John Cleese 'depressed' at lack of interest in creativity from schools

John Cleese: promoting 'Creativity: a Short and Cheerful Guide' (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
John Cleese: promoting 'Creativity: a Short and Cheerful Guide' (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

Creative skills should be more highly prized in schools, he argues

Writer and performer John Cleese has said he is “depressed” that the British education system does not place more emphasis on teaching children to think creatively. 

In an interview with Campaign, Cleese said it was a “tragedy” that creativity, “a subject of such enormous importance” was not more widely spoken about. 

He recently published a book called Creativity: a Short and Cheerful Guide, which explains how people can be more creative. It is a short book that teenagers could read in an hour. 

But he is disappointed with the lack of response, not only from British newspapers – although he admits that because he criticises them, “they tend to ostracise you” – but also from educators. 

“What’s depressed me is how little I’ve heard from people in education. Why haven’t I had a single invitation to speak about this from the Open University, who gave me an honorary degree? Why haven’t I had a single invitation to talk about this to educators?” he said. 

“We could get one or two of these books in very cheap versions into schools so kids could understand what creativity is, even if their teachers don’t want them to know." 

Cleese was 22 years old before he discovered he had any creative flair, despite having a privileged education – attending private school before studying science and later law at the University of Cambridge. It was only when he joined the university’s theatrical club, the Footlights, that he discovered he had the ability to make people laugh. He went on to write and star in Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda

But throughout his education, he was never told he had a creative streak. “We painted twice a week and that took care of that. Nobody ever taught us how to be creative,” he said. 

He remembered being asked to write an essay about the concept of time when he was 15 years old. He wrote about the fact he didn’t have time to write the essay. But instead of praising him for thinking creatively, his teacher reprimanded him. 

He believes schools are slowly eroding creativity in children. It’s a message with which the late educationalist Sir Ken Robinson would agree. When Campaign interviewed Robinson in 2016, he argued the obsession with tests was leading to creativity being trained out of pupils. "If the dominant culture penalises you formally or informally for deviating from the norm, then you will pick up the message quite quickly," he said. 

Robinson, like Cleese, argued that creativity has to be seen as an operational idea. “In education, we’ve long recognised the importance of promoting literacy... We don’t just leave books around and hope someone takes an interest and figures out how to read them. We teach people to do that,” he said. 

“There’s a very clear analogy to me with creativity. If you don’t stop to think what creativity is, it’s hard to know how to promote it,” he added. 

Many ad creatives have similar tales to Cleese of thriving creatively only after school. For example, Havas chief creative officer Vicki Maguire recently found a school report that criticised her for playing the class clown. 

She was incensed because it reminded her of the barriers that prevent people from realising their creative potential. “The stuff you can’t teach, and the skills that we need in this industry, are being beaten out of kids like me at a really early age,” she said.

Of course, times change and many schools and teachers already do a great job promoting creative thinking. But it is not currently a national curriculum priority, and after a year of disrupted schooling, with increased pressure on teachers, it is likely there will be more emphasis on helping pupils “catch up” on core subjects. 

Yet in a world experiencing huge technological and social change (from the rise of automation and algorithms to the social disruption of the pandemic), the so-called “soft skills” of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communications and resilience are arguably even more important for children in order to be able to adapt to whatever life throws at them.

This is something with which the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education agrees. It is a joint research collaboration between Durham University and Arts Council England, which looks at the role creativity and creative thinking should play in the education of young people.

As its director of special projects, Nicky Morgan, wrote in its latest report, “the pandemic has demonstrated the enormous value of creativity for mental health and wellbeing, supporting individuals to adapt and remain resilient in ever changing circumstances”. 

Having people who are able to think creatively about problems is important for most industries, but it’s particularly critical to future-proof adland and the other creative industries. 

Perhaps it’s time the advertising industry asked schools: how can we help? 

Campaign has contacted the Open University for comment. The full interview with Cleese will be published later this week.

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