On the Disregard for Creativity in Education

The following is a copy of an essay written in July of 2013 for a class at the end of my undergraduate program at Cornell University.

Four years ago, if you had asked me whether or not I thought I was creative, intelligent, and motivated, I probably would have responded with a shy and awkward variant of "I don't know." Today, if you ask me the same question, my answer will probably be equally awkward. "Not as much as I used to be."

At first, that might be a surprising response. Surely, after completing the "esteemed" Computer Science program at Cornell University, I must at least be a little more intelligent than I was four years ago, right? Well, I suppose that would depend on which definition of intelligent you were referring to. I’m afraid that, through the role that our educational system plays in our lives, "intelligent” and "smart" have assumed a definition similar to "good at avoiding mistakes." After all, that's how we define academic ability, isn't it? And it’s our academic performance which will determine the quality of the job that we can get when we graduate, which will determine how successful we are in life, right? Or so we’re told.

My time at Cornell has been dominated with a constant and seemingly uphill battle for a decent GPA. The concept of free time was something I lost somewhere around Sophomore year, and didn’t find again until I took a leave of absence. Becoming so helplessly consumed in the struggle for gratification in the form of a three digit number meant that I was becoming a different kind of intelligent - I was becoming good at avoiding mistakes. Four years ago, things were different. I had an incessant curiosity for all things computer, access to more knowledge than I could possibly consume in a lifetime, an endless array of ideas, and most importantly, time. That’s what I remember when I think of intelligence, but also what I remember when I think of creativity. In a sense, these two words now have the same meaning to me.

By the end of high school, I had somehow learned how to tap into my emotional center in a way that was like turning on a fire hose of musical ideas and experiments, which I now consider an incredible talent. I could write music for hours without moving or eating because I was too far in the zone to realize how much time I was spending. It’s one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever had. Sadly though, if you crack open the student handbook and look through the Computer Science curriculum, you won't find much room for such a talent. Instead you'll find a rigorous list of courses with a checkbox next to each one. Worse, if you choose to pursue this curriculum, and if you're like me, you'll find that you need to sacrifice certain personal interests so that you can keep that three digit number on your transcript within an acceptable range.

Today, despite the fact that I pick up my guitar, or sit down in front of the piano, or pull up a synthesizer on my computer several times a week, I can’t remember how to write a song. I guess four years is enough time to forget.

But the ramifications go beyond me, and beyond losing a facet of my creativity; in 2012, researchers from Dartmouth University released the results of a study in which groups of students were sent off with the task of designing a "next-generation alarm clock." The study was divided such that roughly half the groups were made up of freshman students, and half of the groups were made up of senior students. They found that "freshmen students generated concepts that were significantly more original than those of the seniors, with no significant difference in quality or technical feasibility of the concepts generated by the two levels of students."1

This hits awfully close to home with respect to my newfound in-ability to creatively express myself through music. What is it about four years at a top university that should yield such suppressive results? To paraphrase creativity expert Ken Robinson’s brilliant explanation in his 2006 TED Talk3, kids will take chances because they’re not afraid of being wrong. We know that if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original, but by the time these children become adults, they have become frightened of being wrong. We run our companies and our national education systems on the premise that mistakes are the worst thing you can make. We’re educating people out of their creative capacities.

And Ken is not alone with this opinion. Elon Musk, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley in the past two decades, shared a strikingly similar opinion in an interview with Wired Magazine in 2012: “The problem is that [...] process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows [for] people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.”4 Meanwhile, Peter Thiel, another of Silicon Valley’s most notable figures, opened the Thiel Fellowship in 2010 in which he offers young, talented, technological entrepreneurs up to $100,000 to stop their current educational path to pursue other work such as scientific research, building a startup company, or working on a social movement.

I fear that I, and many of my peers, are living proof of this idea that our educational system, and our engineering curricula in particular, are producing a mass of drones, or, as Haertel puts it, “diligent students [...] who rather work consistently on given tasks than on finding new problems, questions, and solutions on their own and in discussion with others."2 Maybe we are perfectly adept at solving today’s problems, but what about the young students who are soon expected to lead us into a future that we can’t possibly predict? We expect them to be able to find answers to questions that we can’t yet ask, but who will first find those questions? I like to think that recognizing this as a problem is a first step towards a solution, but I don’t have any of the answers. Just questions.

"All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Pablo Picasso

  1. Anonymous. "Lost Creativity." ASEE Prism 21.7 (2012): 17. Print.

  2. Haertel, Tobias, Claudius Terkowsky, and Isa Jahnke. "Where have all the Inventors Gone?: Is there a Lack of Spirit of Research in Engineering Education Curricula?".IEEE , 2012. 1-8. Print.

  3. http://www.ted.com/talks/kenrobinsonsaysschoolskill_creativity.html

  4. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/10/ff-elon-musk-qa/all/