Creativity: Running the Gamut from A to B

On Friday I had the required viva voce discussion of a completed I.B. Extended Essay with its student author. The subject was politics, and I, having studied politics in college, was his supervisor. The rules governing supervision forbade me to supervise closely or to edit his work: I might offer suggestions and advice, but the work was to be largely the student’s own. The essay will probably gain its author the not-often-given grade of “A”, but I did not have too much to do with my student’s success, except to establish conditions in which understanding might come to him.

I merely suggested that he do a search in the local city and university libraries for political science writing on the role of party politics in governance. He caught fire during his search, and even went so far after his review of “the literature” as to arrange for an interview with his “Legislative Councilor,” the local name for a legislator. The result was an original piece of work with a surprising but effective and well-grounded thesis about local politics. I could not have seen this thesis coming with a telescope.

I credit him with some kind of creativity, though not to a degree that would be exalted in the annals of history or political science. There was no suggestion of the outcome of the paper in the original proposal, which was for a pedestrian piece of descriptive writing, not out of place in high school, but unremarkable. The problem in using the C word to describe what he did is its well-known resistance to definition, systematic study, or other means of capture and domestication such as “scaling”.

Professor Barzun exposed the difficulty in discussing “The Paradoxes of Creativity[1]” and noted that the same word is used to describe the drive that led to Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel and a mysterious and precocious power about which it has been seriously claimed that “after kindergarten, schools do not draw on creative ability.” Barzun does not try to define creativity, much less “scale” it; but he does analyze the word as having four distinct “layers of meaning”: 1) the “commonplace quality of initiative,” 2) “the ordinary, widespread knack of drawing, singing, dancing, and versifying, modestly kept for private use[2],” 3) “the trained professional artist, including the commercial,” and 4) “the rare bird, the genius, whose works first suggested the idea that a human being could be called a creator.” He notes that “[t]he specific traits of creative genius have never been ascertained, nor any correlation with genetic, medical, or environmental factors.” This has not kept social scientists from attempting (and failing) to do so. Hence the unhelpful designation as geniuses those who score at one end of the bell curve on intelligence tests—the opposite end from idiots (this used to be the psychologist’s designation when I was a boy). I have written elsewhere about this foolish system. Even Edison’s distinction between inspiration and perspiration as constituents of genius runs into the contrary examples of Flaubert, who sweated over every word; and Balzac, “who had to write trash for ten years before his genius erupted” in the production of over a hundred novels in under twenty years. (Flaubert’s sour comment on this eruption was, “What a man Balzac would have been, had he known how to write!”)

Generalizing from Barzun’s focus on art, I would say the four levels of meaning in our general term “creativity” could be taken as 1) having initiative or being eager for results; 2) having a knack, propensity or talent; 3) having this talent developed and fully realized by training, study, and practice; and 4) being a genius, about which more below. Suffice it to say now that geniuses are rare.

My own student, while not a Balzac, a Flaubert, or a Machiavelli, took his material and worked on it in an engaged and productive way and produced an original and creditable thesis where none had existed before. I would be inclined to say that he was thoughtful, diligent, and keen with concept-work: a combination of numbers 1) and 2) with the likely prospect of eventually achieving 3). Reaching this level is an accomplishment, which I duly celebrated in our viva voce. It also seems more clear-headed than it would have been if I had merely said he had been creative, which tells us very little if anything. And it seems truer than if I had said he was not creative because he had worked under the discipline of political science instead of having been free as a bird.

Ah, freedom! But freedom is not creativity, as Barzun further notes. He proposes that many people, when they talk about creativity, really mean “a release from compulsion and regimentation.” Thus, the “cult of creativity springs from the hatred of abstractness, dependence, repetition, and incompletion in work (emphasis added)”—undesirables whose roots ultimately go back to our culture in general and not just, or even primarily, to our schooling. The problem with hidden hatreds is that under the guise of “unleashing,” they can lead to the “creation” of wreckage. One alternative to cultivation of this hatred might be more work like the Extended Essay, which finds and answers a concrete question, encourages independent thought, puts things in a new way, and has a beginning, middle, and end—the whole in the context of an academic discipline holding out the promise of development to level 3).

In another and rather less satisfactory alternative, we are told in The New York Times about “departments of creativity” in colleges, where creativity is defined as “the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions.” The reason for this alternative’s comparative unsatisfactoriness is that it is too narrow and lacks what Thomas Kuhn called a “disciplinary matrix.” Some works of genius are solutions, but not all: to what problems are Macaulay’s Third Chapter or Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony solutions? And on a less exalted level, what problem did my own extended essayist solve? It is true, the Times reports, that one college program has led among other things to the production of portable toilet-stall door locks made of coat hooks and Lincoln Logs; and we must be grateful for any level-2) inventiveness that increases our privacy rather than strip it away; but this doesn’t seem anywhere near exhausting the possibilities of “creativity” in school. Nor will we do so by attempting to “scale” it. Barzun quotes from a study rating jobs according to an Index of Creativity, giving as an example of “exceptional” creativity “the amateur botanist who strictly limits hours at his regular job and often spends 20-hour days to complete botanical experiments.” So much for “scaling.”

And still the question persists: what is genius? Dr. Johnson called genius[3] “that power which constitutes a poet; that quality without which judgment is cold and knowledge is inert; that energy which collects, combines, amplifies, and animates.” So “Dictionary Johnson” could not capture its meaning in a definition, though he is strongly suggestive of what genius does. William James described “minds of a high order” as a enabling “genial play with … massive materials, … an easy flashing of light over far perspectives, [and] careless indifference to the dust and apparatus that ordinarily surround the subject and seem to pertain to its essence.[4]” Compared to it, he says, the “mania for completeness” is positively vulgar. He makes this comment on p. 993 of a 1300-page book. It suggests that he thought that though “careless indifference” is the right mode for some kinds of mental phenomena, meticulous attention and hard work are another mode, also required in their turn—another of creativity’s paradoxes unlikely to be unraveled by Baby Einstein or Departments of Creativity.

But all this will not keep us from talking about Creativity. Barzun notes that “[i]n a new reference book of contemporary quotations, there are fifteen entries for Creativity and only three for Conversation, two for Wisdom, one for Contemplation, and none for Serenity or Repose.”

[1] In The American Scholar, Summer 1989, pages 337 – 351.

[2] Or, now, for occasional use in blog postings.

[3] In his Life of Alexander Pope

[4] Principles of Psychology, Harvard, 1983, p. 992.

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