One well-known video that has circulated on the Internet for some time is Ken Robinson’s remarkable Ted talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out now). Robinson’s basic argument is that school systems today focus on math and science in order to give students the skills they need so that we can harness them to technical systems, which they will serve as workers. In opposition to this, he claims, we need to promote creativity in our students — preferably by increasing the role of arts in the curriculum — in order to give them the more-important skill of being able to adapt and flourish in the face of the unexpected. Its a good argument, and I agree with it, but there’s something wrong with it that I want to touch on here.
The poster child for Robinson’s argument is Gillian Lynne, the well-known dancer who choreographed Cats: as a child she performed poorly in school, but when her parents took her to a psychiatrist they were told “your child’s not sick, she’s a dancer”. They enrolled her in a special school, she graduated and went on to the Royal Ballet School, became a choreographer and, in Robinson’s words, has “brought pleasure to millions”. The most powerful line in his talk comes at the end of the story: “Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”
It’s exactly the sort of story that we want to hear, and therefore exactly the sort of story that anthropologists are suspicious of: creativity leads to financial success and improving the world — just what American culture hopes for. Creativity. Individuality. Authenticity. Opposition to Convention. Wealth. Success — it’s not just a recipe for the unique culture of TED (although it is that), it’s exactly what American culture thinks work.
In fact, it’s so good that you almost miss the part about the Royal Ballet School.
Hopefully the movie Black Swan is still on enough people’s minds that I don’t have to remind you what traditional ballet training is like: the nicest thing you can say about it is that it is one of the most rigorous and demanding forms of dance pedagogy on the planet. I find ballet beautiful, but having known women who have had bad experiences with the form, I have to admit I also see Ballet’s many, many downsides: obsessive concern with losing weight in order to meet the incredibly restrictive definitions of acceptable bodily form, painful and unnatural poses that stress joints and limbs (don’t believe me? Look up fifth position and give it a try), a culture of pedagogy that is often brutal and unforgiving, and a profession with room for few and disappointment for many. This is the dance form that created toe shoes: a piece of material culture which enables unearthly, ethereal grace at the price of bloody, bruised, and broken feet.
What happens to Robinson’s vision of schooling for creativity if we focus on the whole story, rather than the ethnocentric version of it? What happens when we decenter the creativity and foreground the conservatory in the dancer’s biography?
First, Robinson underplays the role of craft in enabling art. For me, someone who went through a performing arts education, this is the point that a focus on creativity obscures. For every opera singer there is solfege. For every composer there is counterpoint. For every great gospel singer there is a lifetime of church services. Ask anyone who does it — improvisation is something you learn.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell him this, since he himself comes out of an arts background. But it’s something his audience may forget in their rush to believe that creativity is the result of spontaneity, not immersion in a tradition of practice.
Second: Success in ballet — like most things in life — requires just a ridiculous, ridiculous amount of work. Being freakishly preadapted to a calling helps. For those of us who are not Dirk Nowitzkis, obsession helps provide the focus that makes us successful (check out Jack Black talking about his passion for guitar in the documentary It Might Get Loud). For most people though, just learning to plow through is the best we can do.
When looked at from this point of view, a decent white-collar job where you use basic math and science skills starts to look pretty good. This is a third point that Robinson’s talk obscures: for every unusually successful ballerina there are a dozen beautiful, athletic, talented women who are told they are too fat to succeed, where ‘fat’ means ‘went through puberty normally and no longer has body of ten year old boy’. And even the people who happen the fit the profile of these specialized forms, most do not go on to choreograph Cats. Robinson’s success story is one the vast majority of people will not be able to emulate. An education for a decent job starts to look pretty attractive.
Of course, overall I agree with Robinson’s point: as someone with a long history of performance in drama and music I am often shocked at the cultural barrenness of my students. We have created a system that teaches them that music comes out of machines, not them, and most serious dance they see on television has more in common with a strip tease than Alvin Ailey. Arts education, like physical education, or the craftwork that goes into creating visual art, is desperately needed in our schools’ curriculum at both the secondary and tertiary level. It’s an important part of learning to be human.
But what that education is — what enables creativity — is often quite different from what people imagine. It requires more training and discipline, not less. In other words: being socialized into a culture of practice. This is a lesson that any athropologist — or any artist — should remind us as we think about education in this country today.