Creative Edginess

Today I am re-posting an article written by Lisa Phillips  and published January 14, 2013 on ArtsBlog.  This article addresses a topic I often ponder myself – the relative value we place on creativity in learning. At risk of sounding like an armchair anthropologist, albeit one with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, I believe that creativity is a capability that has been positively selected for in humans. We didn’t get where we are as a species by sitting on our rumps and waiting for the weather to improve. Creativity got us here.

By increasing the likelihood that creative types were able to reproduce and protect their young, the desire to create, or rather, the pleasure we get from the act of creating, has become part of our species’ genetic programing. That’s my theory, anyway. It explains why my own need to create is so strong I suffer withdrawal symptoms if I don’t have a project in the works.

To create is not the same as to produce, however. Creating is the act of making something new that did not exist in that exact form before. Production is manufacturing which ultimately results in reproduction. Creation implies innovation, which is why we don’t have production myths to explain the universe. Unfortunately, there has been an emphasis on product in education in the US for many decades. High scores on tests. The reproduction of what we are taught.

Coupled with that we have all the recent technological advances that allow us to sit on our rumps while ignoring the weather altogether. How do children learn to create if they never get the chance? Boredom is second only to necessity as the great progenitor of invention.

However, some educators, such as those promoting the STEAM model, others that stress the value of the Artists’ Habits of Mind and 21st Century skills, and our very own crew that are presenting the Seattle Public Schools K-12 Arts Learning Collaborative proposal to the Wallace Foundation this month, are now emphasizing the value of creativity as a foundation for learning.

In her article below, Lisa Phillips asks, “why do we put our cultural icons on a pedestal but undervalue arts education?” Her answer is a good one, but I also think that deep down we understand the value of creativity, envy it even, but we have developed a culture that sees productivity, or product, as more tangible and immediate, and thus, more worthy of investment. As Lisa writes, “If CEO’s of some of the largest companies in the world are craving talent who can think creatively … why aren’t we teaching our children how to do that?”

We Aren’t Preparing Young People for Careers at Disney or Apple

Lisa Phillips with Steve Wozniak

There seems to be a major disconnect between how creativity is valued in society and the career advice we give our children. We all know that the arts are a valuable means of expression, a means to share stories across cultures and an uplifting and moving source of entertainment.

We revere our cultural icons, whether they are movie stars, literary authors or artists, but we seem to limit the possibility of careers in the arts to only a talented few.

How many of us arts professionals have heard from family and friends, “When are you going to get a real job?”

So, why do we put our cultural icons on a pedestal but undervalue arts education? I think one of the reasons is that as a society we are preoccupied with the idea that the arts are reserved only for those with talent. However, in the reality of today’s job market, we need to change this idea.

There is a significant gap between what children are told is important for their future career success and what business leaders actually want from the emerging workforce. Creative individuals are actually in demand. Not just for arts careers, but for careers in business as well.

For example, Disney and Apple are two of the most successful companies of our time, largely because of the creativity, innovation, and the leadership they have demonstrated in their respective industries.

In an era when businesses are constantly struggling to find creative ways to stay at the top of their market, arts education can be a powerful tool to nurture the creative abilities of our young people, ensuring they are ready for the skills that are in demand.

Lisa Phillips with Michael Eisner

I have had the unique pleasure of learning from some of the top business and marketing experts in the world including Jay Abraham, Eric Trump, Steve Wozniak (Co-Founder of Apple), Stedman Graham (expert in identity development and branding), and Michael Eisner (former CEO of Disney) to name a few. One of the consistent messages I hear from all of these successful business leaders is the importance of creativity in business.

Top CEO’s around the world are seeking out new employees who can think creatively, be innovative in business development and marketing strategies and show outstanding leadership qualities that will “wow” clients. This is what businesses need to compete in the global marketplace. In a 2010 study by IBM, interviews with CEO’s representing 33 industries and 60 countries identified creativity as the most important leadership skill for the future.

The problem is, our children are not spending their formative years honing this crucial skill. They are spending thousands of hours practicing math, science, history and other core subjects in the hopes of getting into excellent universities and gaining a highly coveted degree. A degree is important, but what about when it’s time to get a job?

Let’s face it, in today’s marketplace a university degree is a bare minimum, much like a high school diploma was decades ago. Everyone has a degree…so what? What matters most is what is going to set young people apart from their peers. What is their competitive edge?

Remember, the job market is very different now than it was 20 years ago. Competition for jobs is now global and if young people are going to succeed in any career they need to stand out. We are doing our children a disservice by not preparing them for the challenges that lie ahead. The point is that we are all creative and if we nurture that creativity then we can all find the career success we desire.

So, what if our young people spent thousands of hours as they grew up honing their creativity through participating in performing and visual arts programs? What if they studied leadership skills so they knew how to communicate effectively, find solutions to challenges and build relationships that would help them achieve success? They would be prepared for whatever life threw at them, whether it was a career in the arts or business or something else.

If CEO’s of some of the largest companies in the world are craving talent who can think creatively, find solutions to challenging problems, build relational capital with clients and partners, communicate effectively, and adapt to constantly changing global market why aren’t we teaching our children how to do that?

I firmly believe that arts education not only teaches creativity, but also, when the facilitators are intentional, it has the capacity to teach countless other important leadership skills. So, let’s squash the myth of the talented few and embrace the idea that arts education should be for anyone who wants to soar to the top of the interview pile and meet the growing demand for creativity in the marketplace.

Lisa also posted The Top 10 Skills Children Learn From The Arts on ArtsBlog, and has released a book, The Artistic Edge, which explores why leadership skills taught through the arts are what young people need most to be successful in life.

6 responses to “Creative Edginess

  1. Hello Margaret,

    I enjoyed your latest article regarding creativity juxtaposed to production. I would like to add that creativity is a personal expression and experience where production lends itself to group activity. The reason that I think this is important regarding education is that the whole classroom experience is a production process complete with an end result preordained. The answer to number 7 is b and the answer to number 11 is a. Creativity has a difficult time when there are many individuals all competing for time. The pedagogy in our current system allows only for the middle and the “group adaptable” to be able to get the answers already plotted and planned. To allow for creation, the mystical, and openness of mind we need patience, calm and a long term view of success without strict benchmarks. Wow now thats a risky proposition for a society that expects that station B put a brass screw into slot 4 a thousand times a day. If we produce, reproduce and duce again, there is a steady stream of predictable profit and stability in the short run. Long run, we all die (I follow my blood type B-).

    Anyway, you got me to thinking about the mystical journey and the notion of self. I have always valued creativity and the value it has to assist the clumsy out of the societal awkwardness of not fully appreciating the current factory of life.

    I would add something about the relationship between production and consumption but it doesn’t appear all to clear at the moment. I’ll think about it and get back to you.

    Thanks to keeping the conversation going.


    • Thank you, Todd. I hadn’t thought about this topic in mystical terms, but I guess you are right. When we create, we create ourselves. That process often feels a bit mystical to me too.

      Still waiting for you to get back to me about the relationship between production and consumption…

  2. We met at the ARPEX event in November. I found you to be one of those “gifts” I find along my path, persons who seem important for some reason, some reason for which I would not immediately know.

    Having read over your post, thinking about your energetic contributions to art education for youth, then Lisa Phillips’ essay, I slept on the question that I guess is the point: “Why aren’t we doing the work of art education, where creativity seems the best outcome?”

    I have the answer the question, I think, because I asked that question in the 1970s, which was a decisive moment in the history of art education, and my research paid off. It was in the mid-seventies, and I was a young art professor. The Vietnam conflict was still a front-page issue. Our daughters were in elementary school. With our younger – Nellie – I went out into the fields where my father used to have a farm. I knew a spot which had, a hundred years before, served as a camp for a band of Yakama people. I could always find bits of flit, mortars, pestles, bones, etc. there.

    To my amazement, Nellie spotted the most beautiful arrow point. I’ll never forget it. Not only was it the most beautiful one I ever found, it was sitting on a clod of dirt. It had rained recently, and the point sat on top of this partly-melted clod, like a holy relic on a little alter of dried mud. It was perfect, except the tip was broken off, and it was made of a white flint. It now resides in an artwork I made in the early ‘70s called “Stone Phone”. It was then that conceptual art was in style, and “Stone Phone” was my offering. That’s another story; the arrow tip, I include with this message, is amid the stones in this work.

    So, you can imagine my amazement when I started to reply to your post (and Lisa Phillips’) and there appeared the “sister” arrow point to Nellie’s find.

    Surely, this is one of those wonderful coincidences – again, part of the gift that you are, Margaret Chodos-Irvine.

    So you are getting a long email – which I realize is against netiquette rules.

    In the 1960s, when I was starting out in art, the USA was entering an important phase in its life as a nation and I felt it deeply because I happened to be a college student ripe for the influence of politics. Kenney was shot then, we were between the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and so much was happening as economic and political interests were on the line. It would be a fight the bitter end, and student protests emerged, students were shot dead in the process and, when the smoke cleared, there was very little that teachers could do in the way of teaching art that was not benign consumerism.

    Peter Bloom saw it coming, I think, and he started writing after the battles were pretty much resolved and campuses like where I was – the UW – were pacified. His book came out after a few years’ writing, and I read it in the ‘90s. I had the feeling, “So, that’s what it was all about!” I had resigned my professorship in 1985, which was part of the reason we aren’t teaching creativity. People who are creative have a short life expectancy in institutionalized art schools.

    I was lucky to have been at the right age, at the right place at the right time, to have 19 years of security in which to delve deeply into the question you and Lisa raise and come up with what, I think, are the answers. I am no happier for it, however, because it is sad, to put it politely and mildly, to see what is being lost as a result of this country’s failure in education, particularly, as you observe, in environments where creativity can be encouraged.

    For example, it happened that I explored technology and art so it was necessary to learn from scientists – as you have done – what it seemed happened in the 20th Century. A good example is Norbert Wiener, whose book, “Invention” I read recently. Why it took so long to publish his book is an interesting story in itself. It is a potent book, and I think it does help if you are seeking the answer to your question about the creativity education issue. Invention is one of the four elements I always include in my thoughts about original, authentic art work. The other three are discovery, imagination, and, of course, creativity.

    This is kind of a mixed-up message to you, but it was fun writing it; thanks for the opportunity, and I love the coincidence that you and I have similar points.

    – bill

    • Yes, Bill, of course I remember meeting you. Even before we met at ARPEX, I had heard of you. You have a reverential status with some of the people I know …

      It’s interesting to hear your perspective coming from having been an artist/art teacher in the 1970s and beyond. My father taught ceramics in a community college from the mid-60s through the 80s and he had a similar complaint. His students early on had been inventive and expressive (as a kid I was especially enthralled by a woman who made pots with warts and horns and tails on them – she was way ahead of her time with the whole monster-fetish thing) and open to inspiration. But by the late 70s most of his students signed up for ceramics so that they could make coffee mugs as gifts or to fulfill elective requirements for a business degree. He returned to teaching math and soon after discovered the exciting new world of computers and never looked back. That was where he again found people being innovative, I guess.

      Creativity, discovery, imagination, invention. I will continue to ponder those four elements. But did you answer your question? “Why aren’t we doing the work of art education, where creativity seems the best outcome?” I’m not sure that I understand if you did. Perhaps I will have to read the book you recommend to find out.

      Thank you for taking the time to connect, Bill. – Margaret

  3. Dear Margaret,

    Glad you enjoyed the article!

    Creativity is definitely an overlooked, yet vital skill for employers. Once companies realize this, maybe more will hop on the arts education bandwagon. Children are born creative, but as Ken Robinson says, “creativity is educated out of them.” We must ensure that young people continue to hone their creative development as they grow up so they can contribute innovatively to our world.

    Artistically yours,
    Lisa Phillips

    • Thank you, Lisa!

      In Seattle we have Microsoft and other tech companies that are begging for more creative and innovative young graduates. It’s finally causing the public school system here to look at how valuable the arts can be in developing those skills. It’s a long road ahead, but I hope we are beginning to head in that direction.

      – Margaret

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