Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Creativity and the Transformation of Higher Education: The Need for a Black Mountain College Approach

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Creativity and the Transformation of Higher Education: The Need for a Black Mountain College Approach

Article excerpt


There are two ways to assess the formal, institutional process of higher education: it is fine as it is and it needs to be left alone, or it needs to be changed in some way, hopefully for the better. Rather than a problem-solution approach, this paper presents observations of signs and conditions and then offers a forecast. Meteorologists know that gathering clouds, shifts in wind direction and other conditions may signal an approaching new system. Their forecast is intended to provide salient information in advance so that people can be proactive, prepared and protected; so they can not only survive, but thrive.

There are four major conditions facing higher education worldwide: alignment, motivation, connection, and direction. What these conditions are and what they portend is offered. The Black Mountain College approach to education (Summerhill School is a parallel example in England) is discussed and some appropriate actions are suggested.

A distinction is made here between vocational education and higher education. Many technical schools and businesses provide vocational training. This is both helpful and necessary, but it is not the kind of education that is the focus of this paper.

Conditions facing higher education


Much like a car with a misaligned tire, higher education pulls to one side--to the sciences. Further, the system is characterized by a hierarchy of subjects and curricula that are fragmented and lacking connection. Sir Ken Robinson (2006) claims that schools kill creativity (his talk has nearly 15 million views as of February 2013). He states that our current hierarchical educational system is outdated, that it was designed for an industrial and post-industrial culture which is now displaced with a digital information society. That system emphasizes the sciences over the arts, and that even within the arts there is a pecking order with dance being at or near the bottom of every educational system world-wide. Robinson claims that the "winners" in that system are college professors who have mastered their discipline and have been so well educated that their body has become little more than transport for their brain!

The typical brain has ten billion cells with one quadrillion connections (that's 15 zeros!). These connections are the natural activity and function of the brain. New connections are the tell-tale sign of learning; fragmentation and isolation are its antithesis. Just as scientists have gained insights from mapping the mind, researchers are also beginning to identify and analyze patterns of connection in millions of journal citations. What it reveals is the topography of knowledge. These connections expose emerging areas of study and they reveal common questions being explored by different disciplines and perspectives. This is testimony to the interconnection of knowledge and the need for higher education to abandon a compartmentalized hierarchy of subjects in favor of an integrated approach.

The hierarchy in higher education does not reflect society's recognition of the arts. Over the past four decades, the US has 30% more writers and 50% more composers and performers (Hawkins, 2001; Postrel, 2003). More Americans today work in arts, entertainment, and design than work as lawyers, accountants, and auditors (National Cross-Industry Estimates, 2002). The London Business School and the Yorkshire Water Company have artist-in-residence programs. Unilever UK employs painters, poets, and comic book creators to inspire the rest of its staff. Every subject is important. Every connection is significant. Higher education is strengthened and students are better served when the role of every subject is recognized and celebrated. Higher education cannot afford to continue to be a house divided. The challenge is to find new connections and partnerships between historically distanced disciplines.

In a 2009 TED talk, Liz Coleman, President of Bennington College, explained her concerns about a fragmented, hierarchical approach to higher education:

   We have professionalized the liberal arts to the point where they
   no longer provide the breadth of application and the enhanced
   capacity for civic engagement that is their signature. … 
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