Syl Jones: Education, quality thereof

  • Article by: Syl Jones
  • November 8, 2007 - 5:46 PM

Many years ago, a 50-something "hausfrau," as she likes to call herself, dreamed of attending college and getting her degree. Her husband, an elementary-school principal, invited her to attend sessions on creativity taught by a soft-spoken teacher affiliated with the University of Minnesota. As a result of that class, her life changed profoundly and forever, because one man cared enough to understand her dream and help her achieve it. E. Paul Torrance came to the university to obtain his master's degree in psychology in the 1950s and stayed to do many things. Among them, he developed theories on the interface between creativity and education. He believed that the crisis in education, and educational disparities in particular, were a result in part of diminished creativity. He therefore dedicated his life to quantifying and inspiring creativity in students and in the adults who serve them. Torrance's beliefs were controversial. Here, for example, is his daring manifesto for students:

•Don't be afraid to fall in love with something and pursue it with intensity.

•Know, understand, take pride in, practice, develop, exploit and enjoy your greatest strengths.

•Learn to free yourself from the expectations of others and to walk away from the games they impose on you.

•Free yourself to play your own game.

•Find a great teacher or mentor who will help you.

•Learn the skills of interdependence.

•Don't waste energy trying to be well-rounded.

•Do what you love and can do well.

These exhortations are seldom echoed in classrooms today. Imagine the impact on students if the phrase "fall in love with something" took precedence over "pass that test" in our schools. Imagine what might happen if students were encouraged to free themselves from the expectations of others, including the federal and state governments.

I know a little about this subject. As a child, my intuition prompted me to tell my teachers that I didn't want to write outlines for my school papers. Most of them punished me. Finally, when I was in eighth grade, Mrs. Ross told me the truth: Outlines were for people who didn't know what they wanted to write. "Skip the outline," she said with a knowing smile, "and go directly to the theme."

Mrs. Ross embraced my intuition while nonetheless correcting my mistakes. Talk about falling in love. I was smitten: with her, with school and with the indefatigable quest to turn knowledge into new ways of thinking. All because my teacher had embraced me and, in turn, helped me to believe in my intuition.

Torrance understood that to be creative, gifted students have to be countercultural even in the face of strong opposition. Do we today teach students to think counterculturally -- to go against the prevailing winds -- or do we train them to become young automatons who can eventually take their places as cogs in the machine? Because she thought outside the box, the hausfrau had the courage to at least dream of college. But dreams alone are never sufficient. Someone has to care enough to discover what they are.

After taking a course from Torrance, the hausfrau discovered that there were bills to pay for a growing family, so she reluctantly and tearfully dropped out. But Torrance cared. He recognized something special in her and found money to hire her as a research assistant. Subsequently, she returned to college and eventually obtained her Ph.D. All that creative thinking must have paid off: She went on to found and run the Center for Creative Studies at the University of St. Thomas before retiring.

This week, the annual convention of the National Association for Gifted Children has taken place in Minneapolis. One of the attendees is a 95-year-old woman -- Berenice (Bee) Bleedorn -- whose powerfully active mind is still searching for ways to reshape society's views on education. As the hausfrau-cum-Ph. D. has rightly pointed out, if we would only start with E. Paul Torrance, our education system -- and our students -- would be the better for it.

Syl Jones, of Minnetonka, is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant.

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