|It shouldn’t be difficult to advocate for the basics. It should be obvious that some learning experiences are so fundamental to human life that they can’t be reasonably excluded from childhood. But in fact it is increasingly awkward to advocate for the basics. There is a tension between what strikes us as essential for a person’s wellbeing, and what strikes us as essential for the future economy. I can’t think of any more notable example of this issue than creativity. Everyone affirms the value of creativity, but when it comes to hard choices like making adequate time for creative work, most of us look the other way. A key to this problem is that our belief in the value of creativity is mostly spiritual and intuitive. It’s something we feel inside; it seems like the right thing to do.
Increasingly, we are led to second-guess such intuitions. We are encouraged to think more empirically. Where’s the scientific proof that creativity enhances life? Where’s the proof that creative experiences add up to anything?
As a counterpoint, there is abundant emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The clamor for STEM is global, and it is in full force in the United States, where the Department of Education strongly advocates that students spend more time in STEM subjects. Seemingly, no amount of time is enough time so long as students in other countries are outperforming US students on standardized tests. Because STEM is viewed as fundamental to a strong economy, the sense of urgency for STEM learning is great.
Do STEM subjects involve creative thinking? Absolutely. Is it the same type of creative thinking that takes place during more autonomous creative work? No.
Like you, I have heard and read numerous stories about the creative thinking involved in science, technology, and engineering. The examples are credible, but in no way do I believe that STEM is a substitute for time spent doing more self-directed creative work.
There is a difference between creativity that is an open-ended exercise in discovery, and the creativity we refer to as it applies to solving math or science problems. The latter is a kind of applied creativity. These types of creative processes require adaptive, flexible thinking – in the service of an established problem.
A Directional Issue
At the deepest level, it’s a directional issue. The great majority of young people spend almost all of their lives being receptacles for information. They are packed full of facts and perspectives, and all kinds of other things that may serve them well in a variety of contexts. Yet it is very much a one-way street. Young people have relatively little opportunity for outputting their own content and ideas outside of projects defined by someone else. This is, of course, one of the primary reasons why it is often difficult to engage students in school. Motivation springs from an opportunity to be more self-directed; to live a live more congruent with one’s core values and interests.
I’d like to see more school time and recreational time dedicated to creative work that is agenda-free. This might mean the fine arts, but could as easily focus on invention, media, or the environment. This work could be facilitated by adults capable of mentoring students, guiding them toward a better understanding of their creative instincts, and what their creative work means. It is especially important to emphasize process as a critical element of creativity. I’d like to see more creativity that is free of a schematic, and which is instead a projection of young people’s priorities – their idealizations. There is no better way to know the hearts and minds of kids than to help their idealizations surface. It’s a non-negotiable dimension of childhood.
During the past two years I have been involved with the Children’s Arts Guild, based in New York City. This is an organization dedicated to encouraging creativity and self-expression among school-age children. The Guild began as a program to specifically encourage the social and emotional development of school-age boys. More recently, the Guild’s programs have grown to include both boys and girls engaged in a variety of school-based arts activities. These programs are well-received by many New York City area schools. I was eager to work with the Guild because the organization is built on the premise that creative work is an important platform for connecting kids with a deeper understanding of themselves.
My own career as a psychologist began when in the 1980’s, I invited neighborhood kids into my NYC art studio to learn how to draw and paint. I had no idea that I would become so interested in working with kids, and committed to spending my life working with them. My own very first connections with young people were organized around creative work, and I’ve never forgotten the power of drawn images, and working together.
Creativity Doesn’t Need Justification
What if science were taught with the ethos that its primary value was learning how to be a better painter or musician? What if STEM departments had to justify their existence, and budgets, to their applicability to aesthetics? This is just as absurd as the current trend of “justifying” arts and humanities for their profit potential.
I know that if those who see creativity as a means to improving math and science were interviewed, they would no doubt make it clear that they enjoy all sorts of arts. Their homes are undoubtedly filled with the products of artisans, and they are frequent attendees at various types of performances. This is precisely what makes it so hypocritical to avoid speaking of this level of artistic accomplishment directly.
Why must the highest accolades of our civilization always go to those working in technology? Why are gadgets so profoundly more valuable and interesting to us than theatre? Isn’t it hypocritical for a country to be so spare in their support for open-ended creative work, and then present lifetime achievement awards to those who have managed to transcend the boundaries and limitations that our culture so blithely erects?
Creativity is Freedom
Many of us live in such a way as to experience an almost complete absence of choice. It’s as though the scripts and agendas laid out for us are our destiny. The actual moment of creative work stands in opposition to this existential constriction. This is the moment when creative materials are assembled, and when there is no particular script for what is about to happen – other than to be true to what you are thinking and feeling at that moment. Those moments of psychological freedom are increasingly rare. And most of us hardly notice.
I believe that when many of us imagine such situations, we think, “yeah, that’s nice for little children, but of what practical use is that to someone who has to make his way in the world?” I think young people have also internalized this belief system. The research I’ve done with adolescent boys confirms that most forget their creative side around age 15. It’s at this age when creativity, even if it had been an important part of their earlier life, now seems irrelevant to the future.
If we want to make creativity appealing to adolescents it must certainly have more gravity than the kinds of assignments we do with younger children. I know that many of the world’s most progressive schools offer creative opportunities that greatly enrich the lives of their students. Unfortunately, such opportunities appear to be relatively exclusive. The state of creativity in the average American public-school is deplorable. Most students are lucky if they get an art or music class once a week. No real opportunity is allowed for immersion. And there is little discussion of the connection between creative work and things that are happening in the world. This why the work of the Children’s Arts Guild is of critical importance – it provides structure and meaningful supervision of creative work.
Despite the challenges, creativity does break through. Like weeds forcing themselves through a crack in the sidewalk, creative thinking demands air, and a chance to thrive. But more cultivation is needed. We need a summit on creativity in youth to define a path forward. This could happen at schools, or in communities – but there is need for a serious and ongoing dialogue about the role of creative work in youth. I don’t mean just encouraging kids to develop a new app, I mean work that gives young people a chance to participate in making the world. This is where life’s purpose is found.
*In just two days I will be giving a public presentation on creativity and self-expression in childhood at Macy’s Herald Square. The details of the presentation and registration can be found here. I hope that NYC area friends might find the time to attend.
Also, it has come to my attention that some people are having trouble contacting me via my website. We’re working on it, but in the meantime, if you’d like to email me, visit ideasonyouth.com, or email me at email@example.com.
More ideas on youth: If you find value in this newsletter I would like to invite you to visit my blog ideasonyouth.com.
I began the blog so I would have an opportunity to communicate more often, and about a wider range of topics. I have included posts on practical advice, and as is my passion, conversation about the purpose and direction of youth. So much is happening in our world with respect to kids, families, and schools.
I hope you might take the time to communicate with me via my blog. It is a privilege to share these ideas, and I thank you very much for your time and attention!
Parent Coaching The nature of my clinical approach is somewhat unique, and I find that parents in different parts of North America want to partner in helping their children and teens. To that end, I am able to do parent coaching via telephone, email, or Skype. In some cases, it works well when families can visit for an initial meeting, and then follow-up as noted above. (401) 816-5900.
“Fascinating and deeply moving.”
Deborah Meier, MacArthur Award Recipient, NYU Steinhardt School Senior Scholar
The War on Creativity
Posted on by pishposhdesign