Creative and Caring, or Creative and Selfish? A challenge for Sir Ken
I'm going to do something that is perhaps slighty unwise, I'm going to offer up a criticism of Sir Ken Robinson. 'Really?' I hear him chuckle. 'Well, frankly, Sir Ken, yes I am'. Its not just a criticism though, it is a challenge.
But, I'm starting with a disclaimer. A problem in any criticism we might offer up against academic superstars is that it can be misinterpreted as a dismissal of everything that they say and believe. So I'm starting by saying that I agree with Sir Ken Robinson in very many ways. Most especially, his critique of current formal education and how it homogenizes young people on factory like production lines, is spot on and vital to arguments for educational transformation. Like millions/billions of others I had my creativity passively contained during my years of formal academia, I know what he means. I wonder what I would have become if I hadn't been so consumed with the fear of failing the next test, essay or exam.
So, I agree with Sir Ken, it is of course very important for one to be allowed to flourish, to find one's passion and lead a fulfilling life. To state that this is good for people's wellbeing, is to state the bleeding obvious! But I'm glad Sir Ken is out there doing it because a lot of powerful people in education seem to disagree. Like Sir Ken I would argue for an agricultural model of education that nurtures individual students helping them to flourish and grow. And against industrial models that breeds conformity, standardization and control.
However, individual (individualist?) pursuit of a passion - the finding of our element - is not always necessarily going to be a good thing for wider society and the environment. In the same way that a 'cradle to cradle' designed oil pipe is not necessarily a good thing for the environment. In encouraging people to find their element, do we not need to ensure we are aligning this 'self direction' with a healthy wedge of 'self transcendence'? Tim Kasser posited this at a recent WWF Common Cause weekend I attended and it has hugely significant implications for education. Especially if you believe, as I do, that all education should ultimately be education for sustainability.
Now I don't believe that Sir Ken is indifferent to sustainability, he quipped in the second of his very famous TED talks: 'there is a major climate crisis, obviously, and if people don't believe it they should get out more!' But, in the many examples of people finding their 'element' he uses on stage and in his book, very few (eg. the firefighter he cites at 9m30 here) are working on what Tom Crompton, in Common Cause, calls 'Bigger than Self' issues. He does not choose examples of people who are great humanitarians, environmentalists or simple loyal companions. People who forgo personal gain, and sometimes even safety and comfort, to help others and address issues that transcend them. Where are the generous, kind, selfless, mature people with strong universalist and benevolence values? People like Greg Mortenson and Mohammed Yunus. There are many examples of people out there who are self-directed but also deeply care about bigger than self issues, they need to be championed!
Instead, the majority of examples Sir Ken presents (and the ones that stick in the mind) are fantastically successful and financially wealthy individuals. People like Paul McCartney, Bill Gates, Matt Groening etc etc; the Business and Cultural Elite. These people have risen above the shackles of industrialist education systems to fully exploit their talent and creativity in the field they love, I don't have any major problems with these people they make me laugh, sing and write lengthy blog posts. But, I do have problems with other historical and fantastically successful people, who, in their element, have achieved huge prominence, like military dictators, CEOs of arms manufacturing business, heads of petrochemical firms, bosses of pharmaceutical companies and George Bush junior. Indeed, I'm sure Dr Robert Oppenheimer was in his element when he was developing the atomic bomb. It is not always necessarily a good thing to encourage self-direction in people, you don't know what they might end up creating! However, this is not the main point I want to make and fear of what we might be unleashing should definitely not inhibit us from developing and celebrating creativity, critical thinking and self-direction.
My major concern is this: Sir Ken cites role models who are fantastically wealthy and/or successful. I understand why he does it, it is because audiences can relate to them, look up to them, respect them and even daydream of being like them. Not all of them are hugely famous and therefore instantly recognizable outside of their specific field though. For example, he talks about a female world champion pool player, it does not matter whether we know her name or not, we understand what a 'world champion' is and can appreciate the financial success, power, status and glory that comes with being one. In the same way we can imagine what a Nobel prize winner is and what the lives of FTSE 100 CEO's look like. What his examples do is play with our perceptions of what a fulfilling and meaningful life looks like. This is my criticism, by citing these examples he is reinforcing our self enhancing values. These people have found their element, but they are also often fantastically wealthy, popular, hugely respected, attractive and quite possibly world famous. They have designer clothes, big houses, fast cars, expensive holidays, thousands of air-miles and their own private swimming pools (probably). Sir Ken holds them up as exemplars of a creative life well lived and something to aspire to. In doing this he also, inadvertently, holds up all the luxurious trappings that surround such luminaries as something unquestionably OK. He doesn't question whether material wealth brings happiness or whether the selfish pursuit of one's goals is necessarily good for one's personal relationships and ecological footprint. The emphasis is on the 'self'; find 'your' element and 'you' will be happy.
The high value individuals have come to place on power, status, achievement, hedonism and financial success in modern western culture promotes hyper-individualism and selfish consumer capitalism. But, people who place a high priority on the self are far less likely to care about bigger than self issues like climate change, biodiversity loss and global inequality. That's not just a theory, the evidence can be found in the Common Cause report if you want to look it up. When self-enhancing values are strong, so too is materialism. So not only do people care less about bigger than self issues when they are overly concerned with enhancing the self, they are also the people who are most likely to over consume the world's resources as they buy status symbol after status symbol in their attempts to assert their identity.
The consequences of reinforcing self-enhancing values are not just global and environmental, they are very personal too. Tim Kasser discusses the High Price of Materialism for our emotional wellbeing as do Hamilton and Dennis, De Graff et al., and Oliver James who have all released books under the heading 'Affluenza'. The imperative for individuals and society is clear, lessen the emphasis placed on self-enhancing values, don't expect them to disappear completely, just lower their influence a little in favour of self-transcendence.
Common Cause argues strongly that when Civil Society Organisations inadvertently reinforce self-enhancing values they have a counter-productive impact on the bigger than self issues they are trying to solve. So here is the challenge for Sir Ken and for a transformed education system:
Please do promote self-direction, creativity and critical thinking in education but frame it within the values of self-transcendence and a critique of the cultural reinforcement of self-enhancing values. If we want children to grow up to be creative, kind, generous, community spirited, mature young adults; rather than creative, infantalised, image and celebrity obsessed, selfish consumer capitalists we need to be very careful about how we transform education and which values we promote in doing it.