Education in America: 11. Creativity
AUGUST 01, 1969 by GEORGE CHARLES ROCHE III
Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American education.
"The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody connected with it, teachers and taught," Henry Adams once remarked. Such may indeed be the sad consequence of an education that fails to teach people to think, to participate in some small way in the creative process which distinguishes man from animal.
If we would better understand the creative process, we might begin with the recognition that creativity does not originate in and cannot be measured by standardized controls. The concepts of standardization and creativity are mutually exclusive. Our society’s continuing attempt to judge its success by the degree of "consensus" it achieves, by the extent to which it imposes "adjustment" on the individuals who are its members, is a demonstration of our failure to realize the mutually exclusive nature of that relationship. We seem to insist that the individual will find fulfillment to the extent that he makes his peace with the system.
It is true enough that we must be able to live and work with our fellows. But, is mere "adjustment" enough? A Fortune study undertaken a few years ago asked 150 corporation presidents and 150 personnel directors whether, if they had to choose, they would prefer: (1) the adaptable administrator, skilled in managerial techniques and concerned primarily with human relations and with making the corporation a smooth-working team; or (2) a man with strong personal convictions who is not shy about making decisions likely to upset tested procedures. The vote: the presidents divided half-and-half; the personnel men, 3-to-1 in favor of the administrator.’ This preference for "adjustment" over creative leadership is widespread in our society.
Adjustment vs. Creativity
When creative capacity is sacrificed to adjustment, the results are likely to be futile and uninspiring. In fact, human beings owe most of their conspicuous historical advances to periods when "adjustment" and control could not be forced upon social life. The dead hand of conformity and spontaneous forces of creativity simply do not act in concert. The periods historians usually describe as "civilized" were invariably triggered by lapses of enforced conformity, thus making possible a creative flowering.
There can be no such thing as "creativity on command," because genuine originality arises within the individual, not the collectivity. That aristocratic element in creativity implies a reliance upon higher standards than can be expected of society as a whole. The personal aspect of creativity cannot be mass-produced. Indeed, the process works in reverse. Confucius had the idea that if an individual could only come to terms with his own personality and develop his own potential, that development would extend, in ever-widening circles, throughout a larger and larger area of influence, first touching those nearest the individual, finally spreading to the community at large. Since societies on the whole have proven notoriously unwilling to accept high standards and truly advanced ideas, the result of such individual creative development, when it has occurred, has been the apparent "social maladjustment" of the unique and creative personality, whose only guilt consists in his possessing more wisdom than society can accept. When societies have chosen to penalize such "maladjustment" and have demanded conformity, they often have destroyed the creative impulses which gave them viability.
Creation in the Service of Truth and a Higher Morality
Thus, society is obligated to allow freedom to the creative individual or risk its own destruction. A form of that same obligation applies to the creative individual. Unless his capacities are used to serve truth, the creative individual is also finally destroyed. Those who live immediately after a period of free creativity are especially vulnerable in this regard. Because previous creative genius has already "thought through" a problem, subsequent generations often feel it unnecessary to rethink it, thus failing to recreate the solution within themselves. Few men have realized that the true must be not only discovered, but perennially rediscovered and redefined.
Any moral code which does not allow for individual, internal expansion of an ethical ideal is doomed to extinction. In Ortega’s words, "The good is, like nature, an immense landscape in which man advances through centuries of exploration."2
There are signs that the modern world displays little enthusiasm for advance along such lines. We seem to feel that we can free the whole world from material concerns, but one need ask, "What does it profit a man to free the whole world if his soul is not free?"3
And how free are our souls if we are valued by the world around us only for our ability to shed our personalities, to "adapt" to the values and standards of our society, to suffer the death and burial of the originality and creative capacity which should give us our identities?
In this world of utilitarian and materialist values, we seem to have forgotten that truth is not the servant of man. Unless the individual is the servant of truth, both he and his society are doomed. Society cannot do without the services of the creative individual; the creative individual is likewise doomed unless his capacities serve a higher morality than his own devising. The individual achieves his fulfillment only as he overcomes his own limitations and transcends himself in service of a higher ideal.
… If there is no God, as Truth and Meaning, if there is no higher Justice, then everything flattens out, and there is neither any one nor any thing to which man can rise. If on the other hand, man is God, the situation is flatter still, hopeless and worthless. Every qualitative value is an indication that in the path of man’s life there lies something higher than man.
And that which is higher than man, i.e., the divine, is not an exterior force standing above and ruling him, but that which, in him, makes him truly man—his higher freedom.4
The Key to Creation
True education must recognize the individual nature of originality and creativity. No matter how dynamic the teacher, the effective force in genuine education is the student’s will to learn and to grow. All learning and discovery, with or without a teacher, takes place deep in the individual’s personality. Sir Isaac Newton, when asked how he had reduced the vast quantity of physical phenomena to apparent simplicity, replied, "Nocte dieque incubando" (turning them over day and night). The one fact which we know about that "turning" process was that it demanded a tremendous withdrawal into self, tremendous thought and introspection.
To compare Newton’s answer with the methods all too common in modern academic research provides a revealing insight. First the researcher "structures" a research project, gathers a team of co-workers, and requests foundation grants in support of his work—then, if the corporate judgment so wills it, the "team project" be-gins. That such research provides "facts," one cannot deny. It is less clear that it yields the intuitive perceptions which can be achieved when a gifted individual takes those facts and "turns them over day and night."
The collective approach to wisdom is forever suspect. Emerson once insisted:
Ours is the age of the omnibus, of the third person plural, of Tammany Hall. Is it that Nature has only so much vital force, and must dilute it if it is to be multiplied into millions? The beautiful is never plentiful.5
"The beautiful is never plentiful." How true. When we complain of the "failures of our age," do we not label ourselves unrealistic? Haven’t all ages and all societies been filled with shortcomings? The great achievements have always been individualistic. Indeed, any original achievement implies separation from the majority. Though society may honor achievement, it can never produce it.
The morning after Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic nonstop from New York to Paris, an associate of Charles Kettering rushed into the research expert’s laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, shouting: "He made it! Lindbergh landed safely in Paris!" Kettering went on working. The associate spoke again: "Think of it—Lindbergh flew the Atlantic alone! He did it all by himself!" Kettering looked up from his work momentarily and remarked quietly: "When he flies it with a committee, let me know."
It seems as if the Deity dressed each soul which he sends into nature in certain virtues and powers not communicable to other men, and sending it to perform one more turn through the circle of beings, wrote "Not transferable" and "Good for this trip only," on these garments of the soul. There is something deceptive about the intercourse of minds. The boundaries are invisible, but they are never crossed.6
If each of us is to perform his unique function, each must be free to do so. The word "freedom" means nothing unless it consists first of all in freedom of personality, the individuality possible only if a person is a free creative spirit over whom neither state nor society is omnipotent. The individual must be free to listen to that still small voice within:
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.7
The individual who is thus cultivating his own little piece of the universe may well be engaged in the production of a unique and valuable vision, a vision which no collection of men, no "consensus" can possibly evaluate:
… the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream. But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water-spouts of truth from the very depth of truth.8
These "water-spouts of truth from the very depth of truth" are the product of individual intuition. Such intuition operates largely outside the conscious mind. It goes under many names and is subject to many interpretations, ranging from "a flash of insight into Absolute Truth" to "promptings from a guardian angel." Those who are responsive to such promptings are the creative among us. Probably many more of us might participate in Creation if we would only respond to our intuitions, if we would fan the tiny spark into a flame. Unless we leave the individual free to do that job for himself, unless we prepare him for such an expectation, we do not have an educational system worth its name.
The Role of a Demanding Environment
Granted the necessity for intuition, how does a man learn to discipline himself and respond to the call when it comes? Imagination there must be, but imagination disciplined by intellect. The development of intellect demands work and academic standards. Only an education with a well-developed hierarchy of values, demanding much from the individual, can lay the groundwork for the union of imagination and intellect which allows creative thinking.
What are some of the elements in such a hierarchy of values? One necessary element would be a well-developed memory—reminding the world that lasting accomplishment is produced not by the easily-pleased forgetter of hard truths, but by the man who remembers and understands reality, even when it is most painful. Another element would be a well-established set of values which the individual has accepted as his own. A distinguished psychiatrist has recently made it clear that sound character formation is not possible unless the individual clearly knows who he is and what he believes.9 Here again, lasting accomplishment has never come from those willing to shift their personality or their principles for a more comfortable "adjustment" with the world. Accomplishment, intuition, and creativity have always come from those who knew who they were and what they believed, even when they suffered at the hands of the world for their firm grasp of reality and personal identity.
Such creative people, knowing who they are and what they value, tend to reflect self-esteem. A recent study of self-esteem among young boys reflected a high correlation between what the boys did and what they thought they could do. Those boys coming from homes where parents maintained a close interest in them, where parents demanded high standards of behavior and performance, where firm discipline was a fact, not a debating point, proved to be boys of strength and achievement, capable of creative application of intellect, personality, and imagination.
The findings from these studies concerning the factors that contribute to the formation of high self-esteem suggest important implications for parents, educators and therapists. They indicate that children develop self-trust, venturesomeness and the ability to deal with adversity if they are treated with respect and are provided with well-defined standards of value, demands for competence and guidance toward solutions of problems. It appears that the development of independence and self-reliance is fostered by a well-structured, demanding environment rather than by largely unlimited permissiveness and freedom to explore in an unfocused way.¹º Just as the individual must be free to pursue his intuition, so he must be the product of a disciplined environment to develop properly his capacities of intellect and imagination. Once again, those interested in education are faced with the necessity of providing freedom for the individual to choose, but defining it as freedom to choose within an already established framework of values. It appears to be true that man can only be genuinely free when he accepts the discipline of a higher standard. Perhaps each of us can only be a creator to the extent that he is in harmony with The Creator.
The man who lives his own vocation and follows his own destiny is the creative man, since his life is in full agreement with his true self. It is the business of education to allow the individual to develop that harmony of capacity and opportunity, of intent and fulfillment, of creativity and creation, which provides the chance for the individual to use his life in pursuit of everlasting goals and achievements.
The concluding piece in this series will discuss "A Philosophy of Growth."
1 William H. Whyte, Jr., "The New Illiteracy," The Public Schools in Crisis, ed. by Mortimer Smith, p. 108.
2 Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations,
3 George Santayana, Character and p. 37. Opinion in the United States, p. 118.
4 Nicholas Berdyaev, The Realm of 5 Emerson: A Modern Anthology, ed. p. 40.
5Spirit and the Realm of Caesar, by Alfred Kazin & Daniel Aaron, p. 182.
6 Ibid., p. 215.
7 Ibid., p. 99.
8 C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, p. 277.
9 William Glasser, Mental Health or Mental Illness? p. 15.
10 Stanley Coopersmith, "Studies in Self-esteem," Scientific American, Feb. 1968, p. 106.