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Why the Creative Thinking of Your Childhood is the Basis for All Real Learning (2008)
“I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
Think back to your childhood. Did you play? Did you run around your house in your underpants pretending to be your favorite hero or heroin trying to save the world from an evil scientist? Did you ever build anything: a house of cards, a tower of crackers, maybe a simple fort? Did you ever play cop and fight imaginary villains and try to thwart a robbery? Maybe you were the one who pretended to have a family of five, a beachfront vacation home and an office in the city. Even if you did none of these, back when you were six, nine, eleven years old, your mind wandered if your normal day-to-day got too boring.
Now contrast your play life with that of school. First, the adults made you go. There was no compromise, no voting and no writing to your local senator or the ACLU about how you feel your parents may have violated your constitutional right to stay home and eat Fudgie the Whale ice cream cake all day (or maybe it was Count Chocula… whatever). You had to go to school. No amount of negotiating would change that. You rode your school bus, arrived at school, and soon thereafter would learn whatever the day had in store: spelling, grammar, math and history for which you had no point of reference. Flashcards were equally monotonous— you sat in your chair memorizing each card to the point your brain would just shut off and proceed to rattle off answers like a Pavlovian pup waiting to be rewarded with that peanut butter and jelly masterpiece your mother prepared while you were negotiating the Fudgie the Whale particulars.
Then it was lunchtime! Lunch was great because you could always compare the other kids’ food with yours. Even if yours was crappy, the kid at the end of the table who ate crayons for money would devour your cafeteria meatloaf like a vulture on a deer carcass! Lunch was a time to talk about your favorite pastimes. Baseball was popular with the boys and for some unknown reason, fortune telling was the girls’ thing with little paper-folded demon machines which always said something like “You smell like pee and have a hairy butthole!” Recess would follow and someone would always get maimed by a dodgeball or innocently and precociously chased by a member of the opposite sex (usually) and another kid would get inadvertently beaten with the double dutch ropes.
Next, you’d have more science work to do, memorizing ten categories of plant life or you’d learn how to type like a speed endurance champion, or maybe go to a gym class, art class, music class (These all varied depending on your school’s budget). But these were the times that seemed most free. In art class you could paint the sky purple and no one could tell you it was wrong. Music class had all those silly 1920s “flappertastic” classics that you by all accounts hated… but at least it didn’t have any long division or decimals! On the days you had gym, you ran in a circle for ten minutes and then perfected your volleyball serve to a tee while you gave your best Olympic-style grunt. Ah, those were the days, heh?
It is, without question, sadly prophetic that I should speak in the past tense about your and my collective school experience because right now as I speak to you, only half of K-12 aged students receive regular physical education— and art classes, while the highlight of many a child’s day are now a luxury. This is largely due to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act which brought about stricter and more streamlined testing standards for schools nationwide that focus primarily on math and literacy skills. Kids are tested three times a year and thus have to spend a considerable amount of time preparing for tests. But the evidence suggests that without the arts and exercise, U.S. Children may be actually losing their ability to process, analyze and dissect information in ways that are essential for innovation in business, science, engineering and medicine. A Centers for Disease Control study completed this past year suggests that girls who get at least 70 hours of exercise per week perform significantly better overall than those who average 35 hours per week. Boys, the study says, may need even more activity. Arts have been shown to be even more paramount to healthy brain function. Playing music for instance requires vigorous processing on both sides of the brain while creative expressions in writing and visual arts require critical thinking and an ability to view the world and its problems in new and uncharted ways for the fact that art is not usually restricted to 2 + 2 = 4. This was probably best expressed in the words of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his existential classic Notes from the Underground when he opined, “I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.”
What No Child Left Behind robs from children’s education is the imagination of childhood and also fails to cultivate that all important physical instinct to run, jump, climb, push and explore which physical exercise provides. Children have an uncanny and innate ability to conquer their world just by looking around it, exploring, digging, running or playing make-believe. It is just that simple. In this way, children who make art are the future architects and engineers. The most curious minds are often among those who cure diseases or build spaceships and the best actors are often the best undercover investigators on the face of the earth! Then there are the entertainers who make you and me smile at the end of a bad day, artists who allow us to look at our lives with newborn eyes, athletes who make us realize that our human bodies have oh, so much untapped potential! It is, my friends, these elements which compose the human being in all his glory and you and I have known this ever since we first began to play. So I say to you: play on, create and imagine. Imagination is after all, your most sacred tool with which to discover the Universe of possibility which lies before you!