Your Element, Education, and Creativity

This bit is a reflection on the research put forth by Sir Ken Robinson relating to education, creativity, and passions.

– Sir Ken Robinson – Changing Paradigms

Society frequently offers what we’ve come to know as “formal education” as the means to a successful future. There’s not a single person who hasn’t at least weighed the idea of pursuing a higher education as, if not the best means of moving towards the future we envision for ourselves, certainly among the most viable. That’s not to say that every single person would attend college if they had to opportunity but that formal education has itself been championed to the point to where it’s considered the primary edifice for social mobility. When I make reference to institutionalized education, I’m referring to how formal education (compulsory up to—and including—college), particularly in the United States, has through time—and the intermingling of politics and government—created a rigid structure that supposedly takes in children, turns them into students, and spits them out into the real world with goals and ambitions to become people of importance—a process that makes anywhere between 12-18 years of their life. This is the perception and, furthermore, not the reality.

It’s generally agreed upon that we have an obligation to our youth to teach them values and pass on accepted knowledge and truths. While it is true that we are all capable of learning, many people have specific aptitudes that allow them to do better in certain subjects than in others. These propensities are supposed to provide the mold for a divergence of interest which ideally leads to an inclination toward a particular subject or field of study that can be pursued further at a higher level. Note the presuppositional nature of that sentence. We assume that this process of institutionalized education will, at the very least, tap into our potential to be creative, contributing, and productive members of society through the pursuit of a litany of professions, the honing of a variety of skills and abilities, and/or the discovery of productive and self-satisfactory activities. Very broadly defined—how we want to spend the rest of our existence. I think it’s fair to say that there’s a general consensus that the answer to that question should be contingent on the amount of high level education one receives in their life time. Education should play a significant role—in a sense I agree. However, there is a certain balance of self-inquiry necessary in determining what you want to do with your life, independent from a formal education, but capable of arising from it. These are your natural talents and abilities you may or may not discover should you not devote time and effort in trying to uncover them, time which doesn’t necessarily have to be spent inside the classroom. The things that, above everything else, give us purpose, are meaningful, and appeal to the peak of our senses. Many people know the feeling—to be doing the thing you’re naturally good at or simply love doing. It brings the very best out of us emotionally and intellectually, sending us into a state of serenity, timeless and without the stressors of daily life. Your creative mind is in full-throttle, and your imagination runs wild—a state of being commonly referred to as “being in your element,” a place where we are most at peace with ourselves and others.

There is vast evidence suggesting that human beings are born with an innate capacity for creativity, which coincides with our unrivaled sophistication and complexity as a species. It is this very capacity for creativity which drives innovation, and it’s innovation that is responsible for technological, social, and logistical advancements in the societies of the world—a progression which can be charted and remains exponential to this day. Suffice it to say, the world runs on the creativity of man. Likewise, we often look to creative people to solve our problems. Many of the problems we face today demand a level of ingenuity and creativity that simply does not exist in abundance, or isn’t allowed to. It is precisely this bit that is important—we are lacking in the amount of creativity that exists in society. If people were allowed to be creative individuals and pursue their own talents and abilities then I suspect our world would be less problematic and our societies would grow at an unimaginable rate. Underdevelopment, albeit an inevitable phase of developing societies, would be as brief a transition as waking up in the morning and deciding on breakfast. Our own individual creativity is the missing ingredient in creating a more successful, collectively happy, functioning, and progressing global society.

But exactly how is creativity in decline? We aren’t being held against our will to be creative individuals; in fact, society constantly inserts us into environments that—in theory—attempt to foster creative thinking and growth. But how often have you found yourself in your element while sitting in a classroom, or as a direct result of it? My guess it not often. For some they might, and that’s great. But for an increasing majority, our educational system has desensitized our children to the creative motors that they are born with. Ken Robinson points out that a study was conducted where 1500 kindergarteners were given a special test designed to measure a child’s ability to think divergently, or the ability to think of a multitude of solutions or uses for something. The results found that 98% of the 1500 children scored “genius level” on the test. They retested the children every five years throughout grade school up until the end of junior high, where they found a significant decline from the original scores. The connection Robinson makes is that divergent thinking is the basis for creativity, and the majority of children will go through their schooling careers with increasingly suppressed capacities to think creativity. Naturally, these students are then less likely to discover their element and their true talents.

I think it’s a safe assumption based on a number of compelling trends and facts about society today. Our system of education is almost entirely associated and funded by state and local governments. Politics is playing it’s part well, and shaping how our schools are funded, how they function, what to include in the curricula, and perhaps most importantly, who sits atop the school boards across our nation—coincidentally also an elected body. Standardized testing has almost entirely reshaped the educational process. The government wants us to pass our exams so we can at least look like we’re competing with China and India. A pass or fail mentality is reinforced at an early time in our elementary education so that later on in high school we are experts at memorizing factoids and flash cards the night before an exam. This “pass or fail” structure carries with it the illusory delegation of intelligence and the stigmas associated with it, which can discourage students and cause them to feel stupid. Outside the classroom we are faced with an unprecedented number of social challenges. Social issues have never played a larger part in a child’s upbringing than they are today. Divorce rates are at an all-time high, teenage pregnancy statistics have soared, and income inequality has risen dramatically—which is to suggest that unemployment is severely high as well. More frequently, a child will come home to a household that assumes that he or she is receiving the necessary support and care that schools are supposed to provide their students. To their dismay, we’re finding that schools aren’t catering to creativity. Literacy and standardization is the policy, and it’s creating more problems than solving. It’s a mountainous, snowballing effect. And from it, our children aren’t finding their potential, and they are growing up in an environment that discourages them from even looking. This is how the institutionalization of education works.

As a sort of closing (tying everything back together), my final thoughts go back to the idea of being in your element. In my opinion, doing the things you love to do and the things you’re good at will bring you the most success in life. If those things happen to be one in the same, then you’ve found a passion. Our educational system today largely suppresses both our ability and our desire to seek what we’re passionate about. If our element is to be in school, and is brought out through our education, then that’s great. But by in large, we need to rethink how we approach teaching our youth. They need to learn math, they need to be taught the lessons of history, and they need to learn the foundations of our language, but they need not be treated as though they are simply a package awaiting extraction, routing, and arrival in assembly line fashion. We need to experience to learn, and to learn we need to engage the material to take from it the lessons and ideas that need hard wiring. But in a culture where apathy and disinterest are mass-produced byproducts of a failed educational system, then we’re only wasting our time trying.

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