07 November 2011

It's not a secret, right?

I had a chance to go to Disneyland recently on a whirlwind weekend trip that involved two glorious days away from school, approximately twenty eight hours in the parks themselves, less sleep than I have had in a long time and the best food ever. Given the novelty aspect of this trip and the summer of hard work it represented, I decided that I ought to get some kind of souvenir. Only. . . I don't collect pins. Or wear hats. Or need any more t-shirts. And if I want a Disney movie, I'm not going to buy one in the park, I'm going to buy one used online for half the price or less. So I found a cute ornament for my Christmas tree and. . . being me. . . a book. (That's right. Some people buy all kinds of assorted Disney memorabilia, and I buy a book.)

The book, Brain Storm, is written by Don Hahn, one of the executive producers on many of Disney's most successful films (including Beauty and the Beast.) I've not finished it yet, but it's broken into easily digested sections so odds are I will. His goal is to talk about the creative process and offers some practical advice towards gaining a greater understanding of creativity itself. Coupled with my reading of Ken Robinson's Out of Our Minds, my brain has been working overtime on this idea of creation over the last few months. Not just the idea of creation, but the common misconceptions of it.

For example, I had a parent request of me recently that I send home an example of a "perfect" essay. To be honest, I didn't really know how to respond. As an essayist myself, a "perfect" essay is something of a joke. No essayist that I know of (or have read) would ever admit that such a thing exists, at least not in their own writing. Writing isn't an art that is perfected, it is explored. But this parent didn't see writing as an art form - it was a checklist. Eventually I mailed home an essay from the internet that I didn't even read all the way through.

I give this example because it is a nice symbol of a common problem I see (and others see) cropping up more and more often in the way parents and students (and people in general) talk to me about the way they approach learning. It is a series of things to check off a list. Skills are things that you used to not know and then, after a lesson, you have mastered, and you can move on with "real" life. The "art" of gaining an education in any field, whether it be math, science, English or the arts, are being sacrificed in favor of fake rewards that don't mean much and "skills" that are forgotten within days. Teachers don't assign homework because students won't do it and parents won't make them. (This is, incidentally, one reason why the arts are so valuable in schools - you can't fake your way through the arts. If you can't sing well, everyone knows it.)

In Hahn's book he points out how easy it is to be intimidated by the great thinkers of the past - men like Edison or Disney himself - men like Steve Jobs and DaVinci who seem to have that creativity thing down in spades. But, Hahn argues, the great thinkers of history (with the possible exceptions of Disney and Jobs) didn't have access to the same tools we do. We have the world of information available for free to us so long as we have a computer with the internet on it. In under ten seconds, I can find out nearly any fact I want to know.

But that's part of the problem. It used to be that having knowledge of a subject guaranteed you a job, because having that knowledge alone was rare. But not in this world. To enter any field that involves creative thinking - everything ranging from engineering to graphic designer and back again - employers want people who can come up with ideas and follow through on them. The world is moving too fast for any business to stop evolving, and it takes people to make that happen.

This is good news, really. What it means is that anyone with the right set of skills can find success, college education or no. The tools you need to be successful are pretty simple: it takes hard work, and a passion for what you do that is not swayed by setbacks.

But somehow in our "Occupy ______" nation, those skills are drowning in a sea of excuses and people lazing around from one task to another. Here in the valley, I'm not sure how this functions elsewhere, "stress" has taken on the label of "overwhelmed", which means that parents are now requesting students be excused from assignments or late work (and then wonder why their kid doesn't know how to do basic tasks at the end of the year.) If a student doesn't know how to do something, or has a learning disability, or has problems at home, then all of these things (sometimes combined) become the barrier that keeps a person from even attempting to try. Which is fine. Everyone's got problems. But it's no secret that if you don't do the work you don't get the reward.

Unless, of course, you whine about it long enough that someone gives you a gold star or a cookie or an "everyone wins" trophy to make you feel better about it.

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