How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
Hamlet, I, ii, 133-8
Recently, a document about education in Australia found its way onto my desk. Hereafter referred to as “The Paper,” its point could be summed up in the claim that there exists some particular skills that have been designated as “Twenty-First Century Skills,” due to the fact that, as The Paper’s foreword states, “there is nothing more certain than change,” and “schools … are responsible for educating and equipping students for an unknown world.”
In this constantly changing world, the skills singled out as belonging to the Twenty-First Century are creativity, critical thinking, and global competence. Upon first glance, this not only rings true, but also seems so commonsense that it hardly merits special attention. Schools should encourage creativity and teach critical thinking, and, while perhaps requiring more definition, a certain amount of “global competence” certainly makes sense.
However, as with most documents of this kind, the devil is in the detail, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Questions abound. What exactly is the “skill” of creativity? Is it rightly understood as a “skill”—comparable to learning to tie one’s laces, or bake a cake? If it is a skill, what does it mean to teach it? Finally, why is it specific to the twenty-first century?
I searched for answers to these questions within The Paper, hoping for the kind of clarity one would expect from an organization promoting critical thinking. Initially I was encouraged by straightforward and unambiguous statements such as, “this paper contends that these contemporary skill sets need to be explicitly taught.” Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, I was disappointed to find that this assertion was never supported or explained. The best way to summarize is that The Paper eventually reveals that the way to teach creativity is by not teaching it at all.
Don’t get me wrong; a particular approach is recommended. It’s something called “student centered learning.” To best explain it, Professor Yong Zhao is quoted as saying that “education in the twenty-first century is all about starting from the children; it is about following the child, supporting the child—enhancing their strength, supporting their passion and uncovering their creativity—rather than imposing upon everybody a generic set of knowledge or skills.”
The inconsistency should be immediately obvious. While The Paper initially proposed that creativity should be “explicitly taught,” it is now suggesting that educators should merely “uncover” it. This is not the only contradiction. Why, for example, should Zhao’s contempt for “generic skills” not be equally applied to the set of skills advocated by the paper? Why are creativity, critical thinking, and global competence—the skills allegedly required for a twenty-first century education—exempt from this dismissal? Is it because they are not “generic” enough, whatever that means?
While at first Zhao’s claim may appear to be a wonderful sentiment—suitably progressive and emotionally supportive in order to elicit the required nods and smiles from an uncritical audience concerned mainly with an ill-defined concept of self-esteem—it is, in fact based upon a particular assumption about reality and the nature of education.
When Educators Treat Children like Little Adults
The philosophical foundation for such thinking is explained in an earlier section. Quoting Williamson and Payton from their book Curriculum and Teaching Innovation: Transforming Classroom Practice and Personalisation, The Paper explains that twenty-first century education must dispute the old lie that “adults are ‘human beings’ while children are just ‘human becomings’; that adults are complete, independent and self-controlling and children incomplete and dependent.”
I do not disagree that this is an old lie. It is, and a most dangerous one. However, I do disagree with what part of it is a lie. It is not that children are “incomplete and dependent,” but rather that “adults are complete, independent and self-controlling.” We are not, none of us, independent and self-controlling. It is what we wish to be, the lie that we have been happy to swallow and promote, but it is untrue. The over-inflated view of human adults has trickled down into an over-inflated view of human children. If adults are perfected demi-gods, then so must be children, and if this is the case, how dare a teacher assume they “know” something that a student might need to hear?
Compare the words of Williamson and Payton with those of C.S. Lewis, regarding what he understood as true education:
…it implies an immense superiority on the part of the teacher. He is trying to make the pupil a good man, in the sense I have described. The assumption is that the master is already human, the pupil a mere candidate for humanity—an unregenerate little bundle of appetites which is to be kneaded and moulded into human shape by one who knows better. In education the master is the agent, the pupil, the patient.
Here are two anthropologies at stark odds. The contemporary view, student-centered learning, sees students and teachers as “equal participants in the classroom,” and teachers are to “negotiate with students what they want to learn” as “co-makers of the curriculum.” The older view is that the teacher has something worth imparting to the student. It assumes that the teacher is a “good man,” and can therefore instil the “just sentiments” that Lewis refers to in the Abolition of Man, in order to make his pupil a “good man.”
At this point we can see why such a view is no longer in vogue: firstly, it is because there is no such thing as the “good man” in a world in which good is a matter of opinion; and secondly, because few teachers would be willing to subject themselves to that kind of introspection. Lewis’ statement, in order to be enacted, actually requires good teachers who “know better” than their students. Such people are becoming a rare commodity indeed, and those that are around must play the game carefully lest they be accused of making objective statements in the classroom.
But what about the technique? Whether one sides with Williamson and Payton or Lewis, does Professor Zhao’s approach actually work? Are students who do not have a generic set of skills and knowledge imposed upon them more creative?
History would suggest not. Disregarding the never-justified claim that creativity is a skill specifically important to the twenty-first century (as if there were ever a time it was not important), we may simply ask the question of whether humanity’s creativity is increasing or decreasing. What might we suggest is the most creative period of human history?
As with all things, it is a matter of definitions; however, only a very ignorant person would argue that Beyonce’s Run the World (Girls) is more creative than Bach’s Toccata in D Minor; only a very silly person will argue that Tracey Emin’s My Bed is a work of genius that parallels Michelangelo’s David; and only a seriously deranged person would argue that Dante’s Divine Comedy is equally as imaginative as 50 Shades of Grey (despite the latter’s bland description of the second circle of Hell). As is becoming increasingly obvious these days, only someone very well educated could be that stupid.
Creativity Needs Limitations
Regardless of when one places the highpoint of human creativity, it is doubtless not today. For this, there are many reasons, but principal among them would be humanity’s rejection of limitations. Art requires boundaries: the frame of the painting, the marble rock with weakness and strength running along veins, the language of expression, the physical confines of vocal ranges and musical instruments. From within these limitations, through embracing and understanding the rules of reality, creativity flourishes and true genius can emerge. To dismiss these limitations as mere “generic knowledge” prevents real creativity.
If as a student you were ever sat in class and told to “just write a story,” chances are you experienced a stultifying kind of shell shock. It is a common experience in my own classrooms. Unless students have had some specific training preparing for this event, a great percentage of them simply cannot handle it. Sure, a few might start madly typing away, but for each one of them there are two staring out the window, one fidgeting with his books, three pretending to be typing but really playing games, and a few madly panicking about their lack of ability to hold onto any one concrete thought for more than a couple of moments.
While it sounds counterintuitive, limitations liberate creativity. The wisdom of God is foolishness to man.
Yet eventually, because of humanity’s inbuilt creativity, stuff still emerges. Stuff is perhaps a polite word for what passes as modern works of creativity. When students are expected to be self-generators and their natural creative impulse is engaged, they will not produce nothing, but will rarely produce something truly creative. There is only one self-generator, and he is not human. We cannot create ex-nihilo; we shape that which has already been created.
Creativity is not a skill to be “taught.” This is perhaps why The Paper could not explain how to do it. However, to imagine that the best way to help students be creative is to unleash them into the world and encourage their rejection of “generic knowledge and skills” is not the answer. They will not create—they will destroy. The postmodern artist is an artist of negation. Creativity that does not respect reality is not creativity at all. It is its opposite—destruction.
Our desire to be creative is part of what it means to be human; but when we create without knowing what creation is, without acknowledging the rules of reality, the best we can do is a pale imitation, the worst and most common, a twisted celebration of humanity’s despair and brokenness. Lewis once remarked that the “task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” The Paper agrees only halfway. It agrees the garden needs water, but it would have us leave it untended and see what pops up. Society goes one further and celebrates the inevitable noxious weeds as examples of artistic clarity and daring.
We can conclude by returning for a moment to Professor Zhao’s exhortation. One of the reasons that it seems so good is because it almost is. Education is certainly about “enhancing strength” and “supporting passions” and “uncovering creativity,” but it is not, nor has it ever been, about rejecting truth, beauty, and goodness. These objective realities are seen as disgusting limitations by the modern acedia-soaked world of academia. Their very existence is a testament to the undeniable fact that we are not God and cannot refashion reality as we please.
Students left alone will rarely “enhance their strength”; strength is enhanced by putting it under strain. Students and teachers are not “equals”; passion can only be supported by someone who has the greater fortitude to support. Creativity is uncovered like a valuable relic in an archaeological dig, by using the appropriate tools and techniques. Letting an untrained excavator select his “weapon of choice”—be it brush and trowel or bobcat and dynamite—will only result in disaster.
Limitations are not shackles of slavery; rather they are the key to freedom. God’s law helps us to live according to reality, which is a requirement for the joy of true creativity. Limits exist for a reason, and schools exist to teach them.