The Dismantling of Creativity from Education and its Collateral Damage

“Creative people are the resource that permits civilization to advance”- Nancy Andreasen 


The Atlantic’s article by Nancy Andreasen on the “Secrets of the Creative Brain” centers on the link between creative people and mental illness. There is no connection to education in China or in America in this article, but it got me to thinking about when a society does not understand or have compassion for people who have mental illness plus does not support or honor the creative mind what happens to that societies ability to advance? China has advanced rapidly in terms of economy and definitely in terms of building, and many of our politicians and pundits (safely and snugly in their comfortable expensives beds) cry out to the American public – “our education needs to be more like China’s!” They are going to beat the great U.S.A in the crunching numbers game!” Then they suck their thumbs and go back to sleep. These mouth boxes of course do not teach nor do they have any real experience in China. If they come to China to visit its schools they only go to the top top schools with the most affluent children, and the top scores in all of (a billion plus population) China. If they really wanted to know about China’s educate system and they asked real everyday students, teachers, and parents they would find that a majority (maybe all who knows) of Chinese people are not satisfied with China’s education system, in fact, they say it is bad.You know, Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall with the scene of children walking into the giant meat grinder? That’s China.

In much of China (what I know from my limited conversations with students) the creative process is removed from the education system. In kindergarten children are creative and expressive and have projects, and enjoy art, music, and dancing, and of course the mighty innovation builder- playing. But, once primary school hits that’s it- no more messing around it is route-route-route, do what the teacher says, memorize-memorize-memorize, and do not question or come up with your own ideas because you are wrong this is right. One factoring misconception in education in China, and in America, is that a  high IQ, and high test marks equals the necessary intelligence to be successful and therefor your success makes your parents and your country proud. But, what is success? If it’s about business and money (which many of my students believe it is) this type of success may look good on the number crunching game and in the ol’ rat race, but does it advance civilization? According to a study by Lewis M. Terman – the guy who developed America’s first IQ test, high IQ’s do not mean high creativity. Yet, does that matter? Does creativity in a culture matter? Looking at Terman’s findings I would say, yes it does.

But despite the implications of the title Genetic Studies of Genius, the Termites’ high IQs did not predict high levels of creative achievement later in life. Only a few made significant creative contributions to society; none appear to have demonstrated extremely high creativity levels of the sort recognized by major awards, such as the Nobel Prize. (Interestingly, William Shockley, who was a 12-year-old Palo Alto resident in 1922, somehow failed to make the cut for the study, even though he would go on to share a Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor.) Thirty percent of the men and 33 percent of the women did not even graduate from college. A surprising number of subjects pursued humble occupations, such as semiskilled trades or clerical positions. As the study evolved over the years, the term gifted was substituted for genius. Although many people continue to equate intelligence with genius, a crucial conclusion from Terman’s study is that having a high IQ is not equivalent to being highly creative. Subsequent studies by other researchers have reinforced Terman’s conclusions, leading to what’s known as the threshold theory, which holds that above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity: most creative people are pretty smart, but they don’t have to be that smart, at least as measured by conventional intelligence tests. An IQ of 120, indicating that someone is very smart but not exceptionally so, is generally considered sufficient for creative genius.

 What does this mean? It means many creative thinkers and civilization movers and shakers are being lost in the illusion of success and test scores. In China, creativity, imagination, innovation and play are discouraged and with that comes the tragic silencing of future voices and new ideas. Many, many of my students have expressed frustration, dismay, and even sadness towards their education. They are aware of what they are lacking. I asked one student why he thought Chinese education was bad, and he said it was because it didn’t allow the Chinese to have strong minds. “We are not allowed imagination. To think for ourselves, to solve our own problems or to create.”

Andreasen’s studies focus on people who are rewarded for their creative genius- noble prize winners and published writers. A very American mind set is to think, “well those people are the special ones but not just anyone can be that creative.” But I disagree with this thinking. I think many people have these creative abilities, but many are lost in the process of control and the shadows of poverty, and when it comes to mental illness, in the lack of understanding and assistance. This comes down to the issues of nurture versus nature which I think is a problematic issue in itself. Perhaps instead of looking at the question as a versus issue we should look at it as a plus issue. Nurture plus nature equals- what?

As in the first study, I’ve also found that creativity tends to run in families, and to take diverse forms. In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role. Half the subjects come from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree. The majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued.

If we look at this nurture rate and then look at China’s current education system there is a highly probable chance that China is destroying its creative population. America is also in the habit of limiting its creative population through other forms like poverty which lowers a persons access to a good education not too mention the lack of family support especially when you have family members that are suffering from mental illness which is linked to highly creative people. Still, in America we have amazing creative people who come out of poverty like Maya Angelou for example. What set her apart from other children that suffer form poverty? Perhaps it was the freedom for her to educate herself. This word freedom again can become problematic when talking about freedom and race in America, but something that sets America apart from China when it comes to education is this freedom of creative thought and expression. It may be met with racism, opposition, and attempts of silence but it’s still there this freedom to self-govern and self-educate. Not that Chinese people cannot educate themselves, but the access is meant to be limited and the voices have to be quiet because the status-quo and the culture is controlled. The most creative thinkers are not always at the top most often the bullies and the seekers of power are at the top. Creating is not about power it is about change and change disrupts power and power needs everything to remain the same.

Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings. Famously, three Silicon Valley creative geniuses have been college dropouts: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs—for many, the archetype of the creative person—popularized the motto “Think different.” Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own.

I won’t go into the mental health problems in China mainly because I dot know much about it, but I do know they are behind the times when it comes to psychiatry and there is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, and of course mental health is often thought of as a weakness of mind and character. This unfortunate belief of “weakness of character” has caused the world to lose many of its creative geniuses. History gives us a list of people who lose the battle with mental illnesses like depression. 

Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.

Mental illness and depression remains to be misunderstood in American culture.  A good example is David Foster Wallace– a man who was successful in American eyes. He was highly educated, had a good family, didn’t struggle with poverty, was well respected, an awarded writer,  he was lauded with the title of “The new American voice,” he was monetarily successful, famous, and a loved teacher. Even with all of these accolades and images of outward success he took his own life. Many people were left asking, ‘but why he had everything going for him’. What many who have no experience with depression don’t understand is that success can not save you from the darkness within yourself. The darkness that comes in the depression. Those who are depressed in a society that does not understand depression or acknowledge it are bound to look to the only way they see to end the pain and feelings of isolation, and that is suicide (if they don’t choose addiction instead). Wallace and the above names are only examples of Western people. If it is still misunderstood or unacknowledged in America imagine what it is like in a culture where the idea of something like depression or other mental illnesses is not accepted. How many are lost to addictions, and lack of medical care. What about the creative geniuses of Eastern thought? What about the creative geniuses of Africa? Then there is the history of murdering creative and mentally ill people because they are disrupting the status-quo. The dangerous thinkers and the ones who ask too many questions. All cultural revolutions express a resentment toward the creative thinkers as bourgeois and against the good of the people, but how much is lost? Is innovation against the good of the people and grand massacre for the good of the people? There are many cultural revolutions not only the ones with the name “culture” in them- the Nazi’s made certain to destroy independent and creative thinking which is another example of a cultural cleansing. But cultural cleansing is a dramatic attack on creative thinking what about the more insidious approach like removing creative thinking from education? Using mental health as an excuse to lock people away? Allowing poverty to consume pockets of a nation therefore systematically silencing portions of a country? These are other ways of removing the creative thinkers.

If creative people truly are the resource that permits civilization to advance is China’s inability to cultivate its creative people going to stagnate its growth as a civilization? If America continues down its path of listening to “education advice” from disconnected money hoarding politicians, pundits, war mongers for profit, and those who continue to support the two P’s and WM’s with money from back room corporate offices; “advice” that calls for the cutting of arts, and critical thinking, and disregard for teachers and student rights will we move toward a modern dark ages? I should write continue to move toward a modern dark ages especially when looking at American’s current battle with teaching evolutionary science in school or the attack on our sciences in public education in general.

It’s a question worth exploring especially now in a time of growing wars and ignorance and lack of communication. In our reactionary time we need an advancement of civilization. A creative person would look at the destruction of our planet through pollution, war, and greed and find it absolutely illogical, primitive, and barbaric to blow up a place because people don’t agree with you. They would think of new ways of solving these problems. We have creative people now who see these problems, but not enough, and they are being silenced. This question of creativity in education, and the compassion of mental illness may be more profound than we are willing to acknowledge and it is a matter of life or death. With each bomb, each invasion, each subjugation of a peoples how many creative geniuses do we loose? What happens to our advancement of civilization? Just recently we lost many of the world’s leading researchers in HIV/AIDS because of the senseless missile attack of the Ukraine/Russia conflict. Death that not only lost immediate lives but will have a ripple effect of lives lost all over the world. Can such wars be prevented by fostering creative people by finding a greater compassion for those who the majority find “different”? I don’t know. We’ve never tried it. We seem to refuse to try it, but if America, and Europe, and the West continue to be the leaders of the world and China is the newest leader something needs to change in the way we foster education and creativity and innovation and thinking because our world depends on it. We need to advance our civilizations or we will ultimately will destroy what we already have. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.