Is Sir Ken Robinson a Luddite?

Sir Ken Robinson has something of the Luddite* about him. He refuses the industrial order, which the Luddites also refused back at the beginning of the 19th century, when they declared it to be a new form of tyranny. He sets up a beautifully simple dichotomy between a (bad) industrial order, which requires schools to be one-size-fits-all, and a (good) organic order, with an education that allows each individual to flourish. So, at first sight, Sir Ken seems to be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Luddites, but is that really the case, or are they actually standing on opposite sides of the barricades?


To answer that, we need to clarify the essence of Luddism – the most forward-looking aspect of what they were fighting for back in 1811**. Here we are interested in what makes the Luddites more than just another group fighting for survival in a situation where people are starving.

Luddism was a revolutionary movement that sprang up among textile artisans in England, drawing inspiration from the French Revolution as the Luddites reacted first to the injustices of the new industrialists, and then to the further injustices of the brutal refusal of the concerns of the Luddites (it was made a capital offence not only to attack industrial machinery, but also to swear allegiance to the Luddites, and Luddite leaders were either publicly hanged or deported).

Consolations of industry

The thoughtless caricature of Luddism as a backward-looking movement dominated by fear of the new misses the incredible leap in thinking that their radical critique implied – a leap that constitutes the essence of Luddism. Their revolutionary movement had the broadest possible horizon; it wasn’t just about stopping one particular technological development, but about criticising all forms of tyranny. In a world still influenced by ideas such as the Divine Right of Kings, the Luddites put all legitimations of the prevailing order of power into question. As far as the monarchy was concerned, the problem was not, for instance, that the reigning monarch was inept. No, monarchy itself was a problem, and they questioned the idea that there was some divine injunction that society should be ruled in this way.

In the thoughtless use of “Luddite” in the pejorative people only recall the act of smashing machinery, and what they forget is the much more important questioning – an intellectual smashing – of the legitimating props of tyranny.

In effect, what Luddism points to is the comprehension that there is no True Society (divinely ordained by God or Nature or the Invisible Hand or the Law of History) that this society must conform to. Luddites see into what might be called the abyss of legitimation – the lack of any transcendent legitimation for the prevailing hierarchy of power.

The metaphysics of monarchy

The idea of a True Society, as a supposedly timeless ideal that the here and now must match up to, could also be called a metaphysical standard. Because Luddism sees through these Ideals in the mythical metaphysical beyond, the essential idea of Luddism is that of a post-metaphysical culture. Hence, Luddites understand that the fight against standardisation is ultimately a fight against metaphysics.

One sign of the failure of our education system in particular, and our society in general, is that while scientific ideas like that of relativity are familiar to everyone (even if nothing further about them is understood), the idea of a post-metaphysical culture is unheard of. If the Luddites had been listened to instead of being hanged by the neck, that idea might now be on everyone’s lips and things might be other than they are.

Now back to Sir Ken Robinson’s critique of industry to see how Luddite it really is and to see if Sir Ken is on the side of the Luddites or that of their executioners.

Sir Ken Robinson’s critique of industrial standardisation

On Sir Ken’s reading, the big problem with industry is its insistence on a policy of one-size-fits-all. In education this means that children, with all their different talents and passions and learning styles and intelligences get squashed into the standardised holes cut out by the industrial order.

One of the great felicities of history and geography is that Sir Ken is able to say this at a time and in a place where industry can appear to be a thing of the past. The vestiges of old industry (like factory-style schools) can be cleared away (like the rubble of the now derelict factories), and in the post-industrial order a new organic model can be applied, allowing the talents, passions, initiative and creativity of individuals to organically flourish, watered sporadically with drops of organic wisdom such as: If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

Sir Ken Robinson: If you're not prepared to be wrong...

The problem is that Sir Ken only gives us half of the story. He tells us how this organic, post-industrial order differs from the age of the Dark Satanic Mills, but he says nothing about its deeper continuity. One glimpse of that appears in his definition of creativity. “I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value,” he says, but what is the criterion of value here? A quick look at the report that started everything off (All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture & Education) reveals that “value” ultimately means “benefit for the economy”.

When writing the introduction to the report, Sir Ken accompanied it with a quotation from Tony Blair both to sum up the message and add a little authority:

Our aim must be to create a nation where the creative talents of all the people are used to build a true enterprise economy for the twenty- first century — where we compete on brains, not brawn.

So what appeared to be a revolutionary rejection of industry turns out to be a quibble about how best to organise it. Instead of forcing students to become uniform cogs in the cash machine, they ought to be encouraged to use their initiative and creativity to make their own cash machines.

And so what appeared to be a rejection of standardisation turns out to be an even more ruthless insistence upon the deeper standard – the standard defined by the economic order that we must all support both as workers and as consumers – a more ruthless insistence because now mere compliance is not enough: we are supposed to be passionate about it.

In short, Sir Ken helps to make the antipathy to industry play its part in the perpetuation of industry.

Education and industry

Why this insistence upon industry, completely ignoring all the creative voices calling it into question? The imperative is as tyrannical as anything that ever emanated from the absolute monarchs. We might think that we live in a world in which there is no Divine Order (the priests in the West are little more than self-help gurus working in the same market that Sir Ken has dipped his toe in with his Element books). But we have allowed a system to emerge in which the ruling imperative is placed so far beyond question it may as well be etched in stone. It has become the new Truth. We can argue, as Sir Ken does, about the best way to comply with it, but the imperative itself cannot be questioned (and here in Greece we have seen that the merest hint of a question at the political level brings the threat from the representatives of international finance that the country will be thrown into financial ruin if it doesn’t comply).

In 1811 it was possible for a handful of artisans united around an imaginary leader and armed with little more than hammers to think it feasible to overturn the prevailing order and advance the project of political liberation in place of the project of industrial domination. Who could consider such a thing feasible now? And that inconceivability is another indication of how an order supposedly resting on fallible and empirical science has hardened into the Truest of True Societies.

21st century Luddism, despite the lack of feasibility, continues to question the truth of that supposedly True Order. Sir Ken Robinson parted company with the Luddites when, with the knighthood in sight, he decided to join the marketing team for that True Order.

In education, Sir Ken Robinson’s apparent anti-industrialism is merely a new form of industrialism, helping each individual find a niche in the market where he or she can find something to do that combines a little talent with some degree of enjoyment. Education remains a process of fitting children in to the new industrial-commercial order, preserving as much of their enthusiasm as possible so that they will give more.

Industry: Don't die a copy

Completely absent is the Luddite concern with the untruth of that order – which in education requires putting critique at the core of the curriculum.

Again, at first sight, Sir Ken can seem to espouse critique. He says a lot about the need to preserve and develop the divergent thinking that young children have in abundance. This can sound like critical thinking, but it is not. Divergent thinking takes as its model the thought of an infant grasping at ideas of what an unknown object might be. A paper clip could be a piece of jewellery or something to catch a fish with or something to poke in your ear. Free association is not critical thinking.

Genuine critical thinking is the thinking of more mature individuals who are beginning to reflect upon what we believe, why we believe it and whether it really makes sense when looked at closely and in the light of the deepest layers of our personal experience. And this requires a lengthy education to bring students to the point at which they can grasp intellectually, for instance, the way we have raised a supposedly True Order of monetary value to rule over the incalculable qualities of the people and things that must all be subordinated to it.

19th century Luddism was critical thinking in action, and the central insight that it pointed towards is true: There is no legitimation for the True Society. All that seems to have a metaphysical solidity actually hangs in the abyss of its groundlessness. If education is more than training for a job, and is also concerned with the deepest insights into the human condition, this critical reflection on ideas about the True Society ought to be central to it, at least at the upper levels of high school. A real revolution in education will have occurred not when there is a perfect balance between the supply of talent and the market demand for it (as Sir Ken envisages), but when our society’s deepest assumptions about what it takes to be True are brought to light and called into question.

Sir Ken Robinson castigates schools for being behind the times, taking the cut throat world of commerce as the standard of what is up with the times. If we were able to think outside the box of commerce, we might realise the times are actually behind themselves – they still haven’t caught up with the level of insight implicit in movements like Luddism. Yes, we in education must help children find a way to pay the bills – preferably a way that combines a little talent with a little enjoyment – but for the love of truth if nothing else (and should people in education not be lovers of truth?) we should be helping society to deepen its understanding of itself, grasping, for instance, the untruth of an industrial order that has become the theology of our age.

Industrial education


*We take it for granted that the reader is aware of the untruth of the common use of “Luddite” in the pejorative – a lie spread by the New Scientist in 1970 – a lie exposed in a number of scholarly works, and also in our own defence of a Luddite pedagogy.

**For more details of the struggle, see this Luddite history website.

written by Torn Halves on September 3, 2014 in education and Ken Robinson and pedagogy and Uncategorized with no comments