Sunday, October 25, 2009

Creativity and education

What is education for? This is a the question explored in Daniel Wolff's new book, How Lincoln Learned to Read. I confess I haven't read the book yet, but I did hear him speak at a book signing last week, and it is in the queue. This question -- what do we want out of education, for ourselves, for our children, for our community ? -- seems to fall into two broad camps. One camp (and where I hang out, or try to) sees education as a self-maximization process, the be-all-you-can-be approach. Economics is secondary, and will follow in one way of another -- more of a statement of faith I suppose, but...

You can identify people from the other camp because the words "economic competitiveness" will likely pop up early on. Education is an economic function, in Marxist terms, the social reproduction of labor power. To be economically competitive in the global market, you need to know (fill in the blank). Pablum about the nature of work today, what employers look for or need to be competitive is trotted out, and then blueprints for "education reform" soon follow. Case in point: Thomas Friedman's October 20 column in the New York Times titled The New Untouchables. The "new untouchables" are the workers who bring something special (dare I say, something human?) to the workplace, like creativity or interpersonal skills, and thus are untouchable (i.e. difficult to replace) in the workplace. This has been a common theme over the past 25 years at least -- jobs that can be done by a machine or by a cheaper counterpart elsewhere will eventually be done by a machine or moved elsewhere. Within the dismal terms of the global economy, Capital will seek out the greatest return with the lowest cost, and Labor will always be an important front in the war to maximize profit. What is difficult to replicate in technology are attributes like (per Friedman) entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.

The two camps do overlap in some areas. Friedman holds that creativity is a key feature of the successful modern worker; a humanist educator would agree that creativity is a very special human potential and should be nurtured. "Entrepreneurship" is a narrow economic term and situates education in terms of the marketplace; a broader conception is to foster initiative, forward thinking, exploration, fascination and a willingness to try things out. Nevertheless, there are common elements in both camps.

The sad irony in this is that both camps are calling for a radically different kind of education than that being forced down the throats of teachers in Chicago and elsewhere. Data-driven instruction may sound scientific and efficient, but at the heart of it, it is antithetical to the kinds of skills Friedman is writing about that today's economy needs. (And Friedman has narrowly conceived of the human being as only a worker -- it doesn't begin to touch on the full range of human possibility.)

Simply put, multiple choice is antithetical to creative thinking. In terms of either globalization (Friedman) or humanism, the approach is wrong and destructive. Our society and planet face big big problems, and time is to critical to be wasted screwing around with wrong solutions.


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