Changing paradigms or changing caricatures?

The RSA animation team came up with the following caricature of a teacher to illustrate Sir Ken Robinson’s talk about the need for a change of paradigm in education.

Ken Robinson caricature

In a different context such a depiction of a teacher would appear almost offensive to teachers who are committed to public education (unlike Sir Ken Robinson, who abandoned it), and it would seem completely inappropriate in a serious talk given by a professor of education. But in the context of Sir Ken’s talk it probably seems completely in place. Perhaps one of Sir Ken Robinson’s great strengths as a public speaker is in making caricature seem a perfectly acceptable part of the repertoire of an ex-professor dealing with a serious topic like the reform of public education.

He does this by employing a technique that might be called the cartoonification of thought. A world of nuance and complexity, historical variation and political difficulty is reduced to a simple opposition of bad and good, and the ideas used to solidify the dichotomy are packaged and handed to the audience as simple, self-contained notions, with no recognition that each only makes sense in the context of a long tradition of thought and practice. The audience leaves the auditorium confident that they have grasped the essence of the matter – an essence that can be summed up in a 17-minute talk sweetened by anecdotes and references to the family that establish the image that Ken is really just a regular guy, and not the member of a dusty and remote group of academics. On no account must the audience get the impression that the topic is one that might require further reading to be understood in depth.

This, it would seem, is what the audience comes away with: Public education is a factory. 98% of infants have a genius level of divergent thinking, but when they leave public education their stunted imaginations can’t get past the idea that a paper clip could be used for anything other than clipping paper. The world is changing so fast and so unpredictably. The only thing that will enable us to keep up is innovation, so we need that divergent thinking in abundance. We need a change of paradigm.

So much is glossed over here. So much is ignored. So much that is questionable is presented as self-evident. Sir Ken surely knows this, but he chooses not to mention any of it. He knows that public education in the UK alone has a long history with different currents and competing tendencies. He knows that there has been a violent struggle in the UK between teachers and the government over what public education should be about – a struggle in which the teachers were sorely defeated (so that if, henceforth, anything is to be caricatured, it should be the government, not teachers). No, none of this is mentioned. Even the UK is not mentioned. No context is given. Let’s keep it general and simple. Let’s talk as if all public education were the same, as if it could all be tarred with the same brush, so the same rousing caricatures can be peddled from the west coast of the USA to the democratic heartlands of Singapore.

Why get so worked up about Sir Ken?

If Sir Ken Robinson were like Sugata Mitra or Marc Prensky with a background in computing or business, we wouldn’t get so worked up, but Sir Ken is different. He has his roots in the arts (English literature, in particular) and he was originally a university professor – two things related to what we see as very pressing needs: the need for aesthetic considerations to have greater public significance, and the need for the minds and sensibilities nurtured at universities to somehow raise the level of public debate in the wider society.

Sir Ken was perfectly placed both to articulate a vision informed by the arts and to raise the level of public debate. But, from what we have seen, he has done neither of these things.

Sir Ken’s abuse of art

When we heard that Sir Ken was one of the authors of a report on the arts and education in the UK (“All Our Futures”, 1999), we hurriedly found a copy and looked for interesting things about the importance of the arts for education in particular, and public culture more generally. We found nothing.

Art at its best acquired a critical relationship to the dominant forces of industrial society – a machine-like world of work and business that demands all our most important public activities be dedicated to its infinite expansion. Art of this nature functioned as a sort of bad conscience of industrial society, holding onto, if not a vision of a better world, at least the conviction that a better world must be possible. In a sense, art of this sort sustained its own form of cognition – a knowledge of the untruth of industrial society in its current form.

What does art become in the public pronouncements of Sir Ken? It is nothing more than creative thinking, renamed: divergent thinking. And what is divergent thinking for Sir Ken? It’s coming up with new ideas that must justify themselves in terms of their utility. His example is children being able to think of lots of different uses for paperclips. Here, everything that is interesting and important in the world of art is abandoned.

Sir Ken mentioned Picasso in an interview. Now, did Picasso see his paintings as simply useful divergent ideas? And what would the use be of a cubist painting: its entertainment value; its ability to fetch a good price in the art market? Surely for a serious artist the work is above all an attempt to articulate something that has a truth content – that with this work something is happening in art that is true – something that deserves to be recognised as an important “statement” with a value over and above any utility or marketability it might have. And, perhaps the truth of a cubist painting was not simply different from its use value and exchange value, but critically opposed to the world in which those values are construed as the only values that count. Perhaps part of the truth of a cubist painting is its very refusal of both utility and exchange.

With Sir Ken’s reduction of the arts to the divergent thinking of infants, this concern with an aesthetic truth and with critique disappear. To call this a caricature of the arts would just not express how offensive it actually is.

Leaving the ivory tower

One of the weaknesses in countries like the UK is the level and quality of public debate. In the past, social critics complained about the division of labour, with the intellectuals  marginalised in universities, having little or no input into wider public life. Now that university departments have had to justify their existence in economic terms there is a tighter integration of the university with the rest of society, but “integration” is more about providing services to a technocracy than linking with and raising the level of public debate.

Sir Ken could have tried to link with and raise the level of public debate. That would have involved helping people to see the misconceptions that abound and helping people to see how superficial a lot of the rhetoric about education has been; the point being, not to leave people confused, but to deepen their understanding and encourage people to think through the issues further, reading and discussing more among themselves.

Sir Ken does nothing of the sort. Rather than challenging superficial thinking, he reassures it. He creates the impression that there is no need to read anything (apart from his next book). All those serious people who spent years thinking about education in the past can be ignored. The world was different then, so what could they know, and why should we pay any attention to what they might have said? This is a new world (apparently), and we need fresh, new, inspiring ideas, like the idea of a post-industrial education that will borrow its metaphors from agriculture, organising schools that are not factories but farms cultivating creative thinking and the passions of the entrepreneur.

Sir Ken creates the impression that there is no need for social critique any longer – the world is basically on the right track, we just have to get old-fashioned things like schools to catch up; and because we are basically on the right track, there’s no urgency about thinking carefully or deeply about things. The world is, in effect, on auto-pilot, and all we need to do is make sure we don’t snuff out the divergent thinking of our children, so that in the future we will have lots of ideas for new things which we can get people abroad to make for us.

The message is an insult both to the intellect and to an aesthetically informed concern about the sort of world that we are bequeathing to our children.


Note: The above is a sequel to our earlier critique of Sir Ken Robinson’s so-called learning revolution.

written by Torn Halves on February 12, 2013 in education and Ken Robinson and pedagogy with 10 comments