…as zoos are to wildness.
Sometimes in order to see things clearly one has to peel back layers of feeling. My philosophy is that we can’t do anything wrong (as we’re doing the best we can at any given moment) but that we may be able to do things better, and feelings can help us do that by pointing to what isn’t working as well as it could. Today’s post goes on from the feeling response I wrote yesterday. Different readers will respond differently, depending on their own feeling layers, of course.
“…As zoos are to wildness.” That is a critical part of the sentence! I am not against zoos. In fact, I spent part of my life wanting to be a zookeeper. I had our family read aloud the works of Gerald Durrell, whose life, other than writing, was devoted early on to gathering animals for zoos and then to creating an important zoo of his own. One of the greatest synchronicities of our son’s life happened during his college semester in London when, looking into a bookstore window, he thought he recognized the reflection of the man standing behind him. He turned and asked the man if he was Gerald Durrell. When the man said he was, our son enthusiastically shared how important Durrell’s books had been to his childhood. Durrell invited him to the zoo run by his Wildlife Conservation Trust, and of course he went!
As with schools, there are zoos and zoos. Fewer and fewer of them are places of imprisonment for their charges or focused solely on putting animals on exhibit for the entertainment of their paying customers. Many do important conservation research. And there is for the most part a serious effort to provide as natural a habitat for the animals as possible. Nevertheless, the task of maintaining wildness is difficult to achieve with some species and impossible with many others!
Just so with highly creative kids. Creativity itself is about not following directions, about finding new ways to do things, new ways to approach things, new ways to put things together or “reconcile the disparate.” It is an individual thing. An institution whose job is to educate all kids cannot function without requirements, directions, methods and–yes–coercion.
One of the most difficult half hours of my life was the first time I was asked as a visiting author to interact with a kindergarten class. I’d written mostly young adult novels at that point and normally visited upper elementary or middle school classes, where I started by getting the kids excited about an idea. I had literally never been in a room with more than 20 five year olds before that day. I made the mistake of starting by getting the kids turned on. Five year olds, of course, pretty much don’t need turning on–chaos ensued. And I never managed to restore even a semblance of order.
Creativity and institutions of any kind don’t go together easily. At best there may be an uneasy alliance. Institutions need patterns that creative people break. Over and over again the “creative genius” who founds an organization of any kind–a company, a school, a theatre company–is replaced once that organization is up and running by someone whose particular skills are suited to guiding and maintaining rather than inventing. And it isn’t always that the founder is thrown out–some leave when they discover that keeping the organization running bores them silly and that making things new all the time can be disruptive and threatening to others. Creativity often looks like destruction, when old forms have to be taken apart to make way for the new.
When that sixth grade teacher who was the nemesis of my life told my mother that I’d never amount to anything because I was “interested in too many things,” she was thinking along conventional lines: “jack of all trades, master of none.” The greatest joy of being a writer, of course, is that I get to keep writing different sorts of stories, doing different kinds of research, inventing whole new people and worlds. One of the things that made me craziest in school was the schedule–same classes same day of the week, week after week after week. As an adult I would not be able to do a job that involves constant repetition.
So this is the second half of what I wish to say about creativity in schools. We can’t support it perfectly, but we can keep working to do better. Some schools and some teachers have more success than others in making room for creative kids, but much of the support the kids need may have to come from the fact that–unlike zoo animals–they get to leave the building at the end of the school day.
What I wrote during school was mostly written in the classes I didn’t like under the guise of taking careful notes (the notes my teachers thought accounted for my good grades.) But most of my writing as a kid was done in trees, under bushes, at home in my room–outside of school and not at anyone’s request.
It is possible for a creative kid to survive even the most coercive school environment with a little help from outside–parents, other kids, adult mentors or just enough time and space to dream, and materials for playing, experiencing and inventing on their own.
But kids whose creativity can be submerged by doing really well at following directions, by a culture that is uncomfortable with rebels, or by a need to protect themselves from the hostile forces often ranged against them, do get hurt. There is no life without pain; I’m not suggesting there should be. But often these kids get hurt more deeply, more often and more permanently than necessary. Coercion can inspire creativity as the creative kid finds ways to rebel against it or work around it. But coercion can grind down and destroy as well. These kids need to hear from adults that resistance is not necessarily a sign of poor character!
“If I had it to do all over again” (something every single parent can say at some point), I would put supporting creativity way higher up on my list of priorities for any kid who has, in addition to a really fine, really capable intellect, a passionate imagination and a drive toward novelty. It was the nourishing of imagination that Einstein was talking about when he advocated reading fairy tales as a way to create future scientists. When he said that creativity was more important than knowledge, it wasn’t that he was dissing knowledge. But stuffing kids’ minds full of the knowledge we think they should have doesn’t make room for what is likely to be needed in a world we can’t predict that will be the world of their adulthood.
I prefer to look for positive possibilities. If some kids can nourish their imaginations with computer games (like the paper version of Dungeons and Dragons that briefly took over my son’s life) I say there is hope in that. But I also hope that anyone who can affect classrooms anywhere will keep in mind the need to provide some open spaces for the growing of imagination. And I would remind parents to value and trust it as Einstein did.