Defending Creativity from Facile Memes

I was sent a poster meme on Facebook this week and took the step of sharing it on, which is not something I do with 99% of what I receive.  It had to do with Obamacare, and whilst, thanks to the NHS, that’s not something that we on this side of the Atlantic have to worry about, I did think the wider message about the democratic process was worth Facebook’s equivalent of a retweet.  However, there was one thing that bothered me about the meme and that was the fact that it took the form of a quotation next to a large publicist’s photo of the US actor George Clooney.  When I shared it on Facebook I commented people should ignore the picture and concentrate on the words.  I argued it doesn’t matter who said it;  the words themselves are the power of the message.

I had a couple of people disagree with me on that.  Possibly they are not serious and were simply making a point about the physical attractiveness of George Clooney, but I think there’s a serious point to be made that our connected students need to recognise and engage with.  The problem with the picture in the meme, apart from the fact it may not be Mr. Clooney’s words we’re reading here, is that it distracts from the message and perpetuates the notion that the force of an argument is somehow magnified if the idea is articulated by a celebrity. We see the same problem in all the posts that are ascribed to Albert Einstein. In reality he said hardly any of the things that are attributed to him on the web (although I earnestly hope he’d said the one about reading children fairy tales because it is SO true!) but we read so many quotations with his name cited underneath that it does seem people are so nervous to express an idea these days that they cloak it in the artificial protection of celebrity endorsement (or in Einstein’s case, intellectual endorsement) to see off any potential challenge. In my view this is a serious failing and a manifestation of the creativity crisis so often spoken about by Sir Ken Robinson and others. This is a crisis those of us in education should be concerned about and be working to solve.

As this is a blog about the use of iPads in schools, as since online sharing is responsible for  the rapid global proliferation of memes like the George Clooney one – as well as the diminishing tendency of people to take the time to check sources, it seems to me appropriate to address this concern here.  Last month’s TES interview with Sir Ken Robinson prompted many teachers to raise the awkward observation that Sir Ken, for all his inspirational (and witty) comments on the dearth of creativity in schools, doesn’t actually offer any practical advice in changing the situation.  However, give teachers the time, space and tools to nurture children’s creativity and they will produce results.

I have consistently argued in this blog that the iPad is one such tool.  Since it was launched in 2010 there have been many copycat devices launched by rival technology firms.  My comment on this is good luck to them; if they spark a child’s imagination and push him or her to show innovation that formerly remained hidden, what’s not to love?  We’ll probably never find agreement on which tablet is best suited to nurturing creativity.  There are entrenched positions on all sides of that pointless argument. But one thing we could all agree to stop doing is falsely attributing ideas to individuals within a narrow category of people whose celebrity status is somehow supposed to elevate both their existence and the outpourings of their mouths to hallowed status.  Most innovations that have truly changed the world have had their provenance in the febrile imaginations of obscure or little known individuals whose desire was to power an idea to wider acceptance.  I doubt very much that George Clooney was the first to observe the failings in US democracy that led to the recent shutdown, and we do the argument a disservice by projecting it as a meme with his photograph pinned to it.

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And in the time it took me to write this post I see I’ve received another one!  This time it’s Michael J. Fox‘s picture next to a quotation on teaching styles I first heard in 1995 (above).  I’m guessing it’s another example of someone hearing a nugget of good sense for the first time, and wanting to share it but defaulting to the habit of putting it in the mouth of a celebrity.

Or it could really be Michael J. Fox speaking.  But surely, even a time traveller can’t be THAT far behind the curve!