January 24, 2013

Creativity in the classroom

Intellectualism and creativity are complementary, and the ‘life of the mind’ should embrace both.

The American education system is a mystery to me: Our primary and secondary schools lag far behind those of other industrialized nations by most objective metrics, yet our colleges and universities consistently produce some of the world’s most influential scholars, artists, and professionals. The disparity only makes the accomplishments of our higher education system—already the envy of the world in terms of research output—all the more impressive.

What sets American higher education apart specifically? Though fortuitous historical and cultural circumstances have played no insignificant role in building up our schools’ prodigious material and intellectual capital, that doesn’t seem to tell the whole story. Many accounts cite a little something extra, a special zest imparted to students that enhances the benefits proffered by our research prowess. Graduates of our tertiary education system are frequently credited with a particular taste for innovation and risk, a pervasive sense of ingenuity, and a persistent willingness to defy conventions. Against all odds, America somehow succeeds at producing creative leaders.

The University of Chicago is certainly no slacker among such illustrious company, but we do put a rather unique spin on what this “creative leadership” looks like in practice. I’m not brave enough to try to advance an abstract definition of creativity here—indeed, the very challenging of and contempt for definitions seem to be among the distinguishing features of creativity in general. Nonetheless, I think we’re past due for a serious conversation about the meaning and place of creativity within the University’s educational mission. In building the Logan Center, UChicago has decidedly raised its (11-story high) middle finger to a past in which art—one of the many guises of creativity—was politely disregarded on campus. But where are we headed instead? How will we reconcile the drive towards academic rigor with the splaying forces of creative expression? Or does creativity perhaps already fit naturally within the university’s unique goals and Weltanschauung?

Let’s set the stage: UChicago was founded on ideological commitments both to the furthering of original, open inquiry and to the bridging of gaps between ideas and disciplines—commitments that I think fall safely within the bounds of most reasonable conceptions of creativity. In its educational capacities, the University pioneered a number of curricular innovations including the interdisciplinary core for undergraduates, discussion-centered classes, and the much-loved quarter system. If you’re an undergraduate, you likely wouldn’t even be reading these words if you hadn’t taken time out of your senior year in high school to respond to an admissions prompt which just about forces you to be creative.

Yet, somehow, the spirit of innovation at UChicago didn’t extend to stimulating activity in more conventionally creative fields like engineering or art, which are seen as antithetical to the abstract character of the inquiry pursued here.

The mapping of “intellectual” onto notions of “abstractness” is flimsy and should be discarded forthwith. Though I see the argument against, say, offering an undergraduate program in nursing, there is in general no explicit relationship between abstractness and degree of intellectual depth. If you’ve taken a math class here you’ll know that even abstract domains can require a fair amount of perfectly intellectually trivial activity—memorization, simple-minded reapplication of proof strategies, etc.—on the part of the student. Any art class, on the other hand, is guaranteed to highlight the substantial amount of analytic thought—weighing and considering—required of the practicing artist. We must take care to ensure that our foundational pursuit of open, rigorous inquiry not be hijacked by a misunderstanding of “inquiry” as a strictly abstract project.

To assert entire domains of human thought to be somehow intrinsically more intellectual than others is thus puerile; any given discipline is bound to be composed of both intellectually challenging and intellectually trivial components. The key here, at UChicago, is to approach such disciplines as art or engineering with an emphasis on—but not exclusive dedication to—the former. And a true intellectual challenge is not only what we’re after in the first place, but also requires innovation and ingenuity. It requires creative thinking.

There is ample room to incorporate creative assignments into the college core. And I’m not talking about writing poems about Durkheim or doing an interpretive dance for Bio, by the way: For instance, an essay prompt requiring textual exegesis could be exchanged for one requiring students to generate as many arguments both for and against an idea without sacrificing rigor, but with a vast improvement in the degree of creative thinking required of the student.

Creativity, in my understanding, is already completely compatible with ‘intellectualism á la UChicago.’ Failing to take advantage of available opportunities to incorporate more creative assignments in our curricula would be to fall short of achieving UChicago’s potential both as a teacher of leaders and as a hub of ideas.

Tyler Lutz is a fourth-year in the College majoring in physics and English.