The Closing of the Creative Mind

Most people think of the “arts” as something they do once a week in a special class or that fun activity a teacher pulls out on a rainy Friday afternoon. But the importance of encouraging creativity and imagination through artistic or play based experiences (to name only two) goes well beyond Howard Gardner’s application of Multiple Intelligences to promote student centered learning. While all these things I just mentioned are indeed valuable and worthy of our attention in education, something much more valuable is being lost in the race toward standardized curriculum and high stakes testing.

When I teach my students about the values of arts and creativity in education I always ask them why they think they’re important. The number one response is “the arts make learning fun.” OK, sure, stating the obvious, like gravity makes things fall. So I challenge them to think deeper. What else? They might add that “The arts teach students to have aesthetic appreciation for high culture which includes the “masterpieces” hung in famous galleries.” OK… although this response avoids the problems  of  an educational practice itself fraught with issues of race class and gender.

But I push them further. I ask: what about the role of arts in imagining and creating solutions to local community and global problems? What about the importance of art in naming peoples and experiences which otherwise would remain silenced or invisible? You see, as we remove the arts and the capacity to think imaginatively from our classrooms, policy makers argue “Learning can’t be fun anymore. That’s too trivial. We need to work.”

And the second role of the arts… learning about the high arts is trivial in comparison to preparing them for a seat in the global marketplace. It’s fluff. These two first premises make it easy to argue for the reduction of arts in learning.

But what about the third thing that art enables students to learn about? It is the loss of the third that makes me lie awake at night.

The imagination… our capacities to be creative (and equally innovative) are central to identifying and solving the crisis we face in the world today. We will not find the solutions to ending problems like poverty, racism, war, or global climate change on a standardized test. We create them in the worlds that do not yet exist. The solutions lie in our capacities to imagine, in the words of Maxine Greene “things as if they could be otherwise.” 

Naomi Wolf recently published a book and made a documentary on the book, both entitled The End of America

She argues that there are ten things needed in order to create a closing society, one that is not supported by democratic programs and policies. I might suggest to her to add one more item to the list. Number 11 of things needed in order to create a closed society would be: Putting an end to free, public democratic schooling. You see, in order to close a society you have to close the minds of its people. As we erase our children’s capacities to wonder, to question, to create, and to IMAGINE, we close off their minds from the possibilities of seeing their world as anything other than the one that is being handed to them. In order to close a society one must have a people who will cease to challenge the decisions being made or to question those in power making the decisions. While a one size fits all model of curriculum and assessment (testing) pushes fear based accountability practices, and maybe even teach students the basics of reading and math, it does little to encourage the meaningful application of and analysis of the information that is being spoon fed to the students.

We want schools where students, teachers and communities are collaborators in our efforts to provide learning experiences that have meaning to student. We want schools to be places where children can CREATE the world they wish to see rather than simply be tested on the world as it is.

The elimination of the arts, and creative imaginative thinking from every classroom will confirm or solidify our fate as people dependent on those in power (at the top) who historically profit at the expense of those beneath them-these are the same people to whom we will be completely reliant upon to make decisions-the capacity to critically challenge or imagine a ‘way out” created for ourselves by ourselves will have been educated out of us.

The knowledge and ideas of students teachers and communities are being erased from the classroom in favor of a sterilized, technical, rigid, homogenous approach to learning. We need to fight for creative and artistic educational experiences that encourage collaboration, community centered-ness, intercultural exchanges, and diverse perspectives. Through artistic engagement, new voices can be heard and the faces of cultures and communities rendered visible.  The imagination not only entertains, it is a powerful means to making cracks and fissures in the massive wall of educational policies which see students merely as consumers of knowledge –knowledge that is pre-scripted for them. Our children are not commodities to be mined, as Sir Ken Robinson once said, the way that we mine the earth for a particular commodity.

Lately, that commodity is profits to textbook companies and corporate billionaires who are using high stakes testing as a way to profit from both the success and failure of children in public schools. 

The arts as a collaborative community-based effort to transform ourselves are the most vital tool we have to create a sustainable revolution. It’s not what we know, but what we can imagine that will save humanity from the self imposed crisis we can no longer evade. In the words of Grace Lee Boggs: Students are crying out for another kind of education that gives them opportunities to exercise their creative energies because it values them as whole human being. 

She also argues that revolutions are made not to prove the correctness of ideas but to begin anew.

We need to begin anew, and we must educate our children with the capacities to engage with their own humanity and with one another. Art Grace Lee Boggs suggest can help us envision the new cultural image we need to grow our souls. When we lose our imaginative capacities to envision and argue for social change, and to face an unknown future, I indeed fear for the end of our democratic society. We cannot let that happen.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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