“Fear and Trembling in the Face of Creativity”

We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams. (Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy… also, Willy Wonka)

Augustana College is one of countless institutions that identifies “creative thinking” as a key student learning outcome. But this goal has been a tricky one to foster — largely because most of us are unclear on how to foster it, and likely because the notion of “creativity” has largely been squeezed out of our line of sight by “critical thinking” (which is, of course, hugely important). How did this happen?

Maybe because “creativity” is a scary concept — or at least has been, historically. Charlie Sweet, Hal Blythe, and Rusty Carpenter at Eastern Kentucky University wrote the following piece for The National Teaching & Learning Forum (Wiley Publications), which I found through my e-mail subscription to the tomorrows-professor e-mail list (which I highly recommend).

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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?

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