The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Schooling Kills Creativity And Then Work Buries It

So, there are different measures of creativity. One of them is divergent thinking, the ability to come up with lots of different ideas. George Land created a famous test for NASA, then applied it to children. Test-takers were given a problem and then had to come up with many different ways to tackle it.

Land’s dead now but before  he died he gave a Ted talk. Generally loathe them, but this one is interesting.

As for the results of his test…

Yeah. Woops. The reason for this is simple (and I can hear some regular readers eyes rolling, since this is a subject I’ve talked about a lot.) School is about coming up with the “right” answer the “right” way. There aren’t 50 right ways. I have many memories of coming up with the right answer in math, for example, using different methods than the teacher and being downgraded for it.

In math there’s often a “right” answer but in other disciplines, there isn’t one. What caused the French revolution or World War I? There isn’t a right answer.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking “but the social sciences and humanities are different.”

Oh, somewhat.

Back in the 90s I used to tutor university students. I’d tell them I could teach them to consistently get a B, but not an A, because the extra step from B to A was knowing the person who is marking your tests and essays, and both working them so they like and respect you and tailoring your answers to their prejudices. It’s actually harder to get get an A in the humanities and social sciences than in the sciences and in math. I’ve gotten 100% on a chemistry or physics test. I have never done so on a paper or non multiple choice test in the humanities or social sciences because there isn’t a correct answer.

But you will get higher grades if you learn to give the marker about what they want.

In the sciences it’s about getting the right answer the right way. In the humanities and social sciences it’s a social game of “please the market” or in very rigid standardized tests of “please the test designer.”

In realm of the real world this leads to the something called “best practices”, which I loathe. There are no such things as best practices. That doesn’t mean you can’t teach workers what is known to work, but if you enforce “best practices” then they can’t innovate. If you tell people “how” to do something, rather than say “I need you to accomplish X” you shut down learning and creativity and you also strangle advancement.

People have to be free to try new things. There are degrees of this, of course, in some cases the task still needs to get done. But mandating how and not what stiffles progress and creativity faster than almost anything else.

What we do to children and adults is psychologically cripple them. It’s better, in our society, to be wrong with the pack or in the approved fashion than to be right against the pack or  using non-standard methods.

Very, very much better. In the pack, wrong with the pack, or more accurately wrong in the way leader-teacher wants you to be, you’re safe.

But get it right the wrong way, or get it wrong trying something new, and you’re toast.

We all know this, but many of us refuse to admit it and this is especially true with regards to school. We spent more awake time in school for twelve to sixteen or more years than we did anywhere else, except in some cases home. That creates strong identification. We either want to believe school is good, or we rebel against it, but very few people can remain neutral. If something “must” be then it must be good.

But school teaches (eye-roll time) us to be a bunch of conformists, giving teacher what they want in the way they want, sitting down and not even talking or using the bathroom without permission.

That’s school and denying that is what school is is rank stupidity.

It’s also most workplaces. You replace teacher with boss.

And then you think you’re free when you’ve spent most of your life doing what you were told, the way you were told to do it.

(By the way, one corollary of Land’s test is that you started out as a creative genius. Perhaps you can be one again? It’s not nature that made you un-creative. Nature started you as a genius.)

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – February 12, 2023


The Core Of Class Struggle From Below


  1. Grimgrin

    One interesting thing about the brain of a 5 year old. You can remove half of the cerebral cortex and the rest will adapt.

    You can’t do that after 6 years old without loss of function.

    So the questions in relation to your graph are simple: Is this a function of schooling, development, or both? And if this is not a result of education, but a result of how our brains develop over time, what then?

  2. Dan Lynch

    Ian said It’s actually harder to get get an A in the humanities and social sciences than in the sciences and in math.

    Bingo. I have 2 degrees, the first in Social Studies Education, where I struggled to make B’s and was often disliked by the professors because I did not see eye to eye with them. The second in Mechanical Engineering, where I made straight A’s and was usually the teacher’s pet. By any objective measure, the mechanical engineering curriculum is an order of magnitude more difficult than social studies — it requires a higher IQ, and more hours of study. But undergraduate engineering is black and white, while social studies is the furthest thing from black and white.

    Real life engineering is not black and white. Real life engineering decisions often have more to do with company politics than with best engineering practices, and I sucked at company politics, so my real life engineering career was a constant struggle.

    So I agree with all that Ian said about how education and work kills creativity. (And then there is the forced religious indoctrination of children, which ought to be considered a form of child abuse). That said, I question what is the alternative? All societies have norms, and all societies try to pass those norms onto their children. It has always been so.

    It’s all well and good to say that we should all be independent thinkers, but a society composed entirely of independent thinkers is not going to be cohesive. As I see it, a great deal of conformity is required in order for society to function. Without conformity, you end up with an Iraq or a Ukraine.

  3. Oshburghor

    Thorndike won. Dewey Lost. That pretty much sums up American education in my opinion. The goal has been workers not thinkers. It’s been pretty effective.

  4. Zipzap Shabam

    If people agree to make a change, that’s not conformity. But then again, neither is change everywhere and always good.

    There are three books by Ivan Illich that I tend to recommend to others. “Tools for Conviviality” helps us think about how the things we use every day could be better without exploiting others. “Energy and Equity” introduces us to the direct connection between energy use and slavery and asks us to consider how we might live without exploiting others. “Deschooling Society” takes on the educational system and universities as a fundamentally conformative and exploitative enterprise. All three can be read as “we missed the boat” but frankly I didn’t think in the ’70s and don’t think now that it’s sailed. We can choose, although increasingly choosing to act in an ethical way feels like the Birkenhead Drill.

    During one of my careers as a university professor I often made my conceptually up-to-the-minute colleagues uncomfortable because I was always reminding them that sometimes “more” is just “more” (and can lead to “less”) and also that we can’t improve education (or society) without first identifying what the goals of the present system may be and asking ourselves if that’s where we want to go. If it’s not going where you want it to go, randomly changing things and hoping for a good result may be accepted as “scholarship of teaching and learning” but all it really leads to is more of the same.

  5. spud farmer

    Ivan Illich’s critique of the western way of education is also relevant here. From Wikipedia:

    “His first book, Deschooling Society, published in 1971, was a groundbreaking critique of compulsory mass education. He argued the oppressive structure of the school system could not be reformed. It must be dismantled in order to free humanity from the crippling effects of the institutionalization of all of life.”

    K-12 education and its equivalent in Western Europe creates obedient zombies who’ve had their creativity and love of learning stunted by their authoritarian schooling. Not that long ago teachers had license to literally beat it out of them.

  6. Marcus Gardner

    Couple things I’d add:

    1. Compliance-based parenting, I think, probably has an equal effect on kids and their lack of creativity. I saw an awesome quote the other day about how parents who force their kids to comply to “respect” them are essentially just teaching the kids to learn to fear expressing themselves. That kills creativity, along with everything else vital to truly being human.

    2. There’s a vicious cycle around work/play/meaning-making, where, the previous generation’s children learned that, as an adult, work/play/meaning-making all happen when their children aren’t around. Children, as we know them, can only get in the way of these things, whether they be you getting your project done on time, challenge yourself, or entertain yourself the way you like to be entertained. Which is actually largely true, given that we live in these compartmentalized units where, if they’re not in school, your kids are always looking for stimulation/love from you, and only you, the parents (unless you won the parenting lottery and live in an old-fashioned neighborhood where kids roam on their own.) Add to this, of course, that said adults have learned to make their meaning with compliance-based wage slavery, and there’s usually no wiggle room at all, save for after-dinner family time.

    3. Daycare/preschool is the gateway drug. Take an overwhelmed parent of a toddler and tell them someone else will watch that kid for 2, 3, 5 days a week, for 8 hours a day, and see how many can resist. After that, it’s only a little stretch to start calling the bulk children storage unit an “enriching educational experience” and you’re homefree. My wife and I finally found an opening for our daughter 2 days a week at a daycare, and even though we don’t need it for our jobs (we intentionally just work part-time to be in our lives/with her) it is just so tempting to want more, more, more “us” time.

  7. anon y'mouse

    “daycare” is going to end up even worse than that.

    from what i heard and read in college taking Social Science, the experts believe that most parents are idiots and can’t possibly raise their children correctly. or at least the poorest half are.

    so the children “need” to be taken into daycare so that they can get the jump start on their “education” and not sit at home bonding with mom/dad who “won’t talk to them enough to expand their vocabulary” and “won’t socialize them enough with other kids their age” and so on and so forth.

    Brave New World as a handbook. they will of course be able to sell it to time and energy strapped working parents as a godsend.

    the only problem is—who is going to pay for it, and who is going to get paid how much. most child care workers are extremely poorly paid. how are you going to attract those people who have degrees in childhood dev/early childhood ed? and once attracted, how can you psychological hamstring them into thinking that their work is so important that they “need” to keep doing it even if they are underpaid and treated disrespectfully (by their employers). dilemmas of struggle…

    but that’s how the middle classes get ahead—by leveraging their wage vs. their servants’.

  8. Trinity

    Agree, both school and work inhibit creativity. For my and my workplace, the mantra is always “but we’ve always done it this way!” It wasn’t always that way, so I was amused when a video of actual innovation from the late 80s and early 90s circulated on a recent anniversary.

    And maybe somebody has done a study on how our devices quell creativity. Aren’t they really just an extension of the same push for conformity?

  9. bruce wilder

    I think of what it takes to build a house or public building — a “good” house: good in many senses, along many dimensions, useful, aesthetic, attractive, durable, efficient, functional, comfortable, protective.

    A house is very rarely the product of a single individual or even a singular vision of, say, only an architect or engineer or builder or artisan or investor or property owner. Collaboration is a lovely term for creative synergy in cooperation, but prosaically there is also — and this is mandated from long experience — conformity to codes and standards of care and workmanship.

    We have discussed before the perversity of human nature that leads to people devoting far more energy, intelligence and creativity to “cheating the system” than to simply “playing the game fairly” for its ostensible purpose, as well as an equally perverse bloody-minded or passive-aggressive, resentful refusal to conform or get along, expressed in destructive, even malicious failure to perform or outright vandalism.

    Building a house or public building is, I submit, a supremely social project, requiring intelligent cooperation. Creativity? Perhaps. But also a willingness to join a shared project.

    I loathe the authoritarian factory mentality that tries to make people into substitutes for machinery — stupid, ignorant, uncaring, unappreciated. On the other hand, if I were building a house, I would want the cooperation of workers with different sets of craft skills, conforming intelligently, but conforming to standards of their own craft and respectful of the work of other trades. I would not want an HVAC guy cutting away roof struts because the were “in the way” or a carpet installer slashing baseboards. I would not want an architect disregarding practical necessity to promote a striking but pointless aesthetic.

  10. GlassHammer

    “the extra step from B to A was knowing the person who is marking your tests and essays” – Ian

    Targeting the biases of the reader works great in American universities. Sometimes I didn’t even write C level answers and still got Bs or better because I knew what the reader wanted. People will ignore a lot of missing or erroneous content so long as the body of work pleases them.

    This is why I laughed when universities identified students using AI (specifically ChatGPT) as a massive threat to academic excellence. You can get an undeserved B with a mad libs that the professor likes, a sophisticated AI is just overkill.

  11. Eric Anderson

    A whole lot of high minded ways up thread of simply saying:
    “Let them make their own mistakes.”

  12. Astrid

    You do need to be careful about unrestrained “creativity”. Wall Street and Silicon Valley and DC are full of “disruptors” who spent their lives rebelling against their education and “thinking outside the box”. Yes, they obviously still get boxed into certain ways of thinking by their education and material conditions, but they’re also sociopaths who care nothing for the bulk of humanity. Don’t parents of small children often observe that the young ones are psychopaths before they learn empathy and learn to play well with others?

    As others have said, society is made up of individuals and power structures, and growing up is in larger part learning to successfully recognize and navigate these power structures. There’s a balance between Western “liberty” (nevermind the debt peonage and constant fear of being cancelled and uncertainty about one’s indentity and purpose) and traditional society’s “tyranny” (which can be very suffocating but also have ways of creating small spaces for individuals within their roles).

  13. bruce wilder

    Would they recognize a mistake of their own making?

    “There isn’t a right answer.”

    We live in a culture dripping in b.s. (now automated by AI) and oblivious to accountability in its thorough corruption.

  14. Eric Anderson

    bruce wilder:
    “would they make a mistake of their own making”

    That’s called learning. And, funny thing, when you let children make their own mistakes and learn the hard way without helicoptering them all the time, they’re a lot more likely to come around and ask for advice on difficult subjects in the future.

    I’d be interested to know how many chiming in on the whole parenting thing are actually, you know, currently parenting a child. I have a 5yr old son … or rather, he has me. Right at that age where he’s beginning to explore risk on his own. The battles between my wife wanting to helicopter, and me wanting to allow him to fail are beginning for real. And maybe that’s the answer. 2 committed parents and the balance that falls between. He seems a pretty happily precocious little dude so far.

  15. Eric Anderson

    Sorry Bruce —
    Early morning pre-coffee brain strikes again. Misquoted you. But, the misquote brings an entirely knew spin on the topic.

  16. I teach longform improv (and teach it well) and this is an issue I deal with every day. The creative part of the the brain and the judging part of the brain, while both important, cannot work simultaneously. (The judging part also activates fear, which is the major cause of stage fright but that’s another story.)

    I can’t get people to turn off the judging part by saying, Don’t judge yourself, because then they’re judging whether they’re judging, and once that’s turned on it stays on (Saying, Don’t think about Red! won’t prevent anyone from thinking about red.), so as a teacher I must give students other tasks. It’s wonderful to see people open up and start using their creative minds.

    As far as the decline from 98% to 2%, I think most mammals will lose brain plasticity after infancy, and lose even more at puberty. So it’s hard to say how much of this horrifying drop is specific to schools. Pulling a number out of thin air, maybe with better schools instead of 98>30>12>2 you’d get 98>60>30>?, but if schools didn’t indoctrinate the shift to the horribly regimented nature of adult life (in the English-speaking world at least) that shift might be even more traumatic.

    The mixing of divergent and convergent thinking isn’t just what’s taught by school curriculum, however; it’s also a function of ‘peer orientation’ in schools (IMO). Kids are segregated into large groups made up of kids of the same chronological age, which is somewhat unnatural and leads to a self-consciousness. Kids spend a lot of mental energy tracking how they appear to the kids around them, which means that the convergent thinking is always present.

  17. Mark Level

    As long as one is a herd animal, afraid of thinking differently than others or offending someone, you are voluntarily making yourself dumber. I am about to lose another friend because I don’t love the NeoCons & I am not cheerleading the Nobel Ukranians against the very demon, Putin. My friend just freaked out when he heard my opinion and he accused me (despite all evidence, we’ve known one another for 10 months or so) of loving Republicans, Trump, etc. I started sending my friend links to Max Blumenthal & other clearly lefty war critics. We’re a couple days into emailed discussion but he keeps straw-manning me and ignoring things I made very clear a day or two prior. I don’t “love Putin”, he KNOWs that there are more Nazis in Russia than in Ukraine (NPR told him that), etc. I’m about to give up. I really liked the guy. We had a lot in common but he is bourgeois, because I had some hard, scrappy years in my life living in poverty I don’t wear the same Rose-colored glasses he does. I think I’m just moving past the denial stage in ending the relationship today. Plato’s cave is an old story. As Nietzsche says in W. Kaufman’s translation, “Convictions make convicts”. We both supposedly share the same values but he refuses to apply them across the board, his prejudices must be reinforced of there’s some Existential fear there. . . . As Bobby Dylan said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” I think my possibly soon ex-friend has chosen certainty and complacency over growth. So it’s all self dumbing-down and gradual death of the intellect first and probably affect following. Oh well, in that case, no great loss on my part! I could write him a farewell email telling him what’s going to happen to his beloved, pure, “victim” Ukranians (I have brought up the Palestinians a couple of times, he refuses to respond to that point so far) in the next 2 years, while the Neocons press forward to their next planned disaster, the already Pentagon announced war with China in 2025 (which of course will be started by “them” as every US war of aggression or proxy war is). I am not petty enough to do that right now, I still have some residual fondness for the guy. However I think I will write my prediction and send it from one of my emails to another account, then forward it to him when Ukraine is a decimated shite-hole a la Syria. It will be petty to send it but maybe then he won’t support “our moral response to Chinese aggression” as enthusiastically? (I know, probably naive.)

  18. GlassHammer

    @Mark Level

    Running head long into a conversational barrier is never a good strategy so always look for another angle to take. Your only real goal is to keep them actively listening.

  19. Astrid

    Speaking from experience, I’m not sure it’s possible to keep them listening. They can agree fully with you on A, B, and C, but will never cross the mental barrier to contemplate D. And once they know you’re in the*enemy camp* on D, they never fully listen on the other stuff either, except when what you say confirm what they already want to believe.

    And I’m not even talking politics or Covid necessarily, though those are the worst. Things as innocuous as telling people that planting a full sun plant into a spot that gets 2 hours max won’t work or don’t plant running bamboo in your backyard can trigger that mental gear. And then there was the time when I tried to warn someone against going to Yosemite during July 4th weekend, you’d think I was kicking his children.

    If there’s a strong or socially important relationship there to preserve, it might be worth mutually roping off those areas as “no go” and preserve the rest of the relationship. And ability to prostrate yourself and gently change the topic or leave the room when the topic inevitably comes up. If it’s a new relationship, it may already be too compromised to preserve.

  20. GlassHammer


    People spend a great deal of time constructing an elaborate mental fortresses to keep things orderly and repel things they think would lead them astray. So unless your mental fortress and theirs are similarly built, your in for quite the ordeal when you talk with them.

    It was always this way to an extent but you have two things making it harder now 1.) People are generally more stressed and irritable which makes them less likely to listen at all.
    2.) People have unrestricted access to limitless data which is constantly tightening their mental defenses. It doesn’t even matter if that data is valid so long as it can be used.

    If you really wanted to get them to take in nonconforming data you need to get them to relax and unplug from their various data streams.

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