Patrick Pittman on Sir Ken Robinson
School is broken. Like health systems perpetually “in crisis”, it is a reliable truth of the Western world that our education systems will always fall short. Despite a century and more of Steiners and Montessoris and Unschoolers scratching at the edges for new ways and better ways, we in the mainstream remain stuck not more than a few feet from the Three Rs.
As it was true in Victorian times, as it was true in the 1950s, so it is true now—they fuck you up, your English teacher and your Maths teacher. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you.
Sir Ken Robinson has never been much of a one for accepting the status quo, either of the system or of the self. There can be no more popular evangelist for the place of creativity in education than he. Though I’m speaking to him in Los Angeles, the passion, velocity and wicked humour of his speech betray his Liverpudlian roots. In his decades of vocal advocacy, through Britain, the US and across the globe, he’s picked himself up a knighthood, published several bestselling books, including The Element and Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and had over 200 million people watch his 2006 and 2010 TED conference talks.
Imagine, if you will, a room full of depressed teachers, long-since broken by the system, suddenly compelled to jump on their desks and shout ‘O Captain! My Captain!’, and you’ll have some idea of the energy and direction Sir Ken brings to any conversation on education reform.
I was one of those rare people who received a radical education in a government school long-since torn down. For me, the idea of passionate teachers and liberated students seemed normal. I remember the English teacher who would walk into class, waving street press at us, listing the gigs we weren’t old enough to get into. The computing class where we were allowed to drink coffee while coding elaborate games of Hangman. Kids with torn jeans and electric-blue hair sneaking out across the oval in their Jane’s Addiction t-shirts, the blind-eyes of teachers turned to the ziploc bags peeking from Smashing Pumpkins-emblazoned canvas satchels. The stupidly high marks we all got in our exams.
As with many things, it’s not until you reach adulthood and compare notes with the others who made it through that you realise that was not how it was supposed to be. The older I get, the more often I find the conversation returning to the schoolyard. To the people that shaped us, to the teachers that stifled us, to the teachers who liberated us.
When we speak, Sir Ken and I are both in Los Angeles, though on opposite sides of the city. He doesn’t get much time to stop at home, and he jokes of needing to wear a name badge for his children, what with the life spent on the road—he is worried that if we were to do the interview in person, it would involve too much wine, and he wouldn’t be quite in the right state for the hundreds of people he had to speak to in the afternoon.