Ken Robinson, passionate advocate for the arts in education and for valuing creativity as highly as academic excellence, has died at the age of 70. His books, especially The Element: how finding your passion changes everything, but beginning with Arts in Schools in 1989 and the UK Government-commissioned All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (“the Robinson report”) in 1998 have had an enormous impact on individuals in and out of schools.
As dozens of admirers from around the world, from educational leaders to Goldie Hawn and Reese Witherspoon, pay their respects, some of his most quotable quotes have again become current: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” “Creativity is as important as literacy”. “For most of us the problem isn’t that we aim too high and fail – it’s just the opposite – we aim too low and succeed.”
As Arts Editor of the Times Educational Supplement in the 1990s, I had the privilege of knowing Ken and hearing him speak many times. He was a brilliant, clear thinker and a remarkably warm communicator, deftly deploying anecdotes gleaned from his years observing schools and teachers. I remember him once describing being shown round a school as a visitor and commenting on a striking piece of sculpture the group was passing. “Ah yes”, said the head, “that was done by one of our less able students”. And thus, in a few words he pointed up the way, all too often, only one kind of achievement is taken seriously by the system.
Ken could be funny as well as trenchant. His 2006 TED talk – viewed over 66 million times, more than any other – is so successful because it is wonderfully entertaining and succinct as well as original and inspirational. Ken was a consummate performer, embodying his own message by bringing playful creativity to a serious, potentially drily academic subject. Not that he was merely a purveyor of self-help aphorisms and jokes: he could also be inside the system and was at one time himself an academic, a professor of education. Only three months ago he took part in a live streaming day, putting forward, without notes, with not a moment’s hesitation and barely a smile, the reasons why we should not go back to the way things were – either in education, or in our attitude to nature and global issues – when the pandemic ends. At other times he could be a brilliant Liverpool stand-up who just happened to have some of the most necessary and important ideas to impart to his audience. Sadly, as arts education is once more under threat, those ideas are in many cases yet to be implemented.
Ken Robison was a one-off and he will be much missed. One of his own sayings is some consolation: “What you do for yourself dies with you when you leave this world, what you do for others lives on forever.”