This past summer I read Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative by Ken Robinson. The cover of the book has been sitting in the “Good Reads” (formerly “Now Reading”) area of this blog for nearly a year, so I figured I should drop a few thoughts on the book and rotate the cover image to another book lest folks think me perpetually stuck in this text. Although, if one’s mind had to be stuck in one text perpetually, this might not be a bad choice.

For some time now, I have been fascinated by what it means to be creative, that is, to think and act creatively. Robinson’s book came to me just when I was ready for it. Robinson discusses what it means to be creative and offers a prolonged discussion of how academia and, by extension, many of the driving forces of our contemporary world are systematically stifling human creativity. He traces this matter back to 16th and 17th centuries when the Enlightenment and rationalism supplanted Romanticism along with intuition, myth, and felt sense. “The driving forces of the Enlightenment and of the modern world view,” Robinson writes, “have been rationalism and empiricism. The aim has been to see the material world as it is stripped of superstition, myth and fantasy” (71). This has been felt nowhere better than in the Academy, but by extension has been carried through most post-industrial western culture. “Academicism,” Robinson calls it–“the conflation of academic ability with intelligence” (80). An ability to perform well in school and intelligence are not the same thing, as academic ability embodies only the narrowest of views on intelligence. The Academy privileges above all else “a particular sort of critical analysis and short-term memory” (85). The academic illusion he calls it. This is the idea that all knowledge must be framed in terms of rational, critical, empirical analysis. The disconnect is no more obvious than in the arts, as approached by the Academy.

Professors of English are not employed to produce literature: they are employed to write about it. […] Producing works of art often doesn’t count as appropriate intellectual work in an arts department: yet, the equivalent in a science department, doing physics or chemistry does. So why is it that in universities writing about novels is thought to be a higher intellectual calling than writing novels; or rather if writing novels is not thought to be intellectually valid why is writing about them? (66)

So, regarding this academic illusion, Robinson concludes that it isn’t the subject matter that divides traditionally academic (i.e. privileged) work and knowledge; rather, it is the way in which one engages with the work. “You didn’t do art in university; you wrote about it,” he contends (83). This bugs me because the implications are huge. Our students are being educated out of their creativity (as Robinson states elsewhere). In the vast wake of the era of Enlightenment, we have become detached from what we feel in favor almost exclusively of what we can verify in the physical world. The cost is a division between intellect and emotion (not to mention between science and art), and this is a dire cost. The two are not incompatible nor can they be truly teased apart. The human experience and a more accurate view of human intelligence is one of both emotion and intellect.

This broader view of intelligence and of knowing is something I’ve been exploring with my students for a couple years now through the work of Gregory Ulmer and his mystoriography approach to learning and writing. Ulmer writes the following:

[Mystory is] designed to simulate invention, the crossing of discourses that has been show to occur in the invention process. Realizing that learning is much closer to invention than to verification, I intended mystoriography primarily as a pedagogy. The modes of academic writing now taught in school tend to be positioned on the side of the already known rather than on the side of the wanting to find out (of theoretical curiosity) and hence discourage learning how to learn.

The idea in Ulmer’s mystoriography approach is that knowledge and “the wanting to find out” can operate just as much on a sub-rational level as on a rational one–on an emotional level that is best conveyed through the juxtaposition of words and images such that a mood or a feeling is suggested. It’s messy, intuitive, emotional work that does not fit neatly into the compartmentalized world of the Academy or the rational mind. Robinson touches on this very point when he discusses E.M. Forster’s notion creating as a lowering of a bucket into the subconscious mind to draw up something that is normally beyond our reach (154). Emotion should not be dismissed. It is equally a part of our human experience as is the rational, critical mind. Why one is privileged over the other is a mere consequence to historical, social, and political forces. There is not an innate superiority of intellect over emotion. These are divisions and hierarchies of our own creation–and they are detrimental to human creativity. “A critical factor [in creative work] is intuition and a feel for the materials and processes involved. The relationship between knowing and feeling is at the heart of the creative process” (Robinson 137).

Many of the problems we face in the world today are unlike any we’ve seen before. To address them will take an enormity of human creativity–a dipping of that bucket deep into the wells of our selves to see what we might draw up. We must learn to re-frame our view of knowledge and human intelligence so that we can give proper attention to what is possible. This means asking the right questions. “The most important characteristics of an intellectual age is the questions it asks–the problems it identifies. It is this rather than the answers it provides that reveals its underlying view of the world” (Robinson 72). We must resist single-mindedness in the true sense of the word–and embrace our more complex selves that allow for the richness of our imaginations. “If our explanations are theoretical, our questions are ideological,” writes Robinson (73). We have to reconsider. We have to look again. “Creativity is not a separate faculty so much as an attitude: a willingness to reconsider what we take for granted” (Robinson 137). Everything is possible.