Killing creativity, ruthlessly and systematically


I’m a big fan of TED talks. In my view, they’re among the best things on the net (which is the whole point), along with xkcd (the ultimate webcomic for nerdy sciencey types). In the latest TED talk I’ve come across, Sir Ken Robinson asks whether schools kill creativity.

It’s an excellent talk, delivered with superb comic timing, and has struck a definite chord with me.

He makes the point that in every education system around the world, there is the same hierarchy of subjects, with science and maths at the top, then languages, and humanities and the arts at the bottom. So, someone who has a natural talent for dance, but can’t sit still in a maths class could be considered not only as an academic failure, but also a disruptive influence on others. There’s no reason why their natural creative talent shouldn’t be considered of equal value and equally nurtured.

Children’s natural talents and creativity can be smothered at an early age by an education system designed to place greater value on certain subjects than on others. It could be argued that these subjects are ultimately of greater value to the economy, but I think this attitude is self-defeating.

I think science is important, but I don’t want everyone to be a scientist or to think rationally about everything. The world would be a much duller place. We need a range of talents to create a balanced society.

Now, I want to take Sir Ken’s point and apply it to the other end of the educational ladder. There’s been a long-running farce over government trying to force a “culture change” in university science research, whereby projects are assessed in terms of foreseeable economic impact, and research departments are increasingly encouraged to coordinate with business.

It appears vaguely sensible in the short term to try to justify public investment in terms of the expected return, but again, this approach of determining the relative value of different projects will kill creativity.

Scientists become scientists for different reasons, and bring with them a vast range of talents and ideas. Applying an economic filter to every single proposal for funding actively discourages true scientific innovation.

In some cases scientists are also actively discouraged from submitting risky proposals for fear of being blacklisted for if too many ideas are rejected.

If science funding is tight, as we all know it will be for several years to come, surely it should be used to encourage creative new science and solutions to the world’s problems. Don’t kill our creativity.

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3 Comments on “Killing creativity, ruthlessly and systematically”

  1. martywalpole Says:

    This was damn interesting. Sir Ken speaks truths – he’s also quite funny. I agree James, brilliant timing.

  2. Thank you so much for posting that video James. Stunning. Simply stunning – funny, moving, perceptive, and cogently argued. It should be required viewing for any politician who has even the slightest potential to influence government policy on education.

    …and your post should then in turn be read by those at the research/funding councils responsible for determining how taxpayers’ money is spent on academic research. (Remarkable how you can say in a few punchy paragraphs what it takes me the best part of ten pages to put across!).

    One of the things that increasingly depresses me about academia is just how strongly CP Snow’s “two culture” ethos remains embedded. I know a number of colleagues in my discipline (physics) who are of the opinion that unless students are studying a STEM subject, they’re wasting their time at university. I posted the following little excerpt (from an excellent BBC R4 series called “Absolute Power”) on Richard Jone’s Soft Machines blog a few years ago. It’s even more relevant now given what’s happening to the philosophy department at Middlesex University…

    Government spin-doctor: “The time has come for a major initiative in education. We’re going to close down half the universities in the country.”

    “You’re going to do what?!”

    “We’re going to stop wasting public money on self-indulgent young people reading damn silly subjects like history or… philosophy. I mean, philosophy – for pity’s sake.”

    From the BBC R4 series Absolute Power starring Stephen Fry and John Bird. Episode 8: Promoting Philosophy (broadcast in 2001).

  3. […] I could go into some detail about the teaching methods used, and why I think they were so fundamentally wrong, but I want to pick up on a specific point which ties into my recent post about creativity. […]

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