The Ineffable Cargo Cultism of Sir Ken Robinson

[PETKOFF‘s daughter RAINA makes a perfectly timed and spectacular entrance]

PETKOFF (aside to Catherine, beaming with parental pride). Pretty, isn’t it? She always appears at the right moment.

CATHERINE (impatiently). Yes: she listens for it. It is an abominable habit.

— George Bernard Shaw, Arms and the Man

In this post, I want to revisit the progressive versus traditionalist educational debate from what I hope will be an original perspective.

TV critic Clive James once made, I think, a telling observation about auteur director Ken Russell’s films of the lives of the great composers: that, although full of swelling sound and technicolour visual fury, they never showed any of the artists sitting down quietly at a desk and getting on with some actual work.

And, while I yield to no-one in my admiration for the work of physicist Richard Feynman, it is a matter of record that his apparently uninhibited and spontaneous public persona was the result of meticulous planning and intensive preparation and rehearsal that would have put Raina from Arms and the Man to shame.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, mind; but both Russell’s filmic presentation of the creative process and Feynman’s playing to the gallery highlight a popular current of thought: geniuses are different from the rest of us — not only cleverer, but their minds are utterly unlike ours. Their thoughts are periodically “touched by the hand of God”, if you will: it is a Romantic conception, in every sense of the word, and has influenced our very idea of genius for over two centuries.

Take Mozart, for example: his symphonies were channelled directly from God, or emerged mysteriously from the depths of his subconscious, sublime masterpieces that the maestro transcribed without a single flaw or mistake.

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone . . . it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come I know not, nor can I force them . . . the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

Except that he didn’t. The above quote is not genuine Mozart. It is actually a nineteenth century forgery known as the Rochlitz Letter. Modern scholarship paints a very different picture of how he really composed: like most composers, he used a keyboard to work on short musical phrases (out loud, not silently in his head) and wrote “sketches” on scraps of paper (which were often thrown away), before combining them into the finished work. While there are few hesitations or corrections in his original manuscripts, they are there. Sorry, Amadeus.

[C]reative people are at their most creative when writing their autobiographies. Historians have scrutinized their diaries, notebooks, manuscripts, and correspondence looking for signs of the temperamental seer periodically struck by bolts from the unconscious . . . [The truth is that] Geniuses are wonks. The typical genius pays dues for at least ten years before contributing anything of lasting value. (Mozart composed symphonies at eight, but they weren’t very good; his first masterwork came in the twelfth year of his career.)

— Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, p. 350

The reason I mention all of the above is because a very good friend (who is not a teacher) recently sent me a link to a Sir Ken Robinson video — Sir Ken’s idea that education requires a transformation rather a reformation is gaining considerable traction.

Now, it may well be that Sir Ken is a kind and sincere man, and I agree with some of the points that he makes. However, his ideas on unleashing the creative genius in each and every student are, to put it bluntly, simplistic.

[C]reativity is not a linear process, in which you have to learn all the necessary skills before you get started . . . Focusing on skills in isolation can kill interest in any discipline. Many people have been put off mathematics for life by endless rote tasks that did nothing to inspire them with the beauty of numbers.

–Sir Ken Robinson, May 2013

To my mind, these words are redolent of the Romantic conception of Genius as a capricious, otherworldly visitation into the human psyche. It also seems incredibly strange to me that Sir Ken is apparently suggesting that the best way to learn what he tellingly refers to as a discipline is — to be undisciplined.

I am not arguing in favour of an unvarying diet of driller-killer-rote-learning tasks for our students. I agree with Sir Ken that the “real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself.”

However, I do not agree with him that students will somehow automatically “naturally acquire the skills they need to get the work done” [my emphasis] or that their “mastery of them grows as their creative ambitions expand”.

If we wish to encourage genius, we must have a accurate idea of how real geniuses actually work, not some misty-eyed romanticised version. Actual geniuses have “paid their dues” and have done the endless rote tasks (perhaps with a measure of enjoyment because of their passion and appetite for discovery!)

The famous “cargo cults” of some remote island chains seek to lure valuable “cargo” from the skies by building fake runways and even crude bamboo “control towers”. However, the abandoned World War 2 airbases they seek to reanimate remain abandoned because the cultists have a misapprehension of why the planes originally landed.



Sadly, I cannot help but feel that Sir Ken’s well-meaning perorations in favour of Creativity with a capital C will have much the same result.

        ‘You speak as though
No sunlight ever surprised the mind
Groping on its cloudy path.’

‘Sunlight’s a thing that needs a window
Before it enter a dark room.
Windows don’t happen.’

— R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper

The Purpose of Education

“The value of a university education resides in the fact that it puts young people in proximity to learning. The students of Good-enough Dormitory are less than thirty yards from the Library, no more than fifty yards from the Physics Lab, and a mere ten yards from the Chemistry Lab. I think we can all be justly proud of this.”

— Robert Sheckley, Journey Beyond Tomorrow

I am simultaneously a cynic and a romantic when it comes to education.

Yes, I am the curmudgeonly staffroom cynic, always ready with an eye roll, a derisory snort and a sarcastic quip. (Or two. Or three. Or four — I mean, just read this blog!)

However, I am also a romantic: show me something that works, or even could work, and I can’t wait to try it out, for all the world like I was a naive young bright-eyed bushy-tailed NQT.

The great untold truth of teaching is that it can be a lot of fun being in the classroom. Of course, it can also be a major league pain in the arse. And the weird thing is that, even after many years experience, my expectations of whether it is going to be a good day or a bad day are often completely and utterly wrong.

A number of edu-blogger heavy hitters have been weighing in on what the point of education is. I particularly enjoyed the posts from ijstock, Daisy Christodoulou and Esse Quam Videri: they disagreed with the Education secretary’s recent assertion that the point of education is essentially to increase one’s earning power.

I agree with them, of course. But, then, what is the point of what we do?

I think it is simply this: ignorance is not bliss. It is not foolish to be wise. A person who believes (say) N sets of true things is less likely to make poor decisions than person who believes even N-1 sets of true things.

As Samuel Johnson observed to Boswell as they were being rowed to Greenwich on a summer’s day in 1703:

“Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.”

Boswell immediately countered that “people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.”

Johnson conceded his point. “Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts.”

But then, unexpectedly, Johnson turned to the boy and asked him: “What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?”

“Sir,” said the boy, “I would give everything I have.”

In all my many years as a teacher, I haven’t encountered a single person who has looked back and wished that they had worked less hard in school. (The trick, of course, is to make students realise that while they’re still in school.)

I will leave the last word to the estimable Doctor Johnson:

“Sir, a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.”