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The Creativity Question by Bruce Price
Bruce Price : The Creativity Question

The Creativity Question

What sort of education produces the most creative people?

By Bruce Price

I've recently spent a lot of time studying American education. Even as educational fads appeared and faded during the past century, some themes remained constant. One was a hatred for discipline, memorization and practice. Educators claimed that these strategies produce unmotivated and uncreative students.

So what would make children creative? Educators want children to learn by doing. In a whole or holistic approach, students jump into an activity...and just do it! They are not supposed to bother all that much with facts, details, precision, rules or reality. Just have fun!

Decades ago I first saw the phrase "rote memorization." It was obviously a term of contempt. How dare you expect a child to memorize anything! (This phrase, more than any other, has been the battle cry of progressive education.) More recently, educators came up with the term "drill and kill." In effect, this phrase prohibits practice, discipline, flash cards, exercises, "subskills training," or any foundational knowledge at all. Another term of contempt, perhaps more recent, is "teach to the test." If students learn something because, well, they ought to know it, their souls could be destroyed. You see the pattern, I'm sure. These three phrases of contempt outlawed all the techniques used for the past ten thousand years in all cultures.

Educators argued that the old-fashioned strategies had to be eradicated because they produced robotic behavior, not creativity.

So let us imagine little Jimmy Joyce going to a parochial school circa 1895. Nuns doubtless rapping his knuckles. Memorize, memorize, memorize. Drill, drill, drill. Obviously, his creativity would be crushed. He would be less than human. But I tell you, there is nobody more creative in the 20th century than James Joyce, a man who absolutely towers over us all.

And let us imagine little Pablo learning at his father's knee. By the age of twelve he had memorized and mastered all the traditional skills used by European artists through the centuries. Obviously he would never amount to anything. He was surely drilled and killed! All Picasso could manage was to become the Mount Everest of artists in the 20th century.

As I read about the educators and their inane ideas, I imagine Joyce writing Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Here's the message I see. If you want to be creative, you better hope somebody does impose some skills and discipline on you.

Our guest of honor for this essay is Professor Robert W. Weisberg. He wrote a book called "Creativity, Genius and other myths." He has conducted a lot of research on creativity. "It's a paradox," he says. "There is evidence that deep immersion is required in a discipline before you produce anything of great novelty." Novelty — he said novelty! "There is this concept that genius has leaps of insight way beyond everybody else. If you look at the background of these people, there is much more of a progression. They don't make leaps — they build in small pieces." In short, Weisberg says that drills do not stifle creativity. They engender it!

But, really, do we need a professor to tell us the obvious? Every great baseball player takes batting drills every day. NBA superstars practice dribbling and foul shots. Every opera singer practices scales. Actors go to classes for diction, swordplay and improvisation. All the best in every field do not hesitate to break their business down into subskills, and to practice and drill at those pieces. Tiger Woods went back and reinvented his swing, part by part.

Here's some more expert opinion. Professors Anderson, Reder and Simon of Carnegie-Mellon University declared: "All evidence...indicates that real competence comes only with extensive practice. By denying children the critical role of practice, one is denying children the very thing they need to achieve competence." Kids, they argue, learn more through "deliberate practice." Imagine that! Hold the presses!

Really, it's hard for me to write about educators without laughing or crying. Much of what they recommend is like a diet of candy: initially fun but bad over time. It seems to me their strategies don't educate and they don't even increase creativity. On the contrary.

Let me try to generalize about what our educators tend to do. They cut out the substance. But they keep the surface and appearances, and shine these to a high gloss. In math classes children talk about math and record their feelings about math, but nobody can do any math. History classes go like this: "In World War II millions of people died on both sides. How do you feel about this?" Whole language theory say that children should learn to read by picking up a book, one of high quality, and just reading it! They should learn to count by pretending to operate a grocery store. But they must not learn to count just by learning to count. The pattern throughout is to play at doing something. The goal, it seems to me, is to keep all the students in a comfortable muddle. They end up dumbed down and not even creative.

Last year, for this site, I wrote an essay called MAX Your Creativity, all about experimental approaches. The essay said sometimes you might want to break a few rules and go wild. I described some of the techniques I and others have used. But keep in mind I'm doing this after 18+ years of education. There's a lot of stuff in my brain to play around with. You need a foundation, raw materials, fuel, experience. You need to know the rules before you can profitably knock them around.

These educators, with all their feel-good techniques, remind me of people I knew in Manhattan who thought they could be more creative with the help of, let us say, chemicals. People suppose they'll get really loose and the creativity will erupt. But all the people I've heard speak of this over the years say the same thing: you think what you create is hot but later you see it's not.

Sure, it's helpful sometimes to lie on a beach and do nothing. But I think that humans, all of us, not just artists, generally like challenge, difficulties, puzzles. We like to be tested; we want to find answers; we like discovering new routes to new worlds. If everything is easy and soft, why do we need to be creative? Creativity is not about having a head full of mush and lying around in mush. Being an artist is all about going boldly where nobody went before. Struggle on, dude!

There used to be a cliché in our culture: grist for one's mill. Everything is grist for an artist's mill. The more stuff the better, it seems to me. (That means more dots that you can connect in an original way!) It's really sad to think of children in bad schools pushed along from year to year, knowing almost nothing. No grist at all. After a while, the mills shut down for lack of activity.

I should close by noting that I'm all in favor of kids having fun in schools. Lots of fun. I was rarely in a course that couldn't have been improved and made more entertaining. But the fun has got to be a means, not an end! The sad reality is that many of our educators don't like knowledge, or they don't believe certain students need much of it. I hate this attitude. I say, give children all the knowledge they can handle. Then charm, trick, coerce and cajole them into learning even more! They'll be better, more productive citizens that way. And probably more creative as well. •

© 2006 Bruce Price

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, poet, and education activist. More »