The ‘Conservatory’ in ‘Creativity’, or, Ken Robinson vs. Black Swan

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.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

14 thoughts on “The ‘Conservatory’ in ‘Creativity’, or, Ken Robinson vs. Black Swan

  1. An important point, beautifully made. What immediately comes to my mind is Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which not only reinforces the importance of training and practice (10,000 hours of the latter seem necessary to make a star). It also points to accidents such as birth date and social class in providing the opportunities for the training and practice required.

  2. Robinson’s success story is one the vast majority of people will not be able to emulate

    What is missing from the binary opposition of winners and losers implicit in this comment is the large number of people who, while they will never be stars or even professional artists/performers, derive immense satisfaction from their hobbies. The same can be true of scholarship.

  3. Much art training is trivialized because the teachers don’t expect the sort of performance levels that would be necessary for the productions to be of interest to others.

    I wish the education of people who were gifted was considerably more rigorous — I tried as a kid to learn prosody, perspective, all the control systems for the arts I was interested in, only to have teachers tell me that it was all about self-expression. and big paint brushes, no need to learn prosody now that free verse had taken over (in my own short teaching experiences, I’ve noticed that adolescents don’t have as much of a taste for experimentalism as 30 to 40 year olds).

    I’m all in favor of real art classes, but I never had one until my senior year in high school and by that time, I’d given up drawing and painting, believing I didn’t really have that much talent, and I didn’t see enough quality in my teacher’s work to believe in his opinion.

    Doing the best possible writing/art/music is not as relaxing as people who are easily self-satisfied imagine. It’s the difference between toodling around on a bicycle and training for racing. Nothing wrong with toodling around on a bicycle, but if someone has the drive to race, the highs may be higher, but the lows and frustrations will be more intense. Training everyone in the arts in disciplined, thorough way, may end us up with fewer hobbyists, but perhaps more people will understand that other ways of thinking are as rigorous as trigonometry. (I’ve noticed that a number of computer programmers are also musicians, some of them having been professional musicians at stages of their lives — both seem to involve developing certain styles of patterned thinking).

    I once taught a creative writing class in poetry through using exercises to make my students sensitive to what elements of language poetry used to build its effects. It was a pass/fail class, though apparently many of my students didn’t read the catalogue. At the end of the term, the complaint was “We worked that hard for a Pass?” On the other hand, a young man who hated what he thought he knew about poetry decided it had a rigor that he liked (double major in English and Business).

    One of the last academic duties I did was work with a young woman’s senior project, a section of a fantasy novel. She’d had creative writing classes at two different institutions in the past, but nobody had ever told her that PoV was how a writer directed the reader’s attention as to which characters to pay the most attention to. She hadn’t learned one of the basics about writing the sort of fiction she wanted to write professionally.

    One of her teachers wanted me to encourage her a few years later. I didn’t see any way she could get now the education she should have had to help her be the writer she wanted to be, and probably mourning the loss and moving on would be better than anything that gave her false hopes. Perhaps not being able to understand from reading how PoV works meant her basic abilities weren’t up to her ambitions. But it was educational malpractice to ignore her ambitions and not help her see what tools and strategies she needed to make the kind of fiction she wanted to make.

    The people who taught her were English teachers who wrote as a hobby (since most aren’t making even a tenth of their livings from art). None of them understood commercial fantasy, which is what the student wanted to write. Hobbyists are fine if they don’t get in the way, but many of them don’t realize they are not really skilled in their arts and do very much get in the way and do not understand their own limits.

    One of the real problems is that we’ve sentimentalized doing mediocre art as “creative.” Well, it’s really not creative. Doing imitations is part of the training, but not the goal of the training.

    Creative is when the artist thinks through the art, isn’t just doing art. Unfortunately, “being creative,” however badly and uselessly, is honored in certain circles more than making shoes.

  4. Ouch, it’s bad ethnography to base oneself on a film full of old clichés about the ballet world. Many ballet dancers have criticised Black Swan for being ridiculous, misinformed and misguiding as to what contemporary ballet is like. Who would take Indiana Jones as a reference to discuss Amazonian people?

  5. @Rebecca

    You make a compelling case for the need for early acquisition of necessary training. Gladwell’s 10,000 hours points in a similar direction, adding consideration of how hard it becomes to catch up if you start too late. Still, however, then discussion is framed by an implicit contrast between stellar and failure that forgets the substantial number of people who are, as we say in Japan, at a “high amateur” level in pursuing of their hobbies.

    Allow me a personal example: Almost two years ago, I joined a men’s chorus. The members are not professional singers; but the four part leaders are. Ditto for the directors, the young one who handles regular rehearsals, his teacher who steps in during the last month before performances, and the big name, a genuine star in Japan, who conducts the performances. Weekly practices on Wednesday evenings, extra rehearsals twice a month, accelerating to five or six a month before performances, take up a lot of member time. Besides an annual concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo (Japan’s equivalent to Carnegie Hall in NY), the chorus does an annual overseas tour that had us singing last year at the Cathedral in Milan and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

    By joining the chorus, I have become aware of what, to use Howard Becker’s phrase, we can call an “Art World” of classical music, in which high-amateur connoisseurs participate in a rich array of amateur ensembles, orchestras and choruses as performers, as well as making up a large segment of the audiences who support live classical music in Japan.

    The anthropologist in me observes that social class cannot be ignored in understanding how this world operates. Its economic foundation is made up of mostly middle and upper class older people with the time and money necessary for costly and demanding hobbies. Without them, the stars and lesser professionals would have no careers to pursue. I strongly suspect that this is also true of other art worlds and, thus, that fostering appropriate audiences, whose most enthusiastic members are, at least at a high amateur level, participants as well as observers/fans of the arts in question, a critical role for liberal education.

  6. This is really where Culture A doesn’t behave as Culture B. Nicaragua, where I’m currently living, doesn’t have the MFA programs that the US has — whatever training for poets was not along those lines, but poetry was and in some areas still is a strong avocation. I’ve also living in a country region in the US where playing music well was critical — the focus was on the pleasure a player brought the listener and I’ve talked to professional folk musicians who said they’d been very impressed by the level of musicianship. Some of the local musicians do go on to be professionals and some of those decide that they’d rather be amateurs in communities that understood their music.

    I’m not sure though, that, the average US creative writing classes or arts classes work at this level (the country kids learn to play very early — one of the local musicians said people had their musicianship down by age 12, beyond that was presentation and showmanship.

    Most of the rural musicians were petty-bourgeois, two owned businesses, another supplemented his post office income with rental income. They weren’t the poor; they also weren’t the rich.

    The problem is that most Americans enrolling in an MFA program are not interested in spending that time to be a better audience. I’m not convinced that this works in American culture the same way it seems to work from your account in Japanese culture. Middle class Americans seem to self-define by their jobs, perhaps more than other cultures or even other American classes. I’m a published s.f. writer — no end of people assume they’re going to do better than I’ve done because they were more successful in more traditional lines of work.

    We had a huge Poetry in the Schools program in the 70s — I’m not seeing those people as the audience for a newly revived and popular poetry — and suspect that Allen Ginsberg was the last poet who could make a solid middle class living from being a poet (he tended to help other writers so didn’t live a traditional middle class life).

    As with my student who had never been exposed to any sort of intellectual rigor in discussing poetry, most people get workshops, as in students discuss each other’s work without having sufficient training in formal considerations. Richard Powers, a novelist who teachs, doesn’t use workshops (or exclusively workshops) with his undergraduate writers.

    I’m not convinced that actually producing first rate readers is the goal of most American literature classes or creative writing classes — it’s more to expose students to literature so they don’t come down with it later. My own self-education was reading well ahead of the assignments (years in some cases) and reading commentary by writers like Eliot, W.H. Auden, and others who were practicing writers. The average high school instructor doesn’t write for fun and doesn’t appear to read for fun either, and tends to attack whatever the students are themselves reading for pleasure (my freshmen often read fantasy which was an obvious influence on their descriptive writing, but resisted confessing it until I convinced them I really didn’t hate it). Our intro literature text pitting things that were good for you to read against the trash that they’d been reading for pleasure (only most of them weren’t reading anything for pleasure). I go with Frank O’Hara on this — better to read what give you pleasure; force feeding doesn’t make for great audiences but people who don’t really like anything except for its status value.

    The MFA programs would collapse if they were honest with their students and with themselves (many are one famous writer who wrote before coming to academia and whoever in the English Department has published a few things with small or academic presses). I get the impression that poetry had more readers earlier (W.H. Auden was considered for a Time Magazine cover story).

    There are days when I think the best education was a classical one (or any one that involved translation between languages). Talking about taste gets pretentious very fast — and as a science fiction writer, I’ve been attacked in university circles for not writing literature. (I also horrified someone by saying that once I began to be taught in s.f. fiction literature classes, my sales dropped).

    I’ve always been shocked by the people who earned literature Ph.D.s and were uneasy about their own taste in contemporary poetry, who were afraid to like the wrong thing, to be the person who attacked T.S. Eliot.

    Obviously, I’m not approaching this as anthropologist, but as a minor writer who does wonder if I’d been better with a better education. (I’m an anthropology fan, though).

  7. Is it the same question to ask whether exposure to the arts in K-12 education has value as it is to ask what it takes to be creative artists in particular art forms?

    I believe that these are two different questions. The fine and performing arts, when taught be qualified instructors, expose students to ways of thinking and producing not experienced in academic subjects. Discipline in the arts is of a different nature than that in the academic areas.

    I’m not an educator who can cite research directly, so my apologies for saying that research has shown that at-risk students in schools with strong arts programs do better academically than those without such programs.

    I briefly volunteered with a program for underachieving, at-risk African American middle schoolers. We tutored them in literature once a week—literature that connected to a proud African American history. In doing so, we encountered various forms of resistance that were redirected slowly into productive outcomes. However, when an African dance instructor came in to teach West African dance, the students came alive–connecting it with dance forms that they practiced as part of their daily lives. They started making larger connections and found pride in their traditions. Plus, it was immediately accessible and enjoyable.

    I don’t specialize in the anthropology of art, have only perused the literature briefly. However, it strikes me that we identify artists as products of the conservatory only at some risk. While artists who produce in “the street” have their own training to go through, art and the expression of meaning is perhaps a fundamental human experience and we separate our children from this experience at an impoverishment of their lives. For those who have worked in the anthropology of art, the description of art itself is a difficult task…for art is sometimes so intertwined with the practices of living that is difficult to fit our segmented categories into these holistic ways of seeing and living the world.

    I believe that art programs–band, chorus, fine arts–all have a place in K-12 education. I also believe that welcoming in the artistic practices of the communities in which education takes place enriches the ways in which children understand themselves, their communities, and the world around them.

  8. @Rebecca

    Most of the rural musicians were petty-bourgeois, two owned businesses, another supplemented his post office income with rental income. They weren’t the poor; they also weren’t the rich.

    A rural community in the USA, an upper crust segment of society in a global megalopolis called Tokyo–from a sociological perspective, there may be more similarities between their art worlds than one would expect given the obvious differences in class, ethnicity and scale. I am not surprised to hear that the rural musicians were petit bourgeois. Like the members of the Roppongi Men’s Chorus Club, they are individuals with the time and financial resources required to participate in the art world of which they are a part. They find satisfaction in forms of performance to which they were introduced as kids. (In Japan, choral music has been a part of public education since shortly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868.)

    Both, I suggest, are members of what I have labeled “purposeful playful communities,” whose members find purpose and enjoyment in collective activities that complement other, economic, religious, or political aspects of their lives.

  9. Thanks a lot for this post. The first time I watched Robinson’s TED talk, I felt inspired and enlightened. I think his way of telling the story is somehow soothing to the mind.

    I think it’s that soothing feeling that calms our critical mind. You were right to point out that his point is not flawless. Thanks for that other point of view.

  10. @Linda

    I believe that art programs–band, chorus, fine arts–all have a place in K-12 education. I also believe that welcoming in the artistic practices of the communities in which education takes place enriches the ways in which children understand themselves, their communities, and the world around them.

    I couldn’t agree more. I would add to the list shop classes and basic bookkeeping, neither of which I took in high school because they were not part of the “academic” track. In retrospect they, like the high school marching band in which I played, have done a lot to encourage a sense of agency and control over my life in a way missing from the mostly read-and-regurgitate college prep courses I took.

  11. 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.

    There still are such creatures, but the B.A. or M.A. in a hard science → guaranteed, stable employment with compensation commensurate with your abilities → pensioned retirement pipeline available to all who so desire is on the way out with the boomers. I thought his observation that “[n]obody has a clue […] what the world will look like in five years’ time” was the most important part of the talk. Right now the American education system is one of the reasons we are still fighting the last (post-)war.

  12. MT, we agree. To push the point a bit further, we might also observe that when the Macdonaldization of society* comes to education students learn only to make consumerist choices that are neither difficult nor consequential. Lousy training for a world in which there is no guarantee of the income required to buy daily necessities, let alone the toys they desire.

    *This phrase is from the title of sociologist George Ritzer’s deservedly famous book.

  13. Many students use the various TAs and adjuncts who are their first contact with “better culture” as negative examples. What happened to us is what happens when you care too much about the arts: you get paid crap with no benefits.

    Why should students take the arts seriously? Their universities, with some exceptions, certainly don’t. The arts are a good place to park problem children until they graduate (see the shooting at Virginia Tech for an example of administrative contempt for the English department faculty’s concerns).

    I assigned the faculty reading series to my freshmen comp students at a third tier school. They came back to say that it hadn’t been as bad as they’d expected. I’m not sure that wasn’t very faint praise; I do know what their stereotype of educator art was like.

    The same people, or the high school teachers they’ve trained, tell the students that commercial fantasy is garbage they need to be saved from. So, we’ve got an attack on the arts that people actually enjoy and an attempt to make them appreciate these other things. Art education generally loses its credibility when it attempts to prescribe taste. Unless people really understand how writing works in both simple excellent examples and complex excellent examples, they tend to favor the complex that isn’t good over the simple that is. The complex is more teachable.

    I had a wonderful hour and a half debate over the value of poetry with one of my students. After the class, he was terrified that I’d grade him down for it. Best class ever for me, forced me to think about my own values. I reassured him that I was completely happy with how things had gone, but the reality is that many teachers would not have been.

    Would the US be worse off if all that most people learned in K-12 were two foreign languages (fold literature and history into that), math to trigonometry or calculus, biology and chemistry, music, and one team sport/chorus/dance. Maybe throw in computer programming, but my impression is that changes fair more than does basic math and the kids who are going to be good at it are driven to pick it up on their own and can study it more formally in university and will be better students if they bring good language skills and good math skills to their CS classes.

  14. @Rebecca and Linda

    I wonder if part of the problem isn’t encapsulated in the term “exposure.” As I have noted in other contexts, when I began teaching in the early 1970s, there was already evidence that the notion that the function of education is to open up parochial minds by exposing them to new ideas and experiences was becoming obsolete. At the little ivy league liberal arts college where I taught, it was already clear that the problem our students faced wasn’t being trapped in a narrow religious or other ideology. It was, on the contrary, that mass media, combined with a consumer-choice model of curriculum selection (choose what you like, we do it all for you) was leaving them in a muddle, desperately seeking something in which to believe but ill-equipped to actively pursue it. In the age of the Internet and the Macdonaldization of education, those tendencies have, it seems to me, permeated society, at least in most of the OECD countries. From this perspective, what is needed is active personal engagement, not just exposure, to art, music, literature, science, shop, whatever. The economy will still need consumers; but society needs makers, and turning students into makers should be a top priority.

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