“I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.”
High school valedictorian Erica Goldson had the guts to speak out. In an address to her graduating class, she spelled it out in a way that even the stupidest teacher in the audience could comprehend, if not accept:
“Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.”
She went on to say:
“And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.”
Coincidentally, last month Newsweek ran a cover feature, The Creativity Crisis, that reported that for the first time, measures of creativity in US school kids are way down. The implications are enormous. As Newsweek points out:
The potential consequences are sweeping. The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.
Ironically, as the rest of the world is moving beyond from the old “drill and kill” method of learning, the US is heading in precisely the opposite direction toward prepping students for acing standardized tests. Meanwhile, arts in the schools have been liquidated.
Creativity is not just about the arts. It’s about generating original ideas, across all fields of endeavor. The creative process involves both “divergent” and “convergent” thinking. In the divergent phase, the brain is literally roaming the library stacks, gathering up books by the armload. A strong body of research suggests that creative individuals may have brains that are less than efficient at filtering out incoming information.
But we are easily overwhelmed by too much information, not to mention sensory input and emotion – which may explain much of mental illness. This is where the convergent phase comes in. The brain becomes ruthlessly efficient in weeding out irrelevancies and focusing only on the facts that matter. Finally, the brain needs to find associations between apparently unrelated facts and ideas to come up with an original solution.
In his outstanding 2009 book, “How We Decide,” science writer Jonah Lehrer reports on what was going on in the minds of the flight crew of United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago when one fine day over Iowa in 1989, the rear engine of their DC-10 exploded and took out all three hydraulic systems.
Without a functioning hydraulic system, Captain Al Haynes had no control of his plane. UA 232 was on the verge of flipping into a death spiral. Emergency procedures never anticipated a total loss of hydraulics. The manual had not provided for this contingency. The experts on the ground had no answers. Haynes and his crew were totally on their own.
As Lehrer reports, the first remarkable thing to happen was that Haynes and his crew fought back their panic. Haynes then did a mental scan of all the cockpit controls he could operate without hydraulic pressure. The list was a short one, and only one was useful – the thrust levers. But you couldn’t steer a plane with thrust levers.
Or could you?
Haynes’ DC-10 had two working engines. If he idled one while boosting the other – what they call differential thrust – in theory he could steer the plane. It was a crazy idea. No one had ever thought of it before, much less tried it. Lehrer notes that the pilots dealt with potential information overload only by focusing on the most necessary bits of data:
For instance, once Haynes realized that he could control only the throttle levers – everything else in the cockpit was virtually useless – he immediately zeroed in on the possibility of steering with his engines. He stopped worrying about his ailerons, elevators, and wing flaps.
Meanwhile, inside the brain, the prefrontal cortex took an abstract principle – the physics of engine thrust – and applied it “in an unfamiliar context to come up with an entirely original solution.”
The brain at this convergent stage of creative thinking was uncompromisingly disciplined and rational. Without a strong “I” in the cockpit, mentally we are nothing more than flakes and fruitcakes. Likewise, without wide horizons in the divergent stage, we are mere industrious drudges unable to think our way outside of a paper bag.
Haynes and his crew managed to get UA 232 to an emergency landing strip. But they couldn’t control the speed of the landing. The plane skidded into a cornfield and shattered into several sections, leaving 112 passengers dead but sparing 184 lives.
Meanwhile, in the US, our school system is gearing us to a crash landing. It is conditioning our young to become mere takers of tests and uncritical followers of received wisdom. Bound to the past, our next generation may lack the means to think our nation into the future, much less work its way out of our next round of current social, political, environmental, and economic jams.
Thank heaven, then, for boat-rockers such as Erica Goldson. “We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand,” she told her graduating class. “Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything … We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.”
Ah, there is hope.