On Robinson on Education

Larry Sanger

This very striking video has been circulating, and I’m inspired to reply to it:

First, let me say that the video design is very cool.  Moreover, Sir Ken Robinson is quite an excellent public speaker.  Finally, I agree with him entirely that standardization is the source of a lot of our educational difficulties.  But much of the rest of his message is irritatingly wrong.

The typical comment made about this video is that it represents a radical new proposal for what education should look like.  But there’s very little that is new about it.  Indeed, many school teachers and education professors, I’d wager, find a lot to agree with here.  Many of the progressive “reform” proposals look like this.  The problem is that they endlessly run up against the facts of reality.  And I don’t mean political reality, although that’s fierce enough.  I mean the reality of what education really means and what it accomplishes.

So let’s try to understand a few things that Robinson is trying to argue.  He basically makes the point that the education system was designed in the 19th century, and its methodology is stuck in the 19th century.  It needs to be updated, he says.  This, by itself, is a rhetorically powerful message, and an effective way to position his proposed reforms, especially for all those people out there who pride themselves on being cutting-edge in everything.

But what exactly, according to Robinson, is educationally backward and now wrong?  Several things, all dramatically denied (and quite amusingly illustrated):

  • 1. Work hard, do well, get a college degree, and you will be rewarded with a good job.  (Our kids “don’t believe that” and “they’re right not to,” says Sir Ken–why?  Because a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good job.  I spy a fallacy.)
  • 2. The “Enlightenment view of intelligence,” that real intelligence consists in the ability to do deductive reasoning and knowledge of the classics, or what (he says) we think of as “academic ability.”  (I think of academic ability as far more than this.  Also, I can’t recall coming across either of these as strongly advocated for in my public school education, and these have if anything become even rarer in schools.)
  • 3. There is not enough collaboration in schools.  (There sure was an annoyingly large amount of groupwork in the public schools I attended from 1973 to 1986, and now, I gather, such methods are still all the rage.  So I’m not convinced on this point.)
  • 4. Schools are too standardized: organized on factory lines, scheduled, regimented, studying compartmentalized subjects, with people of the same ages graduating at the same time.  (Here is where I agree with him–except for his complaint about the separation into specialized subjects.)

There are three main points in the rest of his argument, as follows.  First, the modern student is constantly being bombarded with stimulation, from computers, television, handhelds, and so forth.  This can be expected to reduce their level of attention.  But, second, this leads to a ridiculous over-diagnosis of and over-medication for ADHD.  This is supposed to be an epidemic, but it is really a fictitious epidemic.  The problem at base is that kids are made to look at “boring stuff” (Sir Ken actually uses that phrase, to cheers from teenagers on YouTube), which they simply can’t do unless they are “anesthetized” with ADHD drugs.  Third, an important element of intelligence is “divergent thinking,” or the ability to think of different interpretations of questions and produce many different answers.  Schooling, for reasons above stated, gradually kills this ability off, which is much stronger in kindergartners.  Our creativity is educated out of us.

What should we do instead?  At least in this speech, Robinson is annoyingly cryptic.  For instance, he says: “We should be waking them up to what is inside themselves” instead of “anesthetizing them.”  (OK, so how do we do that?  What does this even mean?)  Also, we should get rid of the distinction between academic and non-academic, and between abstract, theoretical, and vocational subjects.  (But…these are reasonably coherent and useful distinctions.  You can’t get rid of the distinction, in practice, without getting one of the things distinguished.  I’m guessing Sir Ken is all for getting rid of the “boring stuff,” which I suppose would include the allegedly soul-killing “academic” stuff.)  Also: “Most great learning happens in groups.”  (Not in my experience.  I associate group learning with precisely the standardization and anti-creativity groupthink that Robinson was bemoaning earlier.  And supposing he’s right and I’m wrong: how, exactly, should we harness groups to make “great learning” happen?)

Sir Ken is a charming character, but he is mostly wrong.  I think his views, far from being especially novel or radical, reflect the mainstream of educational theory.  This pattern of educational theorizing has been going on for generations now, and one of the things that people say again and again, ironically, is how innovative and cutting-edge they are when they reheat such stuff for the umpteenth time.

But, you might ask, if Sir Ken’s theorizing is mostly old hat and mainstream among educational theorists, why aren’t we living out an educational utopia of self-realizing, non-academic, collaborative kids who only go to college when they really want to?  Because, of course, the theory is impractical.  It is poetic justice that somebody who thinks that we should jettison the distinction between theory and practice would be impaled on that very distinction.  Another way to put it, however, is that it is incoherent–in some cases, with itself, and in some cases, with common but often unmentioned beliefs, also known as common sense.

I’m not sure that Sir Ken mentioned any actual academic subjects such as history or mathematics.  But if you are going to castigate academics as “boring stuff,” then let’s get clear: you are opposing history, mathematics, science, classical literature (OK, so that was mentioned), and various other subjects.  In the same vein, when clever would-be educational reformers say that we need to get rid of the orientation around memorizing facts, they rarely specify which facts they think students shouldn’t learn.  As Sir Ken himself says in this talk, he doesn’t want to lower standards–of course not, that’s just obvious.  But if, in the limited amount of time we have to teach our children before they’re all grown up, we start emphasizing vocational subjects, then we’re talking about teaching less history, less mathematics, less science, etc.  De facto, standards regarding the amount of such learning are lowered.  You can’t really argue with this; it’s a hard, cold fact.  The practical consequence of less emphasis on academics, on “boring stuff,” is to de-emphasize teaching knowledge that, it so happens, society in general naturally prizes.  You set yourself up in opposition to school boards and parents who understandably want to raise standards so that U.S. schools remain competitive with other countries.  But, you say, what’s wrong with that?  They are simply mistaken about what our educational goals should be and so, sure, you do oppose them.  Perhaps; but, again, let’s get clear: are you really in favor of reducing the amount of math and history that is learned in schools?  I’m sure there are some people who follow the consequences and say “yes” to this.  But most people are like Sir Ken, who says, smugly and cracking a joke, that he, too, is in favor of raising standards.  He, like so many educational theorists, wants to have his cake and eat it too: he doesn’t want to teach so much “boring stuff” in school.  But he also doesn’t want to lower standards.  He no doubt wants our kids to do just as well in math and science…just without all that studying, which unrealistically requires ADHD kids to pay attention.

Similarly, just as the U.S. is in the process of adopting national education standards–i.e., taking a bold leap toward ever-greater standardization–he states that he firmly opposes standardization.  Well, I do too, which is why I’m homeschooling my boys.  But in the same speech he says that we learn best by learning in groups, collaboratively.  It is hard (not impossible, but hard) to do that very much apart from a school system.  And what is the politically practical way to create a school system without the sort of standardization Robinson dislikes?  I doubt there is any.  The government cannot and should not do anything without being accountable to the people; and how can it be accountable without adopting some reasonable rules and standards against which its performance is measured?  Besides, quite famously, the U.S. educational system still (as of this writing) lacks a national educational curriculum, and in that respect is remarkably less standardized than other countries.  The point is that as long as government is in charge of education, there are natural pressures toward the standardization that Robinson–and so many, many other staunch supporters of public education and collaborative learning–bemoans.  Again, we can’t have our cake and eat it too.  If we want public schools in modern democracies, we must face up to the fact that the quite proper requirements of democratic accountability will make our public school systems greatly standardized.

Not all students should get on the academic track and go to college–opines both Professor Robinson, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of London, and a passel of other highly-degreed academic theorists.  Well, of course this is true, in general.  There are still many jobs that do not (and should not) require a college degree, and there will always be people who, for whatever reasons, won’t be competitive enough either as students or in the job market to be very competitive in getting jobs that do require college degrees.  It would simply be cruel, and economically illiterate, to advise everyone to try to get a college degree.  This should be obvious to anybody who has been on the “front lines” of teaching the sort of college freshmen who quickly drop out because they should never have been admitted in the first place.  So, given that this is a truism (at least under present circumstances), why does Robinson, like so many others, feel it necessary to attack a culture in which many people are getting college degrees?  What, exactly, is the point of doing that?

If I were being very charitable, I’d say that Sir Ken simply hated the thought of people making poor life choices, being overambitious, and paying for it in the form of high debt and dashed hopes.  But, having heard his speech, I think another explanation is more likely.  His contempt for the ladder to college comes in the context of a complaint that pushing education on children “alienates” them.  He says that he was taught as a school boy that by working hard, doing well, and going to college, he’d get a good job.  (It worked out that way for him, now didn’t it?)  But “our kids don’t believe that,” he says.  And yet “our kids” are still going to college in record numbers, so if they don’t believe it, they’re acting irrationally.  Anyway, he seems to be saying that the reason you shouldn’t go to college is simply that the academic track features “boring stuff” which will snuff out your creativity.  Yes, as amazing as it might sound, that is what he says in his speech.  He doesn’t put it in so many words, but that’s essentially what he says.

While Sir Ken and much of his head-nodding audience no doubt think that he, and they, are being wonderfully egalitarian and inclusive when they say and believe such things, really the opposite is true.

In the 21st century, just as much as in the 19th, a solid academic education, a liberal education, which features training in critical thinking and classical literature and all the rest of it, gives us an opportunity to improve our minds.  If you come out against academic education in the sense of liberal education, you really have to explain why you aren’t also coming out against keeping a lot of people relatively stupid.  Sir Ken seems to have forgotten that a good, indeed, academic education changes minds; it liberates them, which is where we get the phrase “liberal education” from.  It needn’t kill creativity, it can just as easily channel it and strengthen it.  But more importantly–because understanding is more important than creativity, I will be so bold as to say–it develops our understanding of ourselves, our society, and the universe we live in.  Having such an understanding does not merely make us much more employable, which it certainly does; and of course being more equal in this respect was indeed the reason for the egalitarian ideal of universal public education. But it also tends to make our minds and our lives so to speak broader or larger. To pretend that liberal education does not have this effect, to dismiss academic education as an artifact of the 19th century, is to ignore precisely the sort of training that made Sir Ken the speaker and writer that he is today.

Robinson would, I think, have a reply to this.  In his speech he says it is wrong to equate “smart” with “academic” and “non-smart” with “non-academic.”  So I seem to be trading on that outdated equation.  This sounds very egalitarian, and especially nice when he says that many people who are brilliant are convinced they are not, merely because they are not “book smart”–a lovely, gracious sentiment.  After all, everybody knows smart and wise people who have relatively little book learning–and people full of book learning who lack wisdom or good sense.  So, sure, that’s true; education has its failures, like any institution, and sometimes it isn’t really necessary at all. But whoever denied these things?  It hardly follows that academic education doesn’t tend to make people smart.  Of course it does; if it didn’t, people wouldn’t value such education.  When people go to school for a long time, and work hard and conscientiously, they tend to become better readers, better writers, better at math, and in general, possessed of better minds, than they had before, or than they would have in the absence of their education.  And this is, of course, ultimately the reason why people get an academic education.  I know it’s rather obvious to say this, but it is, after all, an important bit of common sense that Robinson is ignoring.

Want more? Sign up to my newsletter.

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • July 2022 (1)
  • May 2022 (1)
  • March 2022 (5)
  • February 2022 (1)
  • September 2021 (1)
  • August 2021 (1)
  • July 2021 (3)
  • June 2021 (1)
  • January 2021 (6)
  • December 2020 (8)
  • November 2020 (2)
  • October 2020 (1)
  • September 2020 (3)
  • July 2020 (2)