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Fear and Trembling in the Face of Creativity

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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If Sir Ken Robinson is correct and the majority of us lose 98% of our creativity by adulthood, perhaps most people grow up and into a distrust of the creative approach to problem-solving in inverse proportion to their increasing reliance upon critical thinking.



The posting below looks at perceptions on the role of creativity in higher education.  It is by Charlie Sweet, Hal Blythe, and Rusty Carpenter, at Eastern Kentucky University and is #68 in a series of selected excerpts from The NT&LF reproduced here as part of our \"Shared Mission Partnership.\" NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, October, 2013, Volume 22, No. 6. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission. 


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Fear and Trembling in the Face of Creativity


At the conclusion of \"Kubla Khan,\" Coleridge describes what many interpret as the reaction of the public to the poet:

Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Mockingly exhorting his audience to treat the poet, who somehow has channeled creativity, as a demon that must be confined, the nineteenth-century English poet expresses a common phobia: we fear that which we don't understand, and creativity is not something everyone grasps. If Sir Ken Robinson is correct and the majority of us lose 98% of our creativity by adulthood, perhaps most people grow up and into a distrust of the creative approach to problem-solving in inverse proportion to their increasing reliance upon critical thinking.

But not all creative thinkers. Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution when the French peasants stuck their wooden shoes, sabots (hence the term sabotage) into the gears of the new machines, society has tended to revere Thomas Edison and his thousand light bulbs as well as the inventors of Post-It notes, Velcro, and iPads. So why does Shakespeare proclaim that \"The lunatic, the lover and the poet. Are of imagination all compact\"? And by extension, why is the idea of teaching creative thinking often distrusted?

Perhaps one avenue to an answer leads back to the basic definition of creativity. Creativity is that which is both novel and useful. Both blank verse and Velcro are certainly novel, most would agree, but are they useful? We don't need to open our coat closet to see that De Mestral's invention makes our lives easier and hence is useful, but blank verse? First, many Velcro-lovers probably have no idea what blank verse is, and even when told that it's unrhymed iambic pentameter and the basis for much famous English poetry, especially that of Shakespeare and Milton, they still can't see its usefulness. And that brings us to an important distinction: that which makes our everyday life easier does not explain contemporary art. For that matter, is \"usefulness\" even a component of art? After all, MacLeish told us in 1926 that \"A poem should not mean/But be.\" And what in tarnation does that comment mean? In short, two different kinds of usefulness exist - one type in the world of art and another in the rest of the world.

But even in the arts, the concept of usefulness has no single meaning. Up through the nineteenth century, art was usually deemed didactic - i.e., it suggested a moral that we could use to guide our life - and that moral guidance made it useful for society to have students read/study the art object. Longfellow's \"The Psalm of Life\" was included in young people's education because its message of \"Let us, then, be up and doing\" reinforced the prevailing Protestant work ethic of the time.

By the late nineteenth century, however, as the realists and naturalists decided merely to hold a nonjudgmental mirror up to society, art became more ambiguous in its meaning, certainly not didactic, and, hence, its \"usefulness\" was called into question. By the end of the twentieth century, as literary theorist Laurence Perrine explained in 1970, themes are \"implied\" (102) and fiction - read art- exists \"to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life\" (4).

But how does this changing role of serious fiction/artistic creativity scare people? Art in specific and creativity in general have always had a subversive role, something that, as we have already said, became more pronounced in the latter part of the nineteenth century. For instance, when he published Leaves of Grass in 1855, a scant 15 years after Longfellow's \"Psalm,\" Walt Whitman eschewed the traditional meter and rhyme scheme embodied by Longfellow with his use of free verse. And he talked about equality of all people.

You can bet the public became scared of art. Society's basic conventions were being challenged.

Another literary theorist, John Cawelti, goes beyond the changing historical role of art to suggest a larger cause for why art might be thought of even as transgressive. According to Cawelti (1969), all art blends convention and invention. Convention refers to elements that are very common and obvious; in literature stereotypic characters such as the good-hearted whore, the setting of the frontier outpost, the boy-meets-girl plot, and the crime-doesn't-pay moral illustrate popular conventions, quite abundant in escapist fare. Audiences tend to like such materials because they confirm rather than challenge their view of the world. To the contrary, inventions challenge our common perceptions of character, setting, plot, and meaning, forcing us out of our comfort zones and into confrontations that can, as in Emily Dickinson's \"Narrow Fellow in the Grass,\" suddenly cause us to go \"zero to the bone.\"

We fear that which undermines our most cherished concepts.

In other words, serious art can scare us. Imagine a late nineteenth-century audience finding out in a supposed \"boys' book,\" The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), that such treasured familiar beliefs as the family is an all good nurturing force (see Pap) and black people function best as slaves might not be correc.

We fear that which undermines our most cherished concepts.

Let's look at one way that fear could affect college campuses. Since Plato, educators have tended to teach the importance of reason guiding all other parts of the mind. As recently as 2007 the Association of American Colleges and Universities commissioned a study on what skills are the most desirable in college graduates, and after teamwork the nextfour traits were reflections of this postsecondary reliance on reason:

  • An understanding of science and technology and how these subjects are used in real-world settings The ability to write and speak well The ability to think clearly about complex problems The ability to analyze a problem to develop workable solutions.

Yet by 2010, when IBM conducted a similar survey (this time of over 1000 American CEOs), the answer was notably different: creative thinking (Kern 2010).

Upon hearing this, some instructors and administrators did express worry that our base had shifted from critical thinking to creative thinking faster than the nineteenth-century Romantics could say goodbye to the Age of Reason. And then came the calls to develop a creative campus, which many misconstrued as letting the arts infiltrate the sciences (but that's a misconception for another column).

But maybe the distrust of creativity runs deeper than fear. Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once claimed that \"the intellect is a great danger to creativity\" (Brain Pickings), but to other people the opposite is true - creativity is a great danger to the rational intellect, which, despite training in critical thinking, is often not always rational. In fact, as O'Connor, Nemeth, and Akutsu (2013) demonstrate, most people \"hold a stereotype that creativity is fixed\" (156), and not being malleable, it therefore cannot be maximized. Combine that belief with Sir Ken Robinson's finding that by the time they reach college most people have lost 98% of their creative potential, and it's easy to understand why some don't take to creativity in general and creative campuses in specific-in their perception instead of being useful, creativity is seen as useless.

CONTACT: Charlie Sweet, Co-Director Teaching & Learning Center Eastern Kentucky University Richmond, KY 40475 Telephone: (859) 622-6519 Fax: (859) 622-5018 E-mail: Web:


Cawelti, J. 1969. \"The Concept of Formula in the Study of Pop Culture.\" Journal of Popular Culture 3: 381-390. 

Kern, F. 2010. \"What Chief Executives Really Want.\" Bloomberg Businessweek 5/18. [] Accessed 26 August 2013. 

O'Connor, A., Nemeth, C., and Akutsu, S. 2013. \"Consequences of Beliefs about the Malleability of Creativity.\" Creativity Research Journal 25, 2: 155-162.

Perrine, L. 1970. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. New York: Harcourt- Brace. 

Popova, M. \"Ray Bradbury on Writing, Emotion vs. Intelligence and the Core of Creativity.\" []. 

Top Ten Things Employers look for in New College Graduates. [].