And All That Jazz

A creativity researcher's take on the highs and lows of pop culture and the arts.

The Danger of (Some) Creativity Advocates

Passion is good, but knowledge is better.

In general, even if I disagree with them about specific issues, I tend to be appreciative of creativity advocates – the educators, policy experts, science journalists, and concerned citizens. They help reinforce the importance of creativity to the general public. However, what worries me are the ones who advocate so strongly for creativity that they end up hurting the cause. I know many NRA members who cringe when Wayne LaPierre speaks; I imagine it is a similar gut feeling.

Some of these advocates argue that creativity is more important than reading and math. You will not find many people who value creativity more than I do -- but that's a little absurd. I'm guessing many of these people are simply trying to make a point. But in order to have any type of creative accomplishment, you need the basic domain knowledge. And as important as creativity is for life success, it's but one piece in a larger puzzle.

Other people advocate for removing the SATs or other standardized tests entirely, which is also a little silly. The SATs (and their ilk) measure a particular thing, and they measure it reasonably well. It’s not that we need something instead of the SATs – we need several additional things as supplements. Many studies show that teachers want to help kids be creative, but they don’t know how. And without better teacher training, we end up getting assignments of dioramas – the “creativity” thing that has no true relationship with other class content (indeed, my son Jacob has just constructed an elaborate diorama of sloths -- it is fun and creative and I love it, but I don't think he's actually learned anything about our majestic friend the sloth). So many of our gut thoughts about creativity are not true. You can be creative in math and science. Creativity can be integrated into the classroom experience. Creativity is not simply another word for “arts and crafts.”

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The risk, to me, is that if certain advocates, public figures, or mainstream authors lead this movement without extensively consulting and collaborating with the people who actually do this research, then it will likely not end well. If such a push is driven by empirical evidence or even a basic modicum of scholarship, then I think that creativity can be another vital mechanism by which students can learn, engage with material, and demonstrate their capabilities.

I still remember a college English class where possible assignments included writing a new page that could added into one of the assigned novels (I did Don DeLillo’s White Noise) and writing a parody of the one of the poems studied (thank you, Dr. Stephen Moore!). I can assure you that these creative tasks required just as much knowledge of the material as did the more typical compare and contrast essays! Ideally, creativity doesn’t replace anything; rather it compliments what we know.

It’s like edamame. Many people like edamame; many people do not. Imagine if there was a movement to replace all other foods with edamame; there would be a tremendous outcry. It would be silly, and it would make you question the sanity of anyone who might advocate for edamame. But now consider if the movement relied on basic scientific research and promoted the health benefits of edamame as part of a balanced diet. They could argue that edamame is a fine vegetable to go with dinner and could be a terrific thing to grind up and use for fake hamburgers and is a fine snack between meals…. Then no one would get upset, and edamame would still be hyped (“Edamame: Eat responsibly”).

There is a place for revolutionaries. Sometimes it's okay for people to get upset. But can we upset people in a more scientific way?

Note: this blog originally appeared on my personal website. I am more often on there to respond to comments, so if you want to leave a comment, please do so here.

James C. Kaufman is a creativity researcher and Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University of San Bernardino.

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