What are “creative” subjects – and which are the “non creative” ones?Posted: October 10, 2012
From David Pavett
I have long had a strong dislike of the unthinking way in which the word “creative” is used in educational talk. It often comes from people who in the next breath are quite likely to talk of “critical thinking” and the importance of teaching pupils to engage in it. And yet the use of the term “creative” in education usually shows nothing but raw, unthinking prejudice without the slightest hint of a critical impulse.
I was reminded of this when following the education speeches at the Labour Party Annual Conference of 2012. One key speaker said “… we need creative subjects like music, design and art. And practical subjects like engineering and IT”.
What was that?
“Creative” subjects like music and “practical” subjects like engineering?
Do those who use phrases like this think that there is some special input called “creativity” which goes into the production of the musical dross that fills the air waves, more than 95% of which will be permanently forgotten within a few years, and most of which could have been written (and perhaps was written) by a computer? Do they think that this same ingredient is missing from the challenge of building a bridge with new materials and in new conditions?
Is writing a creative practice? I challenge anyone to pick up a copy of the Daily Mail or some such to say so, without qualification, after reading the predictable arguments mustered to reach pre-determined conclusions.
Is mathematics creative? How could anyone with any knowledge of the subject think for a moment that the development of the differential and integral calculus by Newton and Leibniz was not a supreme act of genius? The same is true of the contributions to algebra of the great Al-Khwarizmi or the invention of various non-Euclidean geometries in the 19th century. But those are just examples among thousands of others in the on-going story of mathematical creativity. The demands of modern society require the constant creative application of mathematics.
Mathematics, like music (and English come to that), can be taught in a dull and unimaginative way, but to label either as creative, as opposed to the other, is to show a lack of reflection which is entirely inappropriate to educational discussion. When maths or music is taught in this way, that is to be deplored, but there is no excuse for creating a category of “creative subjects” into which one is placed and not the other.
The educational judgement of anyone prepared to use (abuse) the term “creativity” in this way is surely open to some serious questioning.
I know that the talk of “creative subjects”, the “creative arts” and such like, takes places every day without a second thought. But what this reveals is what Richard Pring, in his latest book, refers to as “disguised nonsense”. He quotes the philosopher Wittgenstein’s assertion that the job of philosophy was to help people turn “disguised nonsense” into “patent nonsense”.
Surely the contrast between ‘creative music’ on the one hand, and ‘practical engineering’ on the other is a perfect example of such disguised nonsense. What is involved in writing a melody or harmonising a tune? Learning how to do these things means absorbing a series of concepts and techniques which are learned and practised until they become second nature. The degree to which those concepts and techniques need to be explicit varies according to the circumstances. All of this is just as true of mathematics or science or engineering.
It is difficult to get informed educational discussion off the ground when thoughts are frozen into clichés. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that distinguishing some school subjects from others by their alleged creativity betrays such a basic misunderstanding of the tasks of education that it is high time that it is challenged.
I would like to think that 2012 is the last time that a speaker at a Labour Party Annual Conference (or indeed any other conference) would use the word “creative” in this way. Can we expect that future debates will be based on some real understanding of what we want schools to teach? Would that be expecting too much?