Getting creative about creativity studies



The latest fad in American higher education is the teaching of creativity. Recent articles applauding the study of creativity have appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, and many other news sources. Buffalo State College and Eastern Kentucky University have made names for themselves with courses like “Introduction to Creative Studies” and “Creativity, Innovation, and Change.”

The popularity of creativity studies stems in large part from anxieties about the long-term health of America’s economy. Proponents of creativity studies argue that, in today’s globalized economy, the United States can no longer compete on low-cost labor. Instead, Americans will prosper only to the extent they “out-innovate” global competitors. Many books with foreboding titles like The Great Stagnation reaffirm the message that Americans need to become more creative and innovative if they are to prosper. According to many, American schools need to focus a lot more resources on classroom instruction in creativity.

However, dedicating more time to creativity studies would probably decrease the amount of pathbreaking innovation achieved by America’s college graduates. Throughout history, the inventors who did the most to improve Americans’ quality of life were all extremely well versed in the prior knowledge of their fields.

Take Albert Einstein. He did not formulate the theory of relativity based on careful study of “definitions of creativity” and “characteristics of creative people,” as The New York Times summarized a college creativity-studies syllabus. Instead, he famously spent tens of thousands of hours in a Swiss patent office studying the pre-existing scientific principles that his relativity theory would later upend.

Einstein possessed the kind of detailed understanding of his subject matter that a student simply could never develop in a class like “Introduction to Creative Studies.” Dedicating curricular time to creativity studies will necessarily limit the amount of time students have to study the prior knowledge of their chosen fields. An economics major who takes “Introduction to Creative Studies” in a sense forgoes the opportunity to deepen his understanding of the relationship between macroeconomic conditions and funding for start-ups; a brilliant college chemistry student who sits for a creativity seminar reduces the amount of time she has to pore over the latest advances in biomedical engineering.

The more time students spend accumulating credits in creativity, the less they are likely to learn about the core facts and ideas of more-substantive subjects. That in turn reduces students’ likelihood of maturing into world-beating innovators. Credits focused on creativity studies also reduce how much exposure students have to facts and ideas in tangential fields. That also is likely to reduce inventiveness.

In his best-selling book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson documents how frequently pathbreaking innovations derive from inventors’ ability to notice previously unrecognized connections between related fields. For example, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press stemmed from his intricate understanding of the screw press in wine-making and his equally intricate understanding of metal-typeface design. Only by noticing the previously unforeseen synergies of those two fields did he hit upon the printing press. Imagine if Gutenberg, instead of developing mastery in two crucial fields, had studied only the screw press and “the biographies of famous inventors.”

Teaching creative thinking has its place, but it should not be a stand-alone subject. Teachers and college deans should embed critical thinking in every college course. Instead of discussing in the abstract what it is like to think creatively, teachers should help students practice how to manipulate concrete facts and ideas in creative ways. That, after all, is how innovation works. Inventors take substantive facts and concepts and reconceive them in interesting, productive ways.

Ultimately, if American colleges and universities are to promote inventiveness effectively, they need to get more creative about how they teach creativity.

Author Bio: John Calhoun is an education-policy fellow with the Connecticut Policy Institute and a student at Yale Law School. He has consulted with public-school systems in Connecticut, Louisiana, New York, and Taiwan.