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Schools are to Creativity…

15 Jul

…as Zoos are to Wildness.

This was the title of a talk I first gave before I entered the realm of giftedness.  I’ve used that title many times since.  But this morning, when I had been planning to start preparations for camp (Yunasa begins a week from today and I leave home on Wednesday), I found this article (Why Creative Geniuses Hated School) posted in the FaceBook group, International Gifted Education, and was motivated to write a blog post instead.  If you haven’t already read that article, please, please click the link and read it before going on.  (I’ll wait.)  ***

I’m not writing here to bash schools, though that may seem to be the effect of this post.  I’m writing because it is difficult to know what to do about this problem, and it’s a serious problem that too many people (including myself for a long time) overlook, ignore or just don’t realize or understand.

I don’t claim to be a “creative genius.”  But I was not just a highly gifted kid, I was a highly creative kid.  I didn’t, of course, know this prior to entering school.  I had a vivid and constantly active imagination, but assumed everybody did.  School gave me little to do with that imagination, but then it gave me little to do with the rest of my mind, either, so I guess I just didn’t notice.

In the early days school for me was mostly a place where we kids were asked to do things that didn’t make a lot of sense.  I remember, for instance, cutting out words from a work book and pasting them under a picture–“apple” got pasted under the picture of an apple, “cat” under the picture of a cat.  I couldn’t imagine a reason for doing this, but the teacher wanted us to do it so I did it, along with all the other apparently useless tasks we were given.  And I got stars for doing it.

I was a girl from a family where authority counted, and it was the ’40s.  I pretty much did what I was told and enjoyed the stars.  The stars became S’s (for satisfactory–the only alternative being U’s for unsatisfactory) in grade school and A’s and the occasional B in junior high and high school, then in college and graduate school.

Long after my formal connection with school ended, Jane Piirto asked me to be part of a study she was doing of successful women writers.  The participants were asked to fill out questionnaires about their school experiences, and I did that.  My answers made it clear that not only had I been an excellent student, but I had pretty much loved school.

Years later, when I had become known as an expert in gifted education, I spoke at a conference in Nebraska that was organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of Leta Hollingworth’s death.  During that conference a film about Leta’s life was shown in which a poem of hers was read over suitable nature images–I believe it was titled “The Lone Pine” and she had written it in high school.  During the reading of the poem I began to cry.  The poem was one I certainly could have written at that age myself, about how hard it was to stand out, to stand alone on the top of the hill taking the brunt of the winds instead of standing safely down on the hillside, sheltered amongst the rest of the forest trees.

By the end of the film I had put myself back together, but during the plane ride home from the conference I found myself crying again.  The amount of pain that bubbled up over the rest of that day stunned me.  And when I got back to my computer, I spent six full hours writing, retrieving the “real story” of my school experiences from second grade on.

The protective cocoon of repression had broken as I listened to and identified with the feelings behind Leta’s poem, and I gradually came face to face with what school had really been for me.  In my own life, it hadn’t been other kids who bullied me–the bullies were defensive teachers who humiliated me, including the sixth grade teacher who arranged for the principal to denounce me as a liar and thief to the whole school over the intercom.  I hadn’t managed to repress that singular event–I had just put it down to the teacher’s vindictiveness.  But I had genuinely forgotten the others and the pain they caused.  The cocoon had been largely constructed of all those stars and good grades, the dutiful accomplishments of a bright kid whose schools and family expected her to follow directions, to achieve and excel.  How could I not have loved school when I was so successful at it?  When I filled out those questionnaires, I had genuinely believed my answers.

There were bright spots, of course, and a handful of caring, supportive teachers.  Luckily, I’d had one brilliant teacher at my highly academic school who taught me English all four years of high school, and gave us wonderful  literature to read and had us do free writing known as “journal entries” every single week.  Luckily also, the school had a powerful drama club and I’d done theatre as an extracurricular activity throughout. 

I majored in creative writing as an undergraduate, writing stories, poetry and plays–and again focused all my non-academic attention on theatre, surviving the “core curriculum” by getting through it as fast as possible and spending most of my time focused on my passions.  But as a graduate student I was not allowed to write a creative thesis (the volume of poetry I’d intended) for my Master’s degree and was required to do a work of literary criticism instead.  When I read today that Einstein had “found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful” for an entire year after forcing himself through his examinations, I was reminded that my Master’s degree in English Literature very nearly stopped me writing entirely.  I have never darkened the door of a school (as a student) again, in spite of pressure to get a doctorate in order to keep a university teaching position.

Over my thirty years in the gifted field I have regularly been called “Dr. Tolan” by people who simply assume that an “expert” must have a doctorate.  And there was a time when a competetive colleague suggested that a “mere children’s book writer” could not possibly have the credentials to function in the academic world.  I’m not against doctorates–most of my closest friends and colleagues have them–but acquiring one can be harmful to imagination and nearly poisonous to creativity!  The words “terminal degree” still make me chuckle.  It could have been that in my life!

This post is not meant as a personal complaint.  I’ve had a wonderful life doing multiple things I love to do.  The main reason for writing here is not because my own creativity was damaged or at least thwarted by school, but because I bought into the education paradigm so thoroughly that I failed to make my own son’s immense creativity the primary focus of our attention when he was growing up.  I was seduced by his amazing mind.  I wrote about that a bit in my “who/what” post in this blog here.  Luckily, he never convinced himself that he loved school, and he wasn’t seduced by the demand for multiple degrees as the only doorway to success or fulfillment.

I was moved to write today because it isn’t only the “creative geniuses” who are hurt by school (and of course because when they’re children we don’t yet know who those geniuses might be.)  It’s all the kids whose innate creativity goes unsupported in school.

How many kids are out there with vivid, passionate, creative imaginations and also extremely able intellects, whose “success” in the academic realm (good grades, high achievement) is masking severe  malnutrition in schools that don’t make their imaginations a priority and their curiosity an organizing factor in their education?  (Especially in this era of high stakes testing!) 

How many kids might one day claim as I did (like kidnap victims exhibiting the “Stockholm syndrome”) that they had loved the schools that nearly destroyed the essence of who they were?  And how many rebellious, angry kids are that way because such a huge piece of who they are is ignored after kindergarten or first grade, as kids’ stuff?

Einstein said that if we want to raise fine scientists we should read them fairy tales.  Given how few schools these days follow that advice, one must hope that computer games are filling some of that need…