Higher education, we are told, is society’s pre-eminent engine of innovation, creativity and inventiveness. It spurs imagination, invention and ingenuity. It prepares graduates “to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others and entertaining ourselves and others,” in the words of Robert E. Franken, a specialist in the psychology of motivation.
Nice, if true.
But what if this faith in the creative power of universities is exaggerated? There is a growing body literature that argues that the triumph of the university has not resulted in the expected outpouring of creativity and invention.
Nor are these arguments confined to eccentric conservatives like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose The Decadent Society argues that American society keeps regurgitating the same arguments again and again, or naysayers, heretics and contrarians, like those who condemn the supposed harm inflicted by creative writing programs on literature.
Leading economists like Robert Gordon and historians of technology like Vaclav Smil argue that after an extraordinary burst of creativity between 1870 and 1914, innovation across multiple domains stagnated.
At first glance, such arguments certainly sound wrongheaded. After all, we are living through a series of revolutions in medicine, technology, communication and analytics that look, at least superficially, as radical as any in the past. There’s the artificial intelligence revolution, the ICT (information and communication technology) revolution, the big data revolution and the precision medicine revolution, to name but a few.
Simply to list some of the recent innovations in medical science—like CRISPR, which allows scientists to modify DNA; mRNA technologies, that permit the rapid development of novel, nucleotide-based vaccines and drugs; and minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery—is to be bowled over by the examples of inventiveness that hold out the promise of greatly improving human health.
And then, of course, there are the technologies that have transformed everyday life in the space of our own lifetime: the internet, email, smartphones and apps, streaming media, and search engines.
But before techno-utopianism overwhelms us with its vision of constant, endless progress and improvement, perhaps a bit of skepticism is in order.
In a series of thought-provoking essays, including one entitled “Has Technological Progress Stalled?” Tanner Greer, a remarkably insightful journalist whose writings frequently appear in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs and the Los Angeles Review of Books, argues that many fantasies of progress and innovation are misleading.
For example, can you think of aesthetic, artistic, literary, psychological, scientific and technological achievements of the past four decades that are as pathbreaking as those that took place between the last decades of the 19th century and the early 20th?
Has the last 40 years witness anything comparable to the number of paradigm-shifting artists, authors, composers, or thinkers equal in stature to Dostoyevsky, George Eliot and T. S. Eliot, Ibsen, Tolstoy and Woolf, Verdi and Puccini, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Manet, Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Heinrich Hertz, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, Wilhelm Röntgen and Ernest Rutherford, or Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Boas?
Or in terms of technology, have we truly witnessed inventions comparable in breakthrough significance of “steam turbines, internal combustion engines, electric motors, alternators, transformers and rectifiers, incandescent light, electromagnetic waves, recorded sound, linotype machines, sulfate pulp, photographic film, aluminum smelting, dephosphorized steel and steel alloys, reinforced concrete, nitroglycerin and synthesized ammonia”?
Greer’s argument is not that improvement has ceased, but, rather, innovation is taking place within paradigms, canons and formulae largely established during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Obviously, arguments that support theories of stagnation are often highly selective and ethnocentric. For example, many of the most exciting innovations in music reflect the rise of multiculturalism and the growing awareness of genres that lie outside the classical canon, including jazz, the blues, ragtime and hip-hop. Ditto for literature. It’s certainly a mistake to not to mention such innovators as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, let alone the many non-Western writers who have pioneered new themes and styles.
And yet, wasn’t the growth of the academy supposed to spur unceasing innovation not just in technology or science, but in the realms of culture as well? Poets and other creative writers, for example, could now get a regular salary from a college or university, rather than work as a post office inspector, like Anthony Trollope, an insurance clerk like Franz Kafka, a banker like T. S. Eliot, an insurance executive like Wallace Stevens or Charles Ives, or a physician, like William Carlos Williams?
Critics of creative writing programs tend to make a series of unsettling arguments:
- That such programs tend to make writers sound alike, resulting in a kind of homogeneous, cookie-cutter approach to writing.
- That these programs lead writers to narcissistically navel gaze or to focus on various sociopolitical grievances rather than examining the rich complexities of real life.
- That creative writing programs focus more on theory and discourse than upon the challenges of creating engaging plots, inventive language and rich characterization.
Somewhat similar criticism has been leveled against M.F.A. programs in the visual arts: that these are little more than Ponzi schemes that saddle graduates with crippling debts, do little to teach craftsmanship and technique, and encourage kinds of conceptual art and theoretically informed artspeak, while doing little to encourage sophisticated works of genuine originality and evocative power.
Might the critics of these programs have a point that extends well beyond the M.F.A.? Perhaps.
- An academic approach can, at times, be the enemy of the creativity and novelty.
Why is it that, with remarkably few exceptions, academic institutions failed to develop COVID vaccines? Is this simply a matter of money, or does the problem lie deeper—in faculty fragmentation, excessive professional specialization, a lack of effective coordination and insufficient incentives to respond to a real-life crisis with applied solutions?
- Innovations challenge existing interests, incumbent processes and existing arrangements.
Could highly selective institutions admit more students? Of course. Could expanded online learning, by reducing the need for new physical facilities, enlarge access and moderate cost increases? Certainly. Could accreditors do more to evaluate program-level quality and cost-effectiveness? Absolutely.
Then, why don’t these things happen? Because these challenge business as usual, threaten vested interests and require innovations that are costly, sometimes financially but often politically.
- Tackling many pressing societal problems has become harder and universities are not well positioned to solve implementation challenges.
The academy is filled with exciting ideas about how best to address today’s most urgent challenges. But the legal, political and social barriers to implementation are steep and universities aren’t, typically, directly involved in the implementation of solutions. Whether the problem is housing, transportation, crime, income or health inequality, or climate change, a host of systemic barriers inhibit change, reflecting, in part, reforms designed to encourage democratic participation in decision making.
Given the fact that universities are this society’s primary venue for basic research and professional training, what can we do to ensure that universities do a better job of promoting creativity, innovation and outside-the-box thinking?
- Help students understand the creative process in richer, more robust ways.
My sense is that many of today’s vocationally oriented or professionally focused students would benefit enormously from what the humanities has to teach about creativity, imagination, inventiveness and artistry, even though I suspect that some will regard such ideas as excessively abstract and irrelevant, which, in turn, reflects a rather narrow, impoverished definition of professionalism.
Many existing courses on the creative process tend to reduce creativity to a seven- or eight-point process involving investigation, inspiration, intuition, insight, improvisation, incubation and so forth. But such an approach is grossly misleading. Creativity, instead, is generally a product of real-world experience, an outgrowth of deep immersion in a particular area of study and a consequence of experimentation, tinkering and technical or applied problem solving.
Uncover the systemic barriers to innovation.
Universities are well positioned to identify the various reasons, legal, political and sociological, among others, why innovations fail. Once identified, it is then possible to imagine policy solutions.
Blur the boundaries between the universities and the “real world.”
Expand student opportunities to apply academic knowledge, theories and skills to real-life contexts. There are many ways to do this. Integrate real-life problems into coursework. Increase access to internships and other applied and experiential learning experiences. Connect academic learning with workplace-, service- or community-based learning.
In the most widely viewed TED talk of all time, Sir Ken Robinson, the arts educator, argued that creativity is as important as literacy and that K-12 education, as it is currently structured, stifles creative thinking and expression. Whether you agree or disagree with his claims, the fact is that our universities can and should do more to encourage creativity.
How so? What steps might universities take?
- Reduce rigid major requirements that make it difficult for students in technical, vocationally oriented and pre-professional fields to have time to devote to other learning opportunities.
- Create spaces where innovation, entrepreneurship and creative freedom can flourish.
- Reward effort and experimentation in addition to traditional quantitative measures of success.
- Celebrate new ideas and approaches.
- Incentivize initiatives that involve cross-disciplinary cooperation or have an impact outside the university.
Today, our society in general and universities in particular celebrate and reward the so-called creative class, while failing to take the steps that might best encourage creativity. We can certainly do better.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.