A Conversation with Theodore Richards on his New Book
In early March, Hiraeth Press will release Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto by Theodore Richards, author of the award-winning book Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism and the Birth of a New Myth. In the interview below Theodore speaks briefly regarding the purpose and meaning behind his latest work.
First, a little about the book: Education is the subject of much public debate. Politicians and bureaucrats, educators and parents, students and concerned citizens all have an interest—and a stake—in the way we educate our children. But while much is said about the subject, seldom are the more profound, difficult questions ever asked, questions that require not only changing the way schools are organized and classes are taught, but also require a radical transformation of the very concept of education in the modern world. Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto approaches the problem of education from just such a radically new perspective.
Nearly every discussion about schools assumes that the goals of our educational system are appropriate and worthwhile. The narrative of the modern industrial world that defines our values and shapes the metaphors with which we understand our world also determines how we shape our schools, our curricula, our children. From the White House to the little red schoolhouse, these values are seldom questioned. The debate about schools is about test scores, productivity, and quantifiable outcomes. Creatively Maladjusted argues that these values both undermine our children’s learning and, in the cases where children are “successful”, guide our children toward destructive, rather than creative lives.
“Creatively maladjusted”, the work’s namesake, is a rather odd phrase. Can you explain its origin and meaning to us?
It comes from one of my favorite quotations from Martin Luther King: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” To understand that quote you first have to understand that when Dr King spoke of “salvation” he wasn’t referring to individual salvation, or to something that happens after we die. For Dr King, salvation was, first, something that can happen at any moment. The concept of “realized eschatology”—that the kingdom of heaven is present now in each of us if we can transform or hearts and minds—is informative in his thinking here. Secondly, salvation for king was communal. We are in this together. King is coming from a cosmology of interconnectedness, of mutuality, so the notion that I could be saved and other members of my community damned simply made no sense.
The concept of creative maladjustment was King’s response to the fact that African Americans were forced to live in a society whose values and norms were dehumanizing to them. To be “well-adjusted” in such a context was to validate those values. So there was this terrible choice people were confronted with: be well-adjusted and risk seeing your self as less than human; be maladjusted and become a pariah. So Dr King introduced this distinction. We see the destructively maladjusted everywhere. They are addicts, or on the streets. They are largely self-destructive. But to be creatively maladjusted is to refuse to accommodate an unjust system—an insane system—because to accommodate such a system requires us to be insane. But rather than turn our maladjustment on our selves, he wanted his people to become creators of alternatives, to become activists and imaginers of a new way.
This is directly relevant to education. So often in our schools, kids are labeled “maladjusted” because they can’t sit still or shut up. The goal is to make them “well-adjusted” to the environment of the school because that environment prepares to operate within the parameters of the industrial economy. The problem is that the system to which our kids are supposed to adjust is unjust. It is dying. So our aim as educators, as a society, should be to raise children who can look critically and creatively at our world, who can figure out alternatives to an insane system. I am arguing that the so-called “successes”—the well-adjusted—in our educational system are really failures because their success requires them to be destructive. But there are also many young people who aren’t succeeding at all, by any standard, because our schools themselves are so uninspiring, so unable to channel the creative impulses and spirit of exploration in our youth. Maladjustment and rebellion in our youth can be a resource—these are qualities that should be guided and nourished, not suppressed. The creatively maladjusted are those who find creative solutions to new problems.
What prompted you to write the book?
I’d been doing this work with youth for a while, for two years running YELLAWE in Oakland, then starting my own non-profit, The Chicago Wisdom Project, when I moved to Chicago. When Matthew Fox and I started in Oakland we’d based the program on Matt’s book, The AWE Project. But the program had evolved in different directions. And I’d been influenced by many other scholars and educators. So there was a rigorous philosophy of education that had been developing through the practice. This is very much about philosophy in action.
And I really felt a pressing need for a book like this. So many educators intuit that we need a more holistic approach, but they don’t have the language to talk about it. The conversations about education always get bogged down with a discussion about how to get higher test scores or to prepare our kids to “compete in the global economy”. The metaphors used to discuss education are mechanistic. So I thought I could contribute some language, some metaphors that could allow for a new paradigm. In all the conversation I hear about school reform, I never hear anyone ask what exactly it means to be an educated person. In answering that question, you pretty much answer all the big questions one might ask about our place and purpose in the universe. And those questions are a lot harder to answer than how to get a test score to raise a few points.
In your mind, does your first work Cosmosophia and Creatively Maladjusted go hand-in-hand or are they completely separate works?
As I said before, Creatively Maladjusted is philosophy in action. Cosmosophia is far more theoretical, and far broader in its scope. Creatively Maladjusted draws from the core philosophy of Cosmosophia and puts it into practice in a particular context. That philosophy has to do with the way we create our world through myth. Central to the educational philosophy in Creatively Maladjusted is that we learn through telling and hearing stories. We encourage our students to challenge the narratives they’ve heard and to re-imagine those narratives.
And, of course, central to the worldview I’ve held in Cosmosophia is that we are co-creating our world, our stories, our ideas, and these are always in flux. And that’s very much true about the ideas presented in Creatively Maladjusted: they’ve evolved not just in my head but also in practice and in collaboration with other teachers and students.
So yes, absolutely.
What do you hope the reader will take away from your book?
That partly depends on the reader’s relationship to the material. For educators, the book is intended to be a guide, a theoretical and practical framework to help them in their own creative approaches to teaching and learning. For parents, it can inform both their approach to dealing with their kids and decisions about their kids’ education.
But everyone has a stake in how we educate our children. And it’s important to have a public conversation about the subject. The book gives people some language to challenge the politicians, the bureaucrats, the members of the media, who talk about education reform. Like I said before, these conversations always seem to be about how we can raise the test scores. And it’s easy to fool people into thinking that this is a valid way to talk about education. It is obvious that a high test score is better than a low one. But the problem is that when we focus only on tests we miss so many other important things that make up an educated person: Our kids stop spending times going outside and getting their hands dirty; they stop being creative; the don’t develop critical consciousness; they don’t ask big questions.
Look at what Jeb Bush has done in Florida. They’ve privatized public schools using the logic that a corporate model is more efficient and they’ve advocated students taking courses through the Internet because a machine can disperse information more efficiently than a human. And because test scores went up initially everyone praised Bush for this. Now that the scores have dropped people are less enamored. But they should have challenged it in the first place because it was based on unsound educational principles. It was based on bad metaphors—that schools are corporations or machines. I hope Creatively Maladjusted gives people the language to challenge bogus school reform measures like these.