At TED talks, the most viewed video — now surpassing 14 million hits — is “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” by England’s Sir Ken Robinson. Not long into the 18-minute lecture, Robinson answers his query. Yes, schools do kill creativity. “I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or, rather, we get educated out if it.” And, says the consultant, who helps European and American educators reform their entrenched systems (in 2003 he was knighted for his “service to the arts”), such a tendency “is profoundly mistaken” these days, with “the whole world engulfed in a [digital] revolution.” Robinson’s advocacy has sparked debate over the purpose and applicability of education, ever the same bored kids and boring teachers.
You would think America’s schools would cave under all the criticism they receive. What’s distressing is that the critique is withering from both ends. Take job and career prep. Robinson tells his audience: “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid — things you liked — on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. ‘Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician.’” At least, not a money-making one. The reality is, however, there’s hardly any way into the arts that doesn’t involve waiting tables. What’s more, not everyone is artistic. Kids need training, especially the talentless. Where else will they get it but in school?
Damned either way: teach job skills, and the school squanders the young’s creativity; teach creativity, and graduates, sassy and fulfilled, have few marketable skills.
Yet, Robinson’s talk, like that of dogged independents in the home-schooling movement, reminds us of the unteachable traits, like ambition, imagination, persistence, turns of character that may not mean a steady paycheck but are necessary to a society’s growth. Where would our culture be without those unschooled self-starters like Thomas Edison and Bill Gates? How do we think about the “education” of other rarities, all high-school dropouts, like Count Basie, Marlon Brando, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosa Parks, Charlie Chaplin, Horace Greeley, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller?
The young read (or, these days, probably hear) of these bootstrap pioneers, filled with purpose, and say, “Why not me? Why do I have to go to college to be someone? Isn’t there another way?”
There is. UnCollege, a year-long process of self-directed education, as one university dropout and entrepreneur has trademarked it, hoping to direct the faction.
The idea is that your education is your responsibility. You can use your latent talents and abiding passions to get where you want to go. Just remember, you must first steer clear of the path, often de rigueur in the annals of American success, that maintains that a four-year degree is worth mountainous debt, useless knowledge, and entombed creativity.
Nico D’Amico-Barbour is unsure about a lot of things, but one thing he’s not unsure of is that college offers nothing that he needs to live now. At 22, tousled-haired, with a preternaturally wise face, he is gainfully employed, a dedicated autodidact, and a fair-weather college student. Five years ago, D’Amico-Barbour, then enrolled at High Tech High, dropped out “for personal reasons.” He tells me this over a vegan cookie and hot tea at Filter in Hillcrest. All his High Tech friends graduated and went on to college. Not him. Eventually, he passed his GED, took five classes at Mesa College, got bored, quit, and found a job running a coffee shop for $8 an hour.
High-Tech High did ground him in one thing: “That place taught me how to learn.” But other than a few good history classes, with project-based group learning, “I never really got any real knowledge there.” Such knowledge is, for him, narrowly defined — it’s applied. Only life, D’Amico-Barbour says, gives knowledge.
He admits that “friends and family struggle to understand” his position. They may not recognize how well informed he is. He listens to NPR podcasts and updates himself with news blogs daily. (At times, his conversation drifts into current politics.) His passion, though, has been to work, “not to sit and listen.” He values starting his own business, studying on his own, and steering clear of homework and what he calls the “deferred gratification” of university life.
D’Amico-Barbour boils down his counterintuitive path to a stronger longing, a desire to “experience hardships,” defined as the daily vicissitudes of work, paying one’s way, riding the bus, and so on. He says he grew up with well-off parents, partly in Europe, where he studied Italian. With such a tended life, he seldom faced the difficulties he relishes while living on his own.
Nico discusses college
Nibbling on a cookie, he admits that “My parents would, today, step in and help me” go to college “if that’s what I wanted to do. It’s unfortunate that I have a free education waiting for me, and millions of Americans don’t. Most Americans look forward only to crippling college debt or not being able to afford much of anything. That’s an example of what’s wrong with our system.” In a sense, he feels his advantages “nagging at him. I sometimes joke that I have to pay off my birth.” College would exercise that birthright, perhaps another reason to say no.
D’Amico-Barbour calls college “a fabricated environment. It’s fake. We set up buildings, an environment with dorm rooms, for 18-year-olds. You always hear two aspects about college: the parties and the pranks; and the flipside, the learning opportunities, pulling all-nighters to learn an esoteric concept. It’s completely fabricated. It will never be experienced again.”
Worse, college is a “platform for enforcing the status quo.” The American class system has not changed in 250 years, D’Amico-Barbour says. It’s bent on rewarding the same bluebloods with opportunities and money. The undiscussed goal, which college “perpetuates,” is privilege. Even affirmative action “just indoctrinates people of a lower class into the upper class.” College is no longer the democratically open and financially accessible institution it used to be, in the halcyon 1960s, when it was often free.