its delivery. Even so, I agree with a few of Robinson’s observations, not because they are profound, but because they are commonplace. I most definitely do not agree with his claims about why things are the way they are. Moreover, in the majority of cases, I reject his portrayal of how things are and in some cases that there is even the least bit of truth to his claims. And, I can’t comment on his solutions because, tellingly, he doesn’t present any. I certainly don’t agree with and quite frankly resent the insulting and completely unjustified put-downs of educators that he engages in throughout his presentation, however wittily presented they may be.
The fact is that people like Robinson have exercised an extremely corrosive and destructive influence on education while contributing almost nothing to its improvement. I would not be surprised to find that someone reading this would find that statement hard to believe since, at first glance, he seems to be suggesting things that are positive and that are supposed to help improve things. They are anything but that. As I said above, it took me quite a few years of attending talks like his to begin to see through the rhetorical techniques employed by such speakers and to begin to realize just how negative and destructive the ideas being presented really were. For example, while it may not be immediately obvious, his comments are profoundly insulting to and disparaging of students. Why? Because a close analysis of his view shows that he believes students have no minds of their own and are incapable of acting independently of their teachers or of being held accountable for their own success. Indeed, one of the most egregious shortcomings of education today is that teachers are prevented from holding students accountable for their own success. Paradoxically, Robinson strongly implies that under no circumstances can teachers be credited for any success that students do achieve. In Robinson’s view, student success, when it happens, must always be seen as occurring in spite of teachers, not because of them.
This raises a perplexing question. If teachers aren’t to be given credit for student success and if at the same time students are defined as being mere clay to be molded by the teacher, who then is responsible for student success when it occurs? These obvious contradictions in Robinson’s statements go begging for explanations that he never supplies. The point is that while wittily expressing derision and scorn for teachers, Robinson is simultaneously, but tacitly, expressing equal contempt for students. That is the insidious subtext of his message. I ask the reader to keep in mind that I am a teacher and have first hand experience with the education system and its many faults (and, crucially, its many virtues). The faults that teachers see, however, are not the ones Robinson puts forward. In fact, his claims are not only false, but are a very large part of the actual problems faced by the education system as opposed to those that Robinson imagines exist. Robinson is not the innovator he purports to be. He is an emissary of destruction.
Superficially, he comes across as a charming fellow who is just trying to help. From this vantage point he makes several claims about the talents and abilities of children and the supposed shortcomings of their teachers as well as what the education “system” does to children that, as he puts it, “educates the creativity out” of them. In fact, as I said above, his message is a profoundly negative and wholly unjustified attack on teachers and the education system generally and on students as distinct and autonomous human beings in their own right. What Robinson says has to be seen against the background of what has come to be called the “blame culture” that has been in the process of forming over the last several decades. The essential feature of the blame culture is to identify or designate a class of “victims” who, if they experience any sort of negative outcome in life, are deemed to be entirely powerless in the hands of the perpetrators of their “victimhood” and are thus not accountable in any degree for that outcome. Therefore, the outcome must be entirely someone else’s fault. In this case, educators are the villains, or so Robinson would have people believe. In Robinson’s universe, individuals (students in this case) are the “victims” of a feckless education system populated by even more feckless teachers and therefore under no circumstances are they to be held accountable for their own actions or responsible for their own shortcomings. At the same time, if they are successful, the idea must never be entertained that such success has anything to do with their teachers. All success is by definition, in spite of teachers. This entire paradigm arises directly from the sphere of the post-modernist, cultural constructivist movement of the last several decades. For a withering critique of these ideas, see “Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science” by Gross and Levitt. [Note: Their term “Academic Left” should be distinguished from the political left/right dichotomy of North America. They use the term in a very specific, non-political sense, which they explain at length in the book]
Robinson begins with the flat assertion that “all students have tremendous talents”. At the same time, but less obviously, students apparently also lack free will or the slightest self-awareness and are thus entirely at the mercy of their teachers. It follows from this set of premises, both spoken and implied, that should students fail to exhibit the claimed amazing talents and abilities and fail to succeed in school or later life, clearly it must be their teacher’s fault. If they do somehow manage to succeed, it is in spite of their teachers. Heads I win, tails you lose. How else is one to explain why failure (but not success) is to be laid entirely at the feet of their teachers? It could not possibly have anything to do with the students themselves, because by definition, they had no choice in the matter. They have no free will, no independent ability, and no variability in their motivation; they are mere automatons, formless clay in the hands of their teachers. It must therefore be their teachers’ fault and, more broadly, the “system’s” fault if they fail to succeed and perform at the genius level that their putative “tremendous talents” warrant. Who had any idea that teachers were so all powerful? It’s staggering really. Or maybe, just maybe, the whole idea behind Robinson’s claims is faulty and dangerous nonsense. That is my position. Let me explain why I believe he is wrong.
Robinson’s theses are that:
- Children are all incredibly talented and creative.
- Creativity and innovation alone are the key to the future; knowledge won’t suffice and isn’t even necessary. Acquiring knowledge is therefore a waste of time.
- Being creative and innovative requires risk-taking.
- Schools stigmatize “wrong” answers, thereby stifling creativity and innovation in favour of regimentation that frowns on risk-taking behaviour. In essence, the education system “educates the creativity out of” students.
- Therefore, the traditional education system or model is completely wrong and has to be changed to eliminate these problems.
As I said earlier, based on sentiments like those expressed by Robinson, my daughter feels that there is no point, or at least little to be gained, in pursuing further education. Presumably, she feels that one can do much better by pursuing one’s own interests and allowing free rein to their creative capacity. She wouldn’t be the first person to feel this way and sometimes it even happens that way. And one can easily point to many famous examples of people who achieved great things with little or no formal education. Actual genius has a way of doing that. Unfortunately, most people are not lucky enough to be that talented. Anyway, let’s have a look at Robinson’s claims in more detail and see what we can make of them. I used a verbatim transcript of his speech from the web so my quotes are dead accurate throughout.
Robinson, despite his evident charm and wit, quite shamelessly and ruthlessly uses rhetorical tricks, logical fallacies and humorously delivered insults to disguise his negative message and to get his audience on side and keep them there. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
To gain audience support and ultimately, audience agreement, he starts with this:
“There have been three themes, haven’t there, running through [this] conference, which are relevant to what I want to talk about. One is the extraordinary evidence of human creativity in all of the presentations that we’ve had and in all of the people here.”
This is actually the logical fallacy known as the Appeal to Flattery. It goes something like this:
- · Person A (Robinson’s audience) is flattered by person B (Robinson).
- · Person B makes claim X (the education system kills creativity, etc.).
- · Therefore X is true.
Flattery, however, is not evidence of anything. But by tacitly including the audience among those who are “extraordinarily creative”, he is flattering them and thereby not only setting them up emotionally to agree with him but to also make disagreeing with him later risky due to negative peer pressure. If, later, someone does disagree with him, clearly they would be considered (by him anyway) as not being among the “extraordinarily creative”. The audience would be highly likely to side with him and turn on the “troublemaker”. After all, what sort of backward-thinking curmudgeon is going to disagree with all the wonderful things Robinson says about children? By starting out in this way, Robinson is trying to make disagreeing with him emotionally unpalatable and even professionally risky for anyone actually present at the time that dares to do so. This is a standard psychological ploy used in debates and politics and it is very effective with the uninitiated. It is a form of reverse onus strategy. This tactic is used by people making unsupported claims like Robinson’s in an attempt to put anyone disagreeing with him on the defensive by not only having to prove him wrong while he has to offer no evidence whatsoever in support of his claims, but do so from a position that Robinson has already characterized as negative and backward. A neat trick if you can get away with it. In fact, however, the onus is on the person making the claim to put forth evidence, which Robinson never does. I’m not surprised. He hasn’t any evidence. So from the outset, he is manipulating his listeners. This is an old trick and to me is annoying in the extreme.
Having complemented everyone, he now proceeds to the first of his insults to identify and isolate the “enemy”, charmingly delivered in the form of jokes:
“If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education — actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education. You’re not asked. And you’re never asked back, curiously. That’s strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, “What do you do?” and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, “Oh my God,” you know, “Why me? My one night out all week.”
Funny, right? So according to Robinson, educators are not to be found at parties because they are not asked to come or, if they are, they are not asked back. Hmmm. If by some unlucky chance one finds one’s self sitting next to an educator at a party, no worse fate could be imagined. I see. So that’s what educators are like are they? The rhetorical trick being employed here works like this; having first made the audience feel like they are among the cognoscenti, the “elite” if you will, he then identifies the group who are not – educators. He does this by using the logical fallacy known as the Appeal to Ridicule. The aim of the ridicule is to advance the claim that teachers are, without exception, really boring people that no one would choose to associate with if they had any choice in the matter and so are the very last people we want teaching our children. Oh really? Says who? Robinson? On what grounds? What do you think his audience’s reaction would be at this point if someone stood up and called him out for being an arrogant blowhard for making this insulting and demonstrably false set of statements? How do you feel about me doing it now? Do you feel defensive on his behalf? See how effective this sort of method is?
Next he makes his first substantive claim. Here it is:
“We have a huge vested interest in it (education), partly because it’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue — despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days — what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”
Extraordinary? Really? That the future is unpredictable seems a rather banal observation to me. He, however, presents it as if it is an earth-shattering insight. It is hardly that. After all, it has always been the case that we can’t predict the future. If Robinson finds the unpredictability of the future so extraordinary, then in my view he is too easily impressed. Education, and indeed all of society, has always faced the dilemma that the future is unknown and all that can ever be done is to take our best shot at it. But there is another point to be raised here; one that Robinson deliberately avoids mentioning. Education is not simply about the future. It is also very much about the past, the present and what can be learned from them. Humanity has certainly learned that the past can often be the key to both the present and the future so not only is he not saying anything that is surprising, he is also misdirecting his listeners’ attention, trying to keep people from reminding themselves that there is more to education than just getting a handle on the future and that what they just heard was complete B.S. After all, who wants to be stricken from the ranks of the elite? No siree! Can’t let that happen.
Then he makes a further claim:
“…my contention is, all kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly. So I want to talk about education and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
This set of statements contains a falsehood and another banal observation that are presented as being significant and new insights when they are nothing of the kind. First, it is flatly not the case that “all kids have tremendous talents” so his contention that these non-existent talents are being “squandered” is nonsense. This sort of statement comes directly out of the now thoroughly debunked (and lately repudiated by its own academic originators) self-esteem movement that began around 1970. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been to a Pro-D day presentation and heard the speaker tell us all that “every child is special”, by which they meant not that every child deserves the equal opportunity to reach their potential, whatever that might be, but that every child is equally, and in Robinson’s parlance, “tremendously” capable in every way and therefore if they fail to achieve in every way, it is our fault as teachers. This is what Robinson means by “squandering” students’ talents. What rubbish!
The second statement is to the effect that creativity is now as important in education as literacy. This banal expression of support for creativity in education attempts to masquerade as a pithy observation. But, in point of fact, creativity has always been valued to one degree or another. This is not news. What is news is that people such as Robinson would replace literacy with creativity – at least for others.
Rock solid research (longitudinal studies over three decades) has shown that statements like this are flatly false and that self-esteem, whatever it is, cannot be quantified and, crucially, has been demonstrated to have no connection with success in any aspect of life, be it academic, career, social or whatever (although it does correlate with a person’s subjective sense of happiness). Despite these facts, statements like these have taken on the aspect of sacred cows in the education system, never to be challenged unless you want to see your teaching career go into the toilet. In education today, it is highly politically incorrect to suggest for even a moment that each and every student does not possess every imaginable and amazing talent and ability or that if students fail to live up to this ridiculous idea that it might just have just as much or more to do with them than with their teachers or the “system”. Of course, while a very few individuals actually have such tremendous talents, most people’s abilities, including students and their teachers, fall into the average range and there is nothing wrong or shameful about that, although constant attempts by people like Robinson are made to make both teachers and students feel that there is. Not having “tremendous talents” does not mean that a person is worth any less as a human being or that they should suffer inequitable treatment or that they cannot contribute to society in many, and often in great, ways. It is simply a fact. We are not all geniuses. People need to suck it up get over it. Teachers can certainly nurture talents where they exist (and we strive mightily to do so) but no one and no methodology, however well conceived, can create them where they do not exist. To believe such a thing is tantamount to believing in magic.
I am of the view that what Robinson may be reacting to, probably without even realizing it, is the vague sense of resentment and resulting disappointment felt by young people who are of average ability when they discover that they actually don’t possess the amazing talents and abilities that they were told that they had and the realization that if they want to achieve something in life, they are going to have to work a lot harder and a lot longer than they expected or wanted or were led to believe they would have to. If so, that is what is being done wrong. It is my experience that this is exactly what is happening and it should be stopped. It is a terrible thing to build up a person’s hopes on such false pretenses. For the lucky few with great talent, I submit that it was none other than their teachers (and parents) who recognized their abilities and worked hard to help them develop them. What a person does with their talents and abilities, though, is ultimately up to them. It is not and never was the responsibility of their teachers. How despicable it is for some glib-tongued traveling salesman to falsely and unjustly heap scorn and derision on such honourable people and their profession. Another problem, and a major one, that this way of thinking has caused in the education system is that it leads students to believe that success is going to be handed to them on a silver platter and later, when this doesn’t happen, they become disillusioned and give up, blaming the “system” (and sometimes particular teachers) for the fact that they weren’t instantly rewarded with overwhelming success. The system did fail them, but not by failing to deliver the success. It failed them by leading them to believe that any such thing would happen without strenuous effort on their part. It failed them by not making it clear that it is their responsibility to make it happen, not the system’s job to give it to them, earned or not. It failed them by not making it clear that sometimes people fail even when they do make every conceivable effort. In other words, sometimes life just sucks. Robinson’s claims and the claims of others like him foster a set of unrealistic expectations and that is the problem. That is why what he says is so pernicious and destructive. It directs attention away from the real issues by attacking educators on an entirely false premise. In a very real way, Robinson is the problem.
Creativity, when it is present in a student, has always been as important as literacy. Teachers know this and act accordingly. And today this is given much more attention than ever before. Education is not conducted, as Robinson suggests, as it was in the 19th century, although having said that, there are some aspects of how education has been conducted in the past few decades that should not be continued today, as I have pointed out in the preceding paragraphs. Again, this is not news and his presentation is both extremely misleading and fosters false conclusions.
Robinson moves on to his second substantive claim, that the school system regards “correct” answers as the desired outcome and therefore it “punishes” mistakes. He presents no evidence in support of the claim but he tells a couple of jokes that are intended to illustrate the dangers of this supposed characteristic of the education system. The first, about the girl drawing a picture of God during an art lesson, is to illustrate how children, if they aren’t put down, can feel free to let their minds go in interesting directions. Quite true. Again, every teacher, including, apparently, the teacher of the little girl in the joke, knows this. Arts classes are the ideal (but not the only) venue for this, which is why we have them. Why art classes are being cut back is quite another matter, having more to do with money than educational practices.
The second joke is about the Nativity play and the punch line “Frank sent this.” I thought both jokes were good ones. Robinson’s point, with which I agree, is that children have to be free to make mistakes and that it is no big deal. Did you notice, though, that while claiming that mistakes are punished and how evil this is, he doesn’t go so far as to claim that the children depicted in the jokes were “punished”? Nevertheless, he allows this suggestion to linger in the listener’s mind, which is another rhetorical trick he uses over and over again – innuendo. What might be missed, in other words, is that while he uses these stories to illustrate how “mistakes are punished” in schools, he stops short of actually making the claim that there were negative repercussions for these children. So what then can we make of his claim that “being wrong is punished”? He offers no evidence in support of this claim anywhere in his speech, including the very examples he uses to illustrate it. In fact, you don’t hear any evidence for any of his claims in any part of his speech. Having gotten the audience on side, and having made these initial assertions, he simply leaves this claim, like all of his claims, out there as unspoken (and unsupported) assumptions. This is hardly a basis for improving or reforming the education system.
He then points out the obvious again by saying:
“What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
True as far as it goes. You do have to be prepared to take the risk that you might make a mistake or get a wrong answer in order to learn and improve but context is everything here, a crucial point that Robinson never brings up. Blowing a line in a play and winging it is one kind of mistake, and not the kind that has to be immediately addressed. Nor is it the kind that has to be “corrected” and certainly not punished. And such mistakes are not “punished”. In a math problem, on the other hand, learning what the mistake was and correcting it is the point and it is not damaging to a student to do so. It has to be stated that correction is not punishment. Robinson implies that there is no difference between the two or that correction constitutes punishment. This is not so and conflating the two is, in my view, unethical and a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the true state of affairs. Belittling or insulting someone while correcting him or her would be punishing them and Robinson, without spelling it out, leaves the impression that this is what teachers do when they correct a student. This is, of course, nonsense. If a person’s ego is so fragile that they cannot survive being corrected without giving up, there is a problem, but not one that is being caused by the teacher doing the correcting. If a student’s ego is that fragile, it is not the education system’s fault nor is it the system’s job to fix it. If a singer in the choir or player in the band hits a wrong note, it has to be brought to their attention and the mistake dealt with. But they can’t give up, at least not if they want to continue playing or singing. They practice and memorize and improve. If they do give up, then once again, this is their problem, not the “system’s”. Math and English are no different in that regard. Now, it is true that occasionally there are teachers who do belittle and demean students. This is quite wrong and completely unacceptable by any standard, the standards of the education system included. If Robinson is suggesting, either out of ignorance or malignity, that such behaviour is acceptable or that it is standard practice, then he is simply making a false statement. Period. In fact, teachers can be, and are, disciplined and even fired for such behaviour.
Next Robinson gets to the real meat of his argument:
“And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”
This is actually two claims being presented as one. As I said above, most people aren’t lucky enough to be born with “tremendous” talents so there was no particular “tremendous capacity” to be lost. But it is true that some people are afraid of being wrong, or at least, of being seen to be wrong in public. Teachers go to great lengths to try and make students feel comfortable enough to take risks but it impossible to do this for everyone, no matter how hard you try. Once again, students are independent and autonomous beings, not mere creations of their teachers.
And then Robinson pulls another little trick. He says:
“And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes.”
Companies? Wasn’t he talking about education? What do companies have to do with any of this? Let me explain what he is up to. Companies do stigmatize mistakes because mistakes cost money and reduce profits. Sometimes mistakes lead to disaster. No one, for example, wants to fly in an airplane made by an aircraft manufacturing company that tolerates engineering mistakes for fear of hurting the feelings of their engineers, and for a very good and obvious reason. Companies aren’t in the business of sheltering fragile egos. Neither are schools for that matter. At least, they shouldn’t be. Of course, there are bad managers who discourage employees and, if this happens in a context where creativity and innovation is the desired outcome, then there might be a distant connection with Robinson’s comments on education but it is pretty thin gruel at best. This is a “bait and switch” ploy. He switched from schools to companies as if they were equivalent things. They aren’t. Companies aren’t schools nor should either one be run like the other. Today, in fact, there is a huge problem with right wing ideologues attempting to interfere in the education system by trying to “corporatize” it. This is a mistake and a huge and well-recognized threat to education. Students are neither “widgets” to be “produced” nor “consumers” of some educational “product”. This pernicious idea has done untold damage in the education system already and needs to be stopped. It is exactly this sort of thing, though, that is at the root of Robinson’s little switcharoo. If you are developing a new product, creativity and innovation are valuable and valued. If you are checking the accuracy of engineering drawings, they aren’t. Context is important.
Next he says this:
“And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this. He said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.”
It is flatly false that the education system considers mistakes to be “the worst thing you can make” nor are students being educated out of their creative capacities, as I pointed out earlier. Schools can no more instill or teach creativity than they can instill or teach critical thinking. Both have to do with innate talents. These can be recognized and nurtured, but, like energy, neither can be created or destroyed by the schools. Picasso was wrong. All children are not born artists any more than all children are born Olympic champions or world-class musicians. Anyone who is not in some way handicapped can learn about those things and try their hand at them but not everyone is “tremendously talented” in any or every field. Robinson’s claim that people get educated out of their creativity is nothing more than a naked, unsupported assertion that is not backed up by a single fact and is refuted by easily observed facts.
Then there is another joke, this time about Shakespeare, with some offhand remarks about what might have appeared on his report card if he attended school today (“must try harder”) and how his Dad might have been impatient with his writing (“…and put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.”). Interestingly, Robinson doesn’t pursue the influence, for good or ill, of parents, an interesting omission.
After another joke he moves on to this:
“But something strikes you when you move to America and when you travel around the world: Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one. Doesn’t matter where you go. You’d think it would be otherwise, but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on Earth. And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think math is very important, but so is dance. Children dance all the time if they’re allowed to, we all do. We all have bodies, don’t we? Did I miss a meeting? Truthfully, what happens is, as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”
He is right about the hierarchy but all he does is ask why this is so without offering any answers. Again, this is a standard rhetorical device. The audience is to draw its own conclusions. It’s that evil, narrow-minded education system (insert “Boos” and “Hisses” here). In fact, it isn’t. It is political interference by means of financial starvation. It is true, as he later points out, that the education system is organized around the idea that all students will be going on to university, which is something that does indeed need to be addressed. But what drives the hierarchy is limited funds. As a practical matter, the so-called “three R’s”, or core academics, are rightfully considered basic information that people must have in order to function in society. Yes, the Arts are just as important but if you find yourself with limited funds, you get put in the position of making difficult and counterproductive choices. This is a matter for the ballot box, not the classroom. Educators have their hands tied by politicians on this subject.
Next he engages in more derogatory joking:
“…I think you’d have to conclude [if you were an alien visiting Earth] the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it? They’re the people who come out the top. And I used to be one, so there. And I like university professors, but you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life, another form of life. But they’re rather curious, and I say this out of affection for them. There’s something curious about professors in my experience — not all of them, but typically — they live in their heads. They live up there, and slightly to one side. They’re disembodied, you know, in a kind of literal way. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads, don’t they?”
This is a not-so-subtle put down of academia, notwithstanding the fact that Robinson himself is a product of it and off of which he is making a lucrative living by selling books and giving speeches, a “do as I say, not as I do” situation if ever I saw one.
I found this on the web that shows that at least someone else out there understands that Robinson is mocking academic achievement:
“Those born with charisma do not need to be the most beautiful, highly intelligent or unbeatably athletic persons around. Just as university professors view “their body as a form of transport for their heads”, the charming similarly view their bodies as a form of transport for their charisma. Every situation they encounter is made easier by their ability to manipulate personalities around them.”
This quote is a good indication that mockery is exactly what Robinson is up to and that I am not the only person who thinks so. You could use this approach to mock anyone or any group. Do singers just see their bodies as a way to transport their voices around? Give me a break. But what, exactly, is he mocking? Learning? Achievement? Just what is being made fun of here? You see, by this point in his speech, Robinson has pretty well gotten his audience to feel nothing but contempt for anyone who has achieved a high degree of learning or who has the temerity to try and pass their learning on to others. Apparently we are to believe that such people are just a bunch of useless, bloated eggheads preening their academic feathers. This is clearly what his audience is meant to conclude. Is that really what people feel? Is it a fair depiction? Sure, it may apply to some, but big egos aren’t restricted to academia and most professors I have encountered no more fit such a stereotype than do public school teachers. But Robinson evidently thinks so and he clearly wants his listeners to buy into this way of thinking without bothering to question it. It is the worst sort of derogatory and demonizing rhetoric. If this is what people think, or if people can be made to think that way by clever manipulation, it is a much greater threat to the future of education than any nonsense claims about stifling creativity.
Think about this next bit:
“Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there’s a reason. The whole system was invented — around the world, there were no public systems of education, really, before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So you were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked, on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist.”
Really? Ask yourself if that was your experience. I am willing to bet that it wasn’t and that your experience at school was just the opposite and that this is typical, not exceptional. I’ll bet that you were encouraged at every step along the way. Of course, there will be exceptions (there really are bad teachers after all) and people tend to remember a negative experience longer than a positive one, but think about it. In any case, Robinson presents not a single shred of evidence to support this silly claim.
“Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.”
What does that mean? I have no idea. It is a vague and negative statement and he doesn’t elaborate. In any case, as I stated above, such advice is not given in the first place, as actual experience shows, so the “mistake” he refers to, whatever he thinks it is, is not being made. Secondly, whatever the revolution is that he thinks we are we being “engulfed” by, he fails to explain how or why the arts would make a better way of dealing with the problem, if there is one, or why, for that matter, core academic subjects would fail to deal with the situation.
Now consider Robinson’s next set of statements:
“And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.”
By now, you can probably anticipate what I am going to say. First, university education arose independently from the public education system. The people who went to and ran the original universities did not design the public education system, which arose gradually and locally and evolved into what we now know as the public education system. What universities did do is exactly the opposite of what Robinson claims happens at universities. They fostered an atmosphere of unfettered and unprecedented intellectual freedom and creativity. We don’t call it the Enlightenment for nothing! Of course, to be able to take advantage of that situation, one had to first master the information needed to be creative and innovative. This point was not lost on local authorities and so schools gradually moved in the direction of providing an education that would give students the option of pursuing higher learning opportunities. I submit that this is not, of itself, an evil. But perhaps Robinson feels this task is too tiresome and is asking too much of students. They should just move straight to creativity and innovation without bothering to acquire any of that boring knowledge. Well, good luck with that. Public schools aim at university because of what universities have achieved for our society not because of some dictatorial control over them, and in so doing, they do make a mistake, and it is the one I detailed above. All students are encouraged to prepare to go on to university because it is a matter of educational dogma that all students can do anything and everything they want. Clearly that is nonsense. But it does not follow nor is it the case that non-university oriented studies are stigmatized. They are just not the focus. This does need to be changed, or rather, changed back. When I was in school, trades and the arts got much more attention (not least because there was enough money in the budgets to support them) than they do now. This was attacked at that time, ironically by would-be gurus of the day who sounded very much like Robinson, as “pigeon-holing” students, essentially denying them access to higher academic institutions and thereby curtailing their opportunities. That was as wrong a claim then as Robinson’s claims are now.
“In the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history. More people, and it’s the combination of all the things we’ve talked about — technology and its transformation effect on work, and demography and the huge explosion in population. Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything. Isn’t that true? When I was a student, if you had a degree, you had a job. If you didn’t have a job it’s because you didn’t want one. And I didn’t want one, frankly. (Laughter) But now kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It’s a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet. We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.”
Robinson says, “Suddenly, degrees aren’t worth anything. Isn’t that true?” Well, no, it isn’t. Graduating too many people in one area or another may lead to a glut on the market for that area of expertise, but that doesn’t make the degree worth less, it just means too many people are competing for the number of available jobs directly related to it, which is a problem, but not the problem he is talking about. Moreover, higher degrees such as MA’s and PhD’s are required in many areas today for the simple reason that knowledge has advanced in many areas to such a degree that a BA no longer includes enough information and background to qualify a person in those fields. Simply put, today more training is needed to work in those areas. Does Robinson think people should just be hired, qualified or not? He doesn’t tell us.
Next, one of my favourites:
“We know three things about intelligence. One, it’s diverse. We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement. Secondly, intelligence is dynamic. If you look at the interactions of a human brain, as we heard yesterday from a number of presentations, intelligence is wonderfully interactive. The brain isn’t divided into compartments. In fact, creativity — which I define as the process of having original ideas that have value — more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.”
In fact, almost all of this is dead wrong. He is talking here about Multiple Intelligences, an idea put forward by Howard Gardner and since promulgated by a number of his academic disciples and thoroughly rejected by everyone working in the field of human intelligence, which, tellingly, is not Gardner’s area of expertise. And Robinson garbles things further when, after having listed several types of “thinking”, he does a 180 and says that the brain is not compartmentalized, which is quite true. It is clear, in other words, that he has no idea of what he is talking about.
Skipping the jokes about men being different from women, he goes on with the story about Gillian Lynne:
“And the third thing about intelligence is, it’s distinct. I’m doing a new book at the moment called “Epiphany,” which is based on a series of interviews with people about how they discovered their talent. I’m fascinated by how people got to be there. It’s really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who maybe most people have never heard of, she’s called Gillian Lynne, have you heard of her? Some have. She’s a choreographer and everybody knows her work. She did “Cats,” and “Phantom of the Opera.” She’s wonderful. I used to be on the board of the Royal Ballet, in England, as you can see. Anyway, Gillian and I had lunch one day and I said, “Gillian, how’d you get to be a dancer?” And she said it was interesting, when she was at school, she was really hopeless. And the school, in the ’30s, wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate, she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. (Laughter) People weren’t aware they could have that.
Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat on a chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it — because she was disturbing people, her homework was always late, and so on, little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, “Gillian, I’ve listened to all these things that your mother’s told me, and I need to speak to her privately.” He said, “Wait here, we’ll be back, we won’t be very long.” and they went and left her. But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick, she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”
“I said, “What happened?” She said, “She did. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet, they did tap, they did jazz, they did modern, they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School, she became a soloist, she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she’s given pleasure to millions, and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”
Now that is a pretty impressive story. But what is his point? That all kids who are fidgety should take up dance, or at least, that they all have some “tremendous” untapped talent that is being destroyed by being in school? What he is doing here is presenting the logical fallacy known as the Biased Sample. He is presenting an exceptional case as if it represents the majority of cases. More on this below. I have to digress here for a moment to respond to a particularly nasty comment Robinson makes. In the last sentence of the paragraph above, Robinson mixes in a little kernel of emotion about medicating students to “calm them down”. This is a particularly vicious and nasty lie and as such is a totally false attack on educators. While there are anecdotal stories floating around about the unauthorized medicating of students to “keep them quiet”, as far as I know such instances, if they do happen, are rare. Indeed, if it is happening it is deplorable and unconscionable. Teachers certainly don’t do it because they can’t. The medications are prescription drugs and only a doctor can authorize their use. In fact, teachers are not allowed to give students any sort of medication whatsoever. Not even an aspirin. What I can tell you and what Robinson says nothing about are the many cases I have seen where a student who formerly could not function in a classroom at all because of a genuine attention deficit disorder was able, with the help of appropriate medications, to function and do well in school for the first time in their lives. Why do you suppose Robinson doesn’t talk about that? But there is an actual problem along these lines. The simple fact is that students fidget and behave in other disruptive ways that can become an issue in a classroom for a variety of reasons, the least common of which is that they have some amazing talent that is being ignored or that is unrecognized. Some are just ill behaved brats. Some drink too many caffeinated drinks. Some, as mentioned above, actually have unidentified or uncontrolled ADD or ADHD problems. A very real problem is that students who are misbehaving for reasons that have nothing to do with either attention deficit problems or frustrated genius are informally categorized by counselors and administrators (and sometimes teachers too I’ll admit) as having some sort of disorder but no steps are taken to verify it. Instead, they are simply excused from the normal behaviour expectations in a school and allowed to go on destroying class after class, oftentimes for years. The pathologizing of normal range behaviours originated with modern Psychology, not education and it is a real problem. Educators have been misled by these ideas but this can be, and is being, addressed.
Getting back to his story about Gillian Lynne, by citing this very exceptional example and suggesting that it represents the majority of cases, Robinson is trying to suggest that in reality, all kids who behave like she did are unrecognized geniuses who are being overlooked by their nincompoop teachers and are therefore examples of teacher incompetence and a lousy education system. He is just plain wrong and, in this case, deliberately attempting to mislead people as far as I am concerned. It is really an outrageous example of the most objectionable sort of calumny.
And finally, this”
“Now, I think … What I think it comes to is this: Al Gore spoke the other night about ecology, and the revolution that was triggered by Rachel Carson. I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, “If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.” And he’s right.
What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now that we use this gift wisely, and that we avert some of the scenarios that we’ve talked about. And the only way we’ll do it is by seeing 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, so they can face this future. By the way — we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it. Thank you very much.”
There is a glaring omission in the two paragraphs above. Can you guess what it is? Al Gore, Rachel Carson and Jonas Salk all have one very important thing in common from the standpoint of this discussion: They were or are all highly educated people whose education, including public schools, was the very thing that enabled them to make the great breakthroughs, contributions and achievements that they did, and in Gore’s case, continues to do. None of them could have achieved what they did without it. Robinson’s own examples give the lie to his premise.
Robinson uses the horrific image of “strip-mining children’s minds” to characterize the supposed evils of our education system and declares “…for the future, it won’t serve us.” I couldn’t disagree more. His image, while horrific, is not only a false one it is entirely meaningless. It is gratuitous verbal violence. Robinson has no corner on the market of celebrating the gift of human imagination and his charmingly delivered sneers suggest that such a celebration is not what he is up to at all. Of course the goal of education should be to educate the “whole being” of children. I know from the inside that this is exactly what educators aim to do and much time is spent trying to make sure that everyone works very hard to that end. Our intellectual and creative capacities are indeed the very things that will, and must, serve us. For the simple reason that they, and the human race’s hard won knowledge are all that we have. Robinson’s rant contributes nothing to the future. He offers only disparagement, insults and deception. He panders to self-inflicted prejudices that are based on false beliefs. He is just plain wrong.
Related posts and pages
|Sir Ken Robinson is the original rebuttal to a different Ken Robinson video, written by blog owner Crispin Weston.|
|Home page, with a full listing of posts on this blog.|