Personalizing the revolution

Are you “in your Element,” doing things that blend your passions and your talents? The personal creativity movement is blooming, but is it anything more than spin?

Torn Halves
25 September 2013

Credit: Flickr/Martin Tod. Some rights reserved.

In 2006, a recently-knighted professor of education from Warwick University named Ken Robinson delivered a rousing TED talk in Long Beach, California that called for radical social change.  The online video of his address went viral on Youtube, becoming by far the most popular TED talk online, and helping to establish Robinson’s reputation as a high-profile guru of a movement that sees personal creativity as the key to social progress.

His message is undoubtedly seductive: schools are killing the creative potential of children, so education must be transformed. And not just schools, but all institutions whose command-and-control approach is holding back innovation and initiative. Robinson ended his talk with an analogy to the blooming of the desert in Death Valley, an irresistible image to those whose sights are set on sweeping social change that will liberate the potential for human growth.  

Who could argue against the need to cast off the old industrial models of education that deny children their chance to flourish? “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” wrote Wordsworth in his famous poem, “Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy.” Robinson very effectively connects with the dream that Wordsworth’s prison-house might be abolished, but is his fighting talk, peppered with references to a “revolution”, really anything more than spin?

Such proposals are certainly important and attractive, even if they aren’t exactly new: schools must throw off the weight of standardised assessments and old curricular hierarchies that over-value academic subjects, and instead give equal support to every discipline. Children must be able to discover their own talents, pursue their natural curiosity, and spend much more time in collaborative, student-led learning activities where original and creative work is rewarded, not simply the ability to tick the right boxes on a multiple-choice test-sheet.

Furthermore, the tight central controls that are currently exercised in state school systems in the UK and elsewhere have to be released, allowing teachers and schools much more autonomy in deciding how they respond to the needs of their pupils. In short, instead of the old model of standardised education we need schools that focus on each child: the education system must be personalized.

If these proposals were implemented it would represent an important historical shift in education, so why the need for scepticism? In an earlier, less well-known report written in 1999, Robinson describes education as “a vital investment in ‘human capital’ for the twenty-first century.” The statement is accompanied by a quotation from the-then UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair:

“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.”

The report makes clear that the overriding objective of education is to address the needs of industry in a country where the bulk of manufacturing has moved abroad, and where competition in the global economy is growing fiercer. The demands of business leaders are therefore paramount in judging what is innovative, timely and important. The first demand quoted in the report comes from a director of British Gas:

“The  business world is  in  a  turbulent process of change from the old  world of  steady-state  mass  production  to one  of  constant  innovation  and  the pursuit  of creativity in  all  forms  and on a global scale.”

The message is clear: business desperately needs more flexible, innovative and adaptable entrepreneurs and employees, and this is what tips the balance in favour of school reform.

Robinson repeated this analysis in his address to the “Learning without Frontiers” conference in 2012: the economic priorities of education come first, he said, the cultural second and the personal in last place. It would, he explained, be “naïve” to do otherwise. The “learning revolution” that Robinson had called for in his TED talk will be framed, it seems, according to business interests.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the personal creativity movement is gaining more momentum. It’s also true that the discursive framework of this movement narrows the vision of social change so much that it can never effectively challenge the prevailing hierarchies of power in which business interests rule.

This narrowing of vision is especially evident in Robinson’s books, “The Element” (2009) and “Finding Your Element” (2013). They provide a view of the world towards which his reforms are supposed to lead. It’s a view that is utterly personalized: the good life is one in which each of us can be “in our Element” - which for Robinson is merely a matter of people finding something to do for which they have a talent and which they love.

No one would argue against the need for people to combine their passions with their talents, but is that enough? As Peggy Lee might have said, “is that all there is to a meaningful, fully-human life?” What about the political aspects of our identity? In all the talk of people finding things to do that take their attention off the clock, there is no mention of the right to work that is fulfilling, or to have a voice in the workplace, or to hold those whose policies affect these rights to account for their actions.

In a rare passage of his first book that addresses the challenges of globalization, Robinson reassuringly says that “If the world were to turn upside down tomorrow,” any person “in their Element” would still find things to do that are positive and fulfilling. And in a rapidly changing world the priority for each of us should be “to make the most out of ourselves so that we are as flexible and productive as possible.”

Here is a perfect example of how a personalizing framework sucks out the radical potential from what sounds like fighting talk. Making the best of a difficult situation becomes the goal, instead of challenging the powers that make that situation difficult in the first place. The discourse of personal creativity fits perfectly with the trend towards a post-democratic society.

This is the problem with “personalizing the revolution”: it excludes the very thing it should be building, which is democracy. Although Robinson claims to advocate a “wider conception of human growth”, it’s a conception that is singularly lacking in politics and power. The discourse of personal creativity seems incompatible with an understanding of ourselves as political beings, for whom a voice in the public sphere and active participation in society beyond wage-labour is absolutely vital. Robinson’s revolution is supposed to be liberating, but if that is to really mean something then surely it must help people to find their voices and strengthen their own abilities to act, and not just to work?

By depoliticising our understanding of ourselves and ignoring our democratic heritage, the discourse of a personalized revolution ends up by affirming our powerless atomised state. It plays into the hands of the powers that be and denies the possibility of radical social change. Why draw strength from our capacity to adapt to an alien world and not from our ability to question it, to call it to account, and to change it? That would be a terrible waste of a good education. 

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