When I was a young lad, there were the gold stars and the blue stars. I was a blue star, and thus, blue stars were better. I am, of course, discussing preschool. We were split into two groups, and the blue stars, when they did something good, received blue stars on the wall. The gold stars received gold. As there should be in any capitalist society, there was a competition between the gold stars and the blue stars every week to see which group ended up with more stars. We would receive stars for listening to the teachers and following the rules, and we would also receive stars for our inspiring creativity during arts and crafts time.
As an economics major, I know that we still, in a sense, receive blue stars for following the rules. We read theories and formulas out of a textbook, and then we either regurgitate them or apply them to situations we have undoubtedly been prepared for in class. I imagine that the other quantitatively-based majors experience similar phenomena. Blue stars aren’t awarded to certain majors for creativity because we are never really given the chance to think creatively.
I have never faced more frustration in an academic setting than when my original thesis topic did not pan out earlier this semester. I found myself sitting in the library late at night, staring at the wall for hours. I was still enrolled in the thesis, and I needed to come up with a new topic. Given all of the freedom in the world, it is hard to come up with a feasible topic about which to write. The idea that I couldn’t just dedicate a certain amount of time in the library to accomplishing what I set out to do, like I would when studying for an economics test or writing a paper, really miffed me. I was, maybe for the first time in an academic setting, being asked to be truly creative. That can be a terrifying feeling if you are not prepared for it. No amount of hours spent lost in thought and no amount of hours spent pacing around the Res late at night like a faux intellectual can guarantee that you will come up with a revolutionary idea, and every second spent thinking about this issue and failing feels like weights being placed on your back.
I always thought that I wanted more freedom in an academic setting, but being given complete freedom to write about any topic within the world of economics—a very blurry world in which two economists can win Nobel Prizes in the same year for espousing diametrically opposed philosophies—is actually entirely overwhelming when your educational system has not prepared you for it. But what about BC’s commitment to the liberal arts? That Core we all have to take? I believe there is value in the Core, and that it does teach you how to think better, and that BC students do leave here more complete people because of it. But I also believe that most English and philosophy classes require a different type of creativity of students. When writing an English or philosophy paper, there is still a right answer that can be found somewhere in the book from which you cite. Students are often given a framework and asked to search through novels and works of philosophy to find examples that support or better explain this framework. Being given carte blanche is an entirely different animal.
Even in music, if one has studied music theory, everything can be broken down into mathematical components. A pretty good song could be written by picking certain numbers and never listening to a single note. My experience in music didn’t prepare me for this situation, either.
Our educational system should more often challenge students to think creatively in situations in which they have been given more or less complete freedom, because this may be one of the most important skills that one can develop. Inventions that alter society often come out of nowhere. Patent Office Commissioner Henry Ellsworth famously said in 1843, “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.” Sitting in a room, staring at a blank whiteboard, trying to think of ways to improve society is incredibly hard. Look at all the things we already have. What else could you possibly want? And yet, every year, there is that new app that changes your life, that new invention you later can’t imagine living without.
Even in a more traditional business that is going to continue to sell the same products that it always has, creative solutions are often the best solutions. Graduating from a top-tier college and then going to work for a large corporation, you have been trained to be very, very good at doing what you are told. You can get promoted to a certain point by executing what your manager wants better than those around you, but you will never get to the top without creating fresh ideas that will help the company cut costs and increase revenues.
The most important application of creative thinking comes in the form of helping others. There are so many persistent problems that plague humanity—problems that wouldn’t be persistent if the solutions to them were easy. We have been taught to become really good at finding X given a set of constraints. In conflicts between Western nations and Middle Eastern nations that threaten the lives of millions, and in issues such as the rapid spread of HIV, one cannot simply find X. There are infinite possibilities, and it is the job of the creatively liberated to envision the correct solution. If our educational system forced us to stare at blank whiteboards more often, maybe we would be better prepared to solve the biggest problems.
Featured Image by Alex Trautwig / Heights Senior Staff