Around the same time that I posted my last blog, “Picasso, Genius, and Intellectual Disability,” Newsweek launched the cover story “The Creativity Crisis” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in the July 19, 2010 issue. The article’s central concern is recent research demonstrating that American creativity is on the decline and has been since 1990. The article also specifies that “It is the scores of younger children in America – from kindergarten through sixth grade – for whom the decline is ‘most serious.’” I read the article both disturbed by its premise and hopeful for its possibility (we know creativity can be more effectively cultivated and taught if we choose to make such a commitment).
The following week, I went on family vacation where I got to relax on the beach with about 30 family members and family friends, about a half-dozen of whom would fall into that “most serious” category for creative decline, sixth grade or below. Even as I sit at the beach with them every year and seemingly do nothing more than read for hours at a time, I always receive incredible energy from the spirit and play of my younger nieces and cousins. One day this year, however, my 5-year-old niece also gave me a little refresher course on creativity, as well as a powerful reminder that we need to understand creativity not as something exclusive to art or art-making (what the Newsweek article refers to as the “art bias”) but as an approach to navigating our world and our relationships.
After a couple of days of self-driven play in the water and in the sand, with her cousins, her sister, her parents, and her grandparents, my niece was still exploring the world around her, still seeking to understand her relationship to it. She did this not by seeking or taking advice on how to build a “good” sandcastle; not by asking her older cousins to introduce her to a new game; not by proclaiming boredom and asking what she could do now; she did it by putting a bucket on her head.
She didn’t ask if it was OK to put a bucket on her head; she just did it (of course begging the question of whether it should still be considered a bucket at this point).
She didn’t put the bucket on her head and parade around to show everyone else how funny she was; she did it for herself.
She didn’t even put the bucket on her head to pretend it was a hat; she just put a bucket on her head.
And, without seeking any attention, she began exploring her new “bucket-head” relationship with the sand and the experience of digging in the sand. Having re-explored digging, she moved to the water’s edge and tried walking in the waves and filling another bucket with water while maintaining the first bucket’s position covering her head and face completely. With this new world of water more deeply understood, she tried interacting with her cousins to understand what it would be like to be a “bucket-head” cousin. With a bucket on her head, she re-experienced it all! And, she was the ONLY person on the beach who knew that unique and “divergent” experience. The rest of us just sat there; and the sand was the sand and the water was the water and cousins were cousins.
According to the Newsweek article, “Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas.” Putting a bucket on her head was my niece’s first move to “shift” the world around her and to solicit new and divergent perspectives from the world she already knew. To the credit of the rest of the family, no one imposed convergent thought on her by telling her a bucket “didn’t belong” on her head. She was allowed to create and process her own new experiences.
It was beautiful. It was profound. It was innate.
Creativity is part of what it means to be a child. Imagining and creating relationships, conjuring games, living unaware of others’ critical eyes, children are the natural spring well of human creativity. So, how have we as a country managed to decline in creativity for the last 20 years? And, how is it even conceivable that it is even more in decline with our children? (The authors lay the story out far better than anything I can offer and I highly suggest reading the article for their analysis and thoughtful perspective.)
Now, we all know the detrimental implications on our economy and our “global competitiveness” when we see such a decline in creativity. This economic impact, framed by a creativity decline or myriad other issues, is almost always forefront in our political media. What isn’t talked about much is the detrimental impact on our democracy. Even as we complain about the state of Washington and of politics in general, somehow we aren’t connecting the dots to the fact that we are “reaping what we sow”. We need to remember that the United States and our democracy are a huge social experiment. And, like any experiment, it should be continuously gleaned for learning (divergent and convergent thinking), driven by creativity (the application of new thinking and learning), and understood as part of a larger historical (r)evolution. Our democracy must regenerate the kind of thinkers who created it in the first place and those who have improved it along the way.
We cannot afford to forget that democracy, like creativity, describes a process, not a fact. We can no longer afford economically, socially, or politically to smother or otherwise let atrophy this process that was once core to our childhood being. We must instead commit ourselves to the process of creativity and the practice of democracy.
If I learned anything this year while I was sitting on the beach, it’s that the future of our country, our economy, and our democracy may just require us to put a bucket on our heads.