The publication of Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class delivered a clarion call to American higher education. Members of the "creative class," in Florida's description, are like those students we all love to teach: intelligent, open-minded risk-takers who have self-confidence, enjoy tackling challenges, value domestic and global diversity, and engage in synthetic, flexible, and creative problem solving. When these students graduate, they will earn on average twice as much as members of the other two dominant American classes: the service class and the working class. Florida's description of the kind of place the members of the creative class seek sounds remarkably like the ideal college campus: "environments that let them be creative-that value their input, challenge them, have mechanisms for mobilizing resources around ideas and are receptive to both small changes and the occasional big idea" (2002, 40). In short, the fusion of Puritan work ethic and bohemianisin that characterizes the creative class sums up the ideal college experience that allows the nonconformity of the 1960s to be transformed into an economic manifesto for the 1990s.
Florida's subsequent hook The Flight of the Creative Class (2005)-along with other studies like Joel Mokyr's Lever of Riches (1990), which links creativity to technological innovation and American global economic superiority-provide a strong mandate for colleges and universities to nurture creativity in their students. What college or university would not want to recruit and graduate "the natural-indeed the only possible-leaders of twenty-first-century society" (Florida 2002, 315)?
As Steven Tepper (2004) has pointed out, many colleges and universities are taking up the gauntlet thrown down by Florida, Mokyr, and others by creating centers and programs designed to foster creativity among their students. He has suggested, in fact, that colleges should be encouraged to create these centers by the institution of a national "creativity index" to rank schools by how well they foster innovation among faculty and students.
Given this mandate, how can research into creativity help guide college and university initiatives of the kind Tepper wants to see? There was relatively little research into creativity until the 1950s, largely, one suspects, because popular descriptions of the creative act as a visitation of the muse or serendipitous inspiration removed the topic from scientific consideration. Think of Archimedes jumping from his bath to shout "Eureka!" or Coleridge writing "Kubla Khan" in an opium-induced reverie. It would be hard enough to investigate scientifically, much less to teach, creativity conceived of in this way.
Early Research on Creativity
Only in the past fifty years have scholars begun to study the act of creativity rigorously, first in the realm of psychology and later more broadly in areas like sociology and economics. This research, most scholars agree, was initiated by J. P. Guilford in his 1950 American Psychological Association presidential address, which challenged his colleagues to study the neglected but important field of creativity. Before 1950, by Guilford s count, only 0.2 percent of the entries in Psychological Abstracts pertained to creativity.
Early research focused mostly on identifying individuals who were exceptionally promising as creative leaders (Guilford 1950; Torrance 1962; Barron 1955). This approach to creativity, treating it as distinct from but analogous to intellectual ability, produced attempts to identify personalitytraits that enhanced creativity or to measure creativity in the way that intelligence was being measured with an IQ test. Although such research advanced the scientific exploration of creativity, it did little to encourage educators to attend to creativity research since it emphasized nature rather than nurture.
But in the last quarter of the twentieth century, creativity research began to demystify the creative act by exploring the cognitive processes that constitute creativity and by examining how creative individuals are stimulated or restricted by their environments. Today, creativity is conceptualized more like athletic ability-it is something anyone can display, but some individuals are shaped both by nature and nurture to be more successful in that domain. No longer do teachers have to hope that they will be blessed with creative students. If all individuals have the potential to be creative and if creativity is a process that can be dissected and therefore taught, then colleges and universities can work to create curricula, pedagogies, cocurricular programming, and a general institutional environment to support creative development.
Although Arthur Koestler s groundbreaking book The Act of Creation characterized the "decisive phase" of creative thinking as subconscious (1964, 208), his work did identify bisociation ("perceiving a situation or event in two habitually incompatible associative contexts") as the basic process of creative thought (95). For Koestler, "The creative act. . . does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, and skills" (120).
This belief that most creative activity can be explained by reference to ordinary mental processes was supported by researchers like David Perkins, who in The Mind's Best Work (1981) focused on skills like pattern recognition, creation of analogies and mental models, the ability to cross domains, exploration of alternatives, knowledge of schema for problem solving, and fluency of thought as aspects of creativity. Margaret Boden in The Creative Mind (1990) extended this argument to contend that many features of creativity could even be replicated by machines the major missing ingredient being the intention to be creative. Perhaps the most complete discussion of these processes can be found in Finke, Ward, and Smith's Creative Cognition (1992), which proposes a model for the creative process based on generating ideas and exploring them to detennine which should be developed. Biographical studies of creativity, meanwhile, have dissected the "magic" of remarkable creation, tracing lines of influence and showing connections to previous paradigms that make remarkable creative masterstrokes seem almost mechanical.
Because bringing together ideas that are "habitually incompatible" is a key element in creativity, keeping an open mind seems to be essential. Surveying research on cortical activity, hemisphere activation, and frontal lobe activation, Colin Martindale concludes that creativity seems to occur in "a mental state where attention is defocused, thought is associative, and a large number of mental representations are simultaneously activated" (1999, 149). This biological research is supported by the study of student artists that Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1976) conducted, in which students whose work was judged to be more creative were more adept at remaining open to alternatives, even as they solved the problems of creating art. Gregory J. Feist's (1999) review of personality research on creativity uncovers numerous studies that show the importance of imagination and nonconformity to the creative personality. While there may be biological aspects of personality development, certainly it is also nurtured. Those wishing to create a supportive environment for creativity, then, would want to encourage risk taking, independence, and flexibility. Such a conclusion has implications for pedagogy (favoring discovery methods rather than declarative teaching), for curricular structure (allowing students to think in multiple modes and through the lenses of multiple disciplines for as long as possible), and for the structure of student research (allowing for problems to develop and grow even as their solutions are explored).
Teresa Amabile's extensive work on creativity and motivation would also point to the importance of giving students and faculty as much free reign as possible in their endeavors. Amabile's research (1983) concludes that creative people produce better work when they are motivated by personal commitment rather than extrinsic rewards like contests or requirements (a conclusion with interesting implications for our grading systems and complex graduation requirements, as well as our means of evaluating faculty for promotion and tenure). As Robert S. Albert (1990) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) show, creative people who are intrinsically motivated also choose to pursue difficult, challenging tasks-just the behavior we wish to foster in college students. Personality studies contain some warnings for colleges and universities as well, however. Feist's research review echoes Florida's admission that creative people tend to be driven, often to the point of anxiety or depression. What Florida calls "weak ties" can produce isolation and alienation. For these reasons, colleges and universities must be reminded that the creative class requires careful tending through student life programming and the support of counselors familiar with the stresses of college life.
But creativity cannot be predicted or promoted solely by examining the cognitive processes and personality traits of an individual. Increasingly, researchers are focusing on the social and environmental factors that promote or retard creative activity. (see, for example, Amabile 1996; Csikszentmihalyi 1999; Gardner 1993; Wallace and Gruber 1989; and Simonton 2000.) Only by taking what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1999) calls a "systems perspective" can the complexity of creativity be appreciated. In cultural terms, creativity relies upon a sufficiently developed society that relieves individuals of the need to focus continually on survival needs. (A good justification, I suppose, for the elaborate restaurants, residence halls, and fitness centers that colleges are quickly being expected to offer.) More importantly, a culture must encourage both specialization for the development of deep knowledge and diffusion so that knowledge can be shared. Both quantitative studies like Dean Keith Simonton's (1984) and qualitative studies like Doris Wallace and Howard Gruber's (1989) demonstrate how a range of influences, including political violence, predominant aesthetics, working style, and educational level, affect the potential for an individual or a society to be exceptionally creative. "In the last analysis," Csikszentmihalyi concludes, "it is the community and not the individual who makes creativity manifest" (Csikszentmihalyi 1999, 333).
Diversity, Collaboration, and Interdisciplinarity
This new focus on community and environmental factors in creativity provides strong support for some of higher education's most cherished initiatives: diversity (both domestic and international), collaboration, and interdisciplinarity. Research studies from a wide variety of fields converge on this point. Creativity thrives in an unbounded arena where what David Bohm and F. David Peat (1987) call "free dialogue" can exist among people who have different frames of reference. While expert knowledge is necessary for creativity, being too comfortable with a field can deter innovation. Lurking in the background of this argument is Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), a book that argues that existing, well-entrenched paradigms can often blind potential innovators to the need for a new paradigm.
In business, as Richard Lester and Michael Piore (2004) have demonstrated, truly innovative products like cell phones (a combination of telephone and radio) were developed when industrial innovators talked with people outside of their fields in order to develop new products. They liken innovative business management to hosting a cocktail party in which people from different circles are brought together, conversation is spurred, viewpoints exchanged, and new friendships formed. A similar picture develops in Jennet Conants 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the City of Los Alamos (2005), where the commitment to secrecy within Los Alamos allowed scientists from different disciplines to talk freely with one another in an open atmosphere. One could argue that fields like semiotics and gender studies have made intellectual breakthroughs through similarly rich interdisciplinary conversations.
Given the importance of boundarycrossing to creative thinking, it is clear that true diversity-diversity of race, national origin, class, sexuality, religious and political persuasion, geographic origin is essential because students' creativity is stimulated by encounters with views different from their own. In terms of the faculty and the curriculum, creativity research would support increased emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches to learning. Furthermore, the lack of hierarchy implicit in faculty-governed institutions and the casual interactions that occur in the hallways and the cafeteria should create an environment where creativity can thrive.
Leading the effort to study interrelated influences on creativity is the team of David Feldman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Howard Gardner, whose book Changing the World (1994) lays out "a framework for the study of creativity." This group proposes a three-part, interactive model for exploring creativity by examining the relationships between the individual, the domain (a "formally organized body of knowledge" like algebra), and the field ("all those persons who can affect the structure of a domain" like critics and luminaries who control the boundaries of knowledge and allow boundary-crossing). Only by looking at the integration of these influences can one capture the complexity of the creative act, they argue. Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubart (1996) echo this conclusion by noting that adopting a single disciplinary approach to the study of creativity can lead researchers to confuse part of the creativity puzzle for the whole, distorting their findings. Accordingly, they call for a "confluence" of approaches.
Coming Full Circle
And so the field of creativity research has come full circle. Once described as mystical, creativity has once again been recognized as a complex subject, one that no single field of inquiry can illuminate. The difference is that now we can describe and analyze the various discrete elements that interact with one another in often unpredictable ways to engender a supportive environment for creativity. Even so, as David Feldman admits, "There is still the question of where in the midst of the many strands of development the novel idea comes from and how it is produced; about this deep question, we still have relatively little to say" (1999, 182). I, for one, doubt we will ever fully penetrate the mystery of inspiration.
For many years, the educational enterprise has been criticized for dampening creativity rather than feeding it. By focusing almost exclusively on traditional academic skills based on logical analysis and familiar habits of thought, rather than balancing attention to these cognitive skills with attention to other kinds ol intelligence (kinesthetic, associative, visual), educational institutions may have impeded the ability of faculty and students alike to be creative (Gardner 1983; Kuhn 1962; Weisberg 1999; Simonton 1984; Robinson 2001; Bohm and Peat 1987). But with this new research on the complexity and importance of the creative act, we in higher education have new reasons to pursue important initiatives that promote diversity, cross-cultural contacts, interdisciplinary conversations, inquiry-based learning, collaborative research and teaching opportunities, opportunities for students to engage in independent research, and student-life programming that will encourage risk taking while also providing support for the driven, anxious, ambitious members of the creative class. We may never be able to test incoming students to predict their capacity for creativity, but given the wealth of research on creativity, we should be able to design college environments that foster this essential capacity.
Creativity cannot be predicted or promoted solely by examining the cognitive processes and personality traits of an individual. Increasingly, researchers are focusing on the social and environmental factors that promote or retard creative activity.
And so the field of creativity research has come full circle. Once described as mystical, creativity has once again been recognized as a complex subject, one that no single field of inquiry can illuminate.
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By Tori Haring-Smith, president, Washington and Jefferson College…