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

7 thoughts on “The Ineffable Cargo Cultism of Sir Ken Robinson

  1. chrismwparsons February 8, 2015 / 3:54 pm

    Thank you very much. ‘Creativity’ seems to be one of the most perniciously misappropriated bandwagons of the ’21st Century Skills’ movement. Aside from moments of fortuitous randomness, can it ever really be more than the produce of intuition, spawned from accumulated knowledge structures?

    • e=mc2andallthat February 8, 2015 / 4:04 pm

      I agree! Steven Pinker’s down-to-earth comments on “genius” in “How the Mind Works” have been very influential on my thinking. Many thanks for the comment!

      • chrismwparsons February 8, 2015 / 4:56 pm

        I bought Pinker’s book about 15 years ago, and haven’t looked at it for a long time. You’ve inspired me to look again! I also can’t help but applaud the disparate literary and cultural sources which nourish this post. It is a perfect example, not only of the creative value of being ‘well’ read (I’m pretty sure you couldn’t have dug these quotes up by Googling for something ‘appropriate’ to this post), but of the value of drawing on inspiration from disparate domains of knowledge. Perhaps Sir Ken should take note?
        Thanks again Gethyn – it was the first post of yours I’ve seen, and I look forward to reading more.

      • e=mc2andallthat February 8, 2015 / 5:04 pm

        Thank you so much. I’m not sure if I’m as well read as I appear (I think I read “Arms and the Man” for my O-levels!) but bits and pieces of my eclectic (translation: random) reading over the years have stayed with me and seem to find their way into blog posts now and again. Again, I thank you for the compliment.

    • e=mc2andallthat February 15, 2015 / 9:24 pm

      Many thanks for the link. I enjoyed your post and I think I am in broad agreement with your main points. I think it is indeed useful to distinguish between the functions and purpose of education, as you point out. I want to give some further thought to your fascinating suggestion that “The purpose of education is to ensure the increasing success of the human species.” I look forward to reading more of your explorations of conceptual models in education.

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