Mediocrity Squashes Creativity

A bored-looking student sitting at his desk.

Within the U.S. public education system, mediocrity has become the standard by which students are judged. Furthermore, students are strongly encouraged, or even required, to embrace conformity, and, in return, are poorly prepared for a noteworthy future. Students are educated in a system that appreciates academic ability and achievements, but only pays lip service to creativity and inquisitiveness. Few parents raise strenuous objections to this status quo.
In a small percentage of cases, parents simply may not care—they have many other important things to worry about in their lives. Others may be concerned about the outcomes, but believe the “experts” are more qualified than they are to determine educational policy, so they do not make waves. Some do make waves, attempting to work within the system through parent–teacher organizations, attending school board meetings, fundraising, or otherwise getting directly involved in the schools. For others, the system appears hopelessly broken, so they largely withdraw from it as far as they legally can by homeschooling their children.
Certainly those who homeschool or actively engage with their children’s schools show they care about their education. And those who, on the surface at least, appear more apathetic still care enough to see their children arrive at school each day. As Brian Jones points out, “1,168,354 American children entered school while homeless. Our society couldn’t find them a place to rest their heads, but their parents found a way to get them to class.”
If one were to look at a cross-section of diverse humanity, some people would excel in subjects and activities that use quantitative reasoning and logic, and others would excel with languages, cultural, or other humanities-focused topics. Some would show a natural aptitude for mechanical and manual skills, while others would flourish in their artistic endeavors. Looking at career options, some would rise to the top in corporate leadership, others would be content to sort, file, and input data, and still others would want to be their own bosses. Despite obvious differences in underlying temperaments, intelligences, and styles of learning, as a student, each is expected to score highly on exams standardized to a specific national standard.
While legislation like No Child Left Behind attempts to keep the educational system from failing its at-risk and disadvantaged students, the policies disadvantage many other students in the process. Students who would naturally excel in their studies, are held back, often in abject boredom, while the rest of the class catches up. Moreover, if the discrepancy between the “gifted” and the “slow” learners is great, the frustration the students feel increases.
It does not have to be this way. Gifted students could be granted the opportunity to diversify their learning opportunities, investigating how different subjects interrelate and provide opportunities to enrich their experience in school. Mainstream students could focus on the required subjects, while also having enough time to enjoy a few subjects that are not required. The slow learners would use the same time to gain the extra help they need, hopefully using a different learning modality. The current public school system is not structured to support that style of learning, but it is possible, as many private schools have demonstrated.
To accomplish this, schools would need to involve more people in the educational process. Resource teachers who help prepare specialized curricula, trained librarians who can help students to learn how to research outside the textbook and Wikipedia, and specialists who can teach age-appropriate science, engineering, and visual and performing arts to the students. While active parent volunteers would be helpful to facilitate that, results would be better if qualified professionals were hired, as they do, according to Sukeu Mehta, in St. Ann’s school in Brooklyn. The professionals could be shared across multiple classrooms and grades to be more cost effective. Some public schools already do this, but these are some of the first programs to be cut when money runs short.
Standardized tests are an important tool to help evaluate if schools are adequately doing their jobs. However, preparing students to pass a test does little to prepare students for real life outside of the educational system. In fact, students receive a distorted perspective on what real life is like based on the way subjects are taught in school. American theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, related a story about his daughter studying for a geology exam. The process of learning and memorizing all the facts and figures to pass the test led her to ask, “Why would anyone want to become a scientist?” He despised the system for crushing the creativity and spark of interest in science out of future generations.

Professor Ken Robinson agrees that creativity is crushed and undervalued in schools:
Now our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability. And there’s a reason. The whole system…came into being to meet the needs of industrialism. So the hierarchy is rooted on two ideas. Number one, that the most useful subjects for work are at the top. So 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; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist.… And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.

Like steering an oil tanker on the ocean, it is going to take a long time, if it is even possible, to change the course of education in a meaningful way such that creativity and different skills and intelligences are valued. Until then, I think parents who care, and I believe most do, need to help their children and the schools by doing a bit more.
First, they need to speak up. While a single voice rarely makes a difference, many voices repeating a message will be heard eventually by those who effect change. Next, they need to encourage their children to enjoy themselves in school by finding appropriate ways to be creative and thinking outside the classroom. This skill will prove helpful later in life if they ever are stuck in a boring job. Finally, parents need to serve as role models by taking an overt interest in their children’s education and encouraging them to do the best they can. If a parent demonstrates that a child’s education is important, it encourages the child to stay involved as an active learner.
However, parents also need to look for, respect, and even encourage interests falling outside the subjects covered on standardized tests. Parents also should avoid setting overly harsh expectations on children. Setting unrealistic standards related to academic achievement can result in suicide, as it does in South Korea according to Leonie Haimson. She, like Kaku and Robinson, believe that people need “to wake up to the damage being done, reverse course and institute proven reforms to strengthen our schools rather than stifle children’s creativity and independent thinking, by forcing them into a cookie-cutter mold.”

Works Cited

  • Haimson, Leonie. “Blame the Policy Makers for Poor Schools.” Room for Debate: Do Parents Care Enough About School? The New York Times. 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
  • Jones, Brian. “Parents Value Schools, but Society Doesn’t.” Room for Debate: Do Parents Care Enough About School? The New York Times. 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
  • Kaku, Michio. “All Kids are born geniuses, but are crushed by society itself – Michio Kaku.” Interview. YouTube. The Venus Project. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
  • Mehta, Suketu. “What Are Parents Being Pushy About?” Room for Debate: Do Parents Care Enough About School? The New York Times. 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
  • Robinson, Ken. “How schools kill creativity.” TED2006. Jun. 2006. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.


The preceding was an essay I wrote for my Spring 2014 ENGWR 302 “Critical Writing” course. Here are the assignment details:

One important element of critical thinking is the ability to absorb, synthesize, and build upon the ideas of others. We have read eight essays on the issue of parental responsibility regarding the quality of public schools. Now, you will present your own conclusions about the same issue.
Your assignment is to articulate your position on this issue, using evidence from the assigned reading as well as your own thoughts and experiences to validate your points. You are expected to make specific references made by at least three (3) of the essays in making your case. You are free to agree with or be critical of the sources, but you must clearly engage with the writings and demonstrate that you understand what the authors are arguing.

  • If you find that your position is close to that of a particular author, you still need to take ownership of the stance, using your own thoughts and examples.
  • This is obviously a multifaceted issue, and nuance is the key. You may find that your differences from the NY Times authors are of degree, rather than kind.
  • Quotations are expected, and expected to conform to current MLA standards regarding both in-text citation and works cited.
  • Personal anecdotes are permitted, provided that your argument does not rest on them. Making broad generalizations based on individual cases is a fallacy.

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