I just finished David Shenk’s awesome book, The Genius in All of Us. In Chapter 7, he quotes the legendary musician Brian Eno:
What would be really interesting for people to see is how beautiful things grow out of shit. . . . Nobody ever believes [that it happens that way]. Everybody thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head, that it somehow appeared there and formed in his head, and all he had to do what write them down . . . What would really be a lesson that everybody should learn is that . . . things come out of nothing. Things evolve out of nothing. The tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest, and then, the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing . . .
I think this would be important for people to understand because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that that’s how things work. If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted, that they have these wonderful things in their head, but you’re not one of them, you’re just sort of . . . a “normal” person. [But with this insight], you could have another kind of life. You could say, “Well, I know that things come from nothing very much and start from unpromising beginnings, and I’m an unpromising beginning—I could start something.”
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I have two responses to this notion. First, I think Eno is right. Second, I think the traditional way we’ve set up schools is in direct opposition to the spirit of his message.
Schools are not designed to make beautiful things grow. They’re designed to help students reach a minimum standard, and to teach students to follow directions. They’re not designed to encourage students to “start something.” (When would they do it? During history class? At lunch?)
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Eno’s sentence, “[Y]ou could have another kind of life” is one that is present with me every day. It reminds of something a parent once said to me when I was teaching in a traditional school. I said that, essentially, my department was in the process of working on a plan that would create a schedule for when we might roll out an improved academic program. She said, “Steve, kids have a shelf life.”
She’s right. While I write this blog post, while Alfie Kohn researches his latest book, while Sir Ken Robinson polishes his next speech, another generation of kids is wrapping up yet another school year. We can pontificate forever about the way schools should be, but it doesn’t add up to much unless we do the important work of growing new and beautiful kinds schools.
This generation of kids could have entirely different lives.
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