“What’s that? I told you to draw a forest. That’s not a forest.”
“Yes, it is. It’s bamboo.”
“What do you mean ‘it’s bamboo’?”
“It’s bamboo, teacher.”
I snatched the drawing and inspected it for a moment before returning it to the nervous little girl’s nervous little desk.
“It’s bamboo. It’s the forest. OK.” I said. And I felt like an idiot. I walked away to go look at another forest.
“Creativity” is the annoying little brother of education—and civilization. It’s a pest. It’s difficult. It’s unimportant. It’s impractical. Most of the time, we just can’t be bothered. The problem with this little brother is inherent in his very nature. Creativity, like the emotions it inspires—wonder, contemplation, stupefaction—is impossible to quantify. That’s why it’s such a bothersome vexation. Human beings are so irretrievably disposed to quantification that we become categorically pissed off when it eludes us. We need to quantify and reason to maintain control. Being subjected to creativity when we aren’t looking for it is disorienting and angering.
The problem with the antibiotic interplay between creativity and education doesn’t need to be discussed at length. Education—to an ever-increasing extent—relies on standardization. Standardization is a nauseating word. Standardization is practicality, ease, and know it when ya see it. Lately, we’ve unleashed it on society with a vengeance. Even creativity and self-expression must be confined to neatly packaged spaces like 140 characters or a Facebook profile. In education though, it’s way way worse.
I had a rare daylight epiphany the last week when I was grading the Grade 5 Unit 2 English exam—watch TV, read books, play football (that kind of stuff). Students cheated. That’s not the epiphany. I had that one when I was 4 or 5. I asked myself, though, why are students so locked in when it comes to cheating? Why, even when I stress with sermonizing vigor that the test means absolutely nothing, will they risk embarrassment and a visit from mama and baba? Why, even after being acutely aware that the test means absolutely nothing and cheating their asses off, are they still so profoundly pleased with themselves when they receive a 90%? I for one cannot remember a time when I felt too morally contradicted to sneak a peek across the aisle. The answer to these questions is this: the score matters more than the knowledge. Plain and simple. The score gets you into college. The score makes you academically eligible. The score is the only way to differentiate kid A from kid Z. The score! We’re in hot pursuit of the score. The score is our standard.
The reason we love standardization (the score) is because it’s explicatory. It supposedly contains a great deal of information. The problem with standardization is that it inherently lends itself towards things that are measurable—in much the opposite way that creativity does. You can measure 1+7 to equal 8. You can measure a lot of other stuff that I don’t even know how to measure. Thus, in our epic pursuit to standardize everything, we are obviously going to marginalize that which is immeasurable. Thus, creativity becomes impractical. It’s been pushed out as a deterrent, an irritating little brother to our civilization’s goals. Because, even though we might kinda sorta know it when we see it, we can’t tell you what it is. And it’s very difficult to slap a grade on.
But, I know what it is. Creativity is fearlessness. It’s having the audacity to 1). Put yourself out there and 2). Question perceived reality. Essentially, you have to give few enough shits to have your personal eccentricities on display and beyond that, to have the effrontery to suggest that everyone else might be missing something. That takes some legitimate backbone. If you’re willing to do neither you will never create. But, that’s only the case because creativity is socialized out of us. We are told about yes and no pretty early on in the game. We are told that 2 + 3 = 5 and stuff like that. We are told that we are looking at a hat instead of an elephant inside of a snake.
I’m not going to argue against 2 + 3 = 5, because original thought should always be tempered with a hint of rationality. 2 + 3 = 6 isn’t fearless. It’s trolling. However, I’ll argue that it takes a prodigious amount of cojones to say, as The Little Prince did, that it’s an elephant inside of a snake and not a hat. Such a notion personally offends people. People will go so far as to fear it—be shaking-under-the-covers scared of it—because such a proposition questions their beliefs and the very foundations of society and puts a shiver in their steady control of the way of things. Impractical is the word they use for things that make them shake at night.
You’ve got to be long on guts to question society and/or reality.
A few minutes before I told my second grade student that her forest wasn’t a forest, I had shown her a forest—a few forests actually. I gave them six or seven examples of pictures and paintings of “forests.” Each was some variation on a landscape, set at a fair distance, with many visible trees and a predictable streak of light streaming through. Perhaps there was a fox skirting across the dirt ground. I had neatly scored the forest. I never once said, “draw these pictures.” I said, draw a forest. And that’s what they did. And that’s where their mind will surely lead their colored pencils and dark green markers every time someone tells them to draw a forest—for the rest of their lives.
But not this one girl. She made me feel like a dope. She had the audacity to suggest that it might be ok to call a magnified drawing of a few intersecting sticks of bamboo a forest. Despite everything I’ve said above, I was disturbed by her disruption, her impracticality. It questioned my supposed authority on the matter of drawings of forests. There wasn’t even a predictable streak of light. That made me very uncomfortable.
It would be supremely easy to live in a world devoid of creativity; a world where numbers and quantification reign unilaterally. We would teach our kids everything we know and they’d do the same and on and on. But, it’s imperative to have people around who will stand up and say, “No, it actually may be an oblate spheroid,” or “I know you’re not gonna like this, but your great-great-great-great grandfather might have been a chimpanzee,” or “You can make nice sounds if you pluck these six strings in different ways.” Those people were probably the same ones that said, “Yes, it is a forest. It’s bamboo,” once upon a time. We can’t lose those people. We can’t standardize them away. We can’t scare them. We need them more than we know.
“Forest” by Zhang XueYing