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Are Universities Creative Places?

April 18, 2015

While some university graduate schools may be creative places, on the whole, schools and universities are uncreative places for their students.  What makes an environment creative?  Dr. Robert Sternberg of Cornell has extensively researched creativity and has identified five factors which are always present in creative individuals.

1. Expertise
Creative people are masters of their craft and know what they’re talking about.

2. Imaginative Thinking Skills
They can see things in novel ways, find new patterns, and explore connections others have never seen before.

3. A venturesome personality
They welcome new experiences, tolerate ambiguity and risk, and have some inner source of strength which pushes them to persevere through difficult obstacles.  They are focused and are able to avoid distraction.

4. Intrinsic motivation
Creators are driven more by interest, satisfaction, and challenge than by external factors.  They’re not out to impress others or make money.  They typically become obsessed with some problem, project, or puzzle and work on it night and day.  They wake up thinking about it and go to sleep thinking about it.  They become deeply interested in something and pursue it because they want to.

5. A creative environment
Somehow creative people find a place which sparks, supports, and refines their ideas.  They’re surrounded by mentors who challenge and support them.  Creativity works best in teams which are out to innovate and have lots of communication.  There also has to be a lot of time to think and work on the problems.

Of these five factors, the university as I’ve experienced it only develops expertise.  They are places where competent professionals assign you lots and lots of homework, papers, and assigned reading, and if you keep pushing through, they eventually cram knowledge into you.  That’s not to say you’re going to be creative and contribute new things to your field, but you’ll be able to mechanically do the things you’ve been taught.

With time, they’ll teach you to solve integrals, translate certain types of problems into differential equations, and write formal documents in a very grammatically correct, professional manner, and all of that is wonderful.  However, that’s not to say you’ve been prepared to create and share original ideas.  If you just go through the typical university curriculum, even passing all your courses with straight A’s, that does not guarantee you’re ready to contribute new things to your field.  There are other skills which were never developed; that’s because they’re much more difficult to grade and measure.

Creativity requires intrinsic motivation, where things are studied and done for their own sake.  Most students hate their assignments, avoid them when they can, and are completely extrinsically motivated.  They’re out to get a good job.  When I was in my English class just the other day, one student shared how happy he was that he’s going to be graduating in a few weeks and that he landed a job which will pay him $65,000 a year.  The other students’ faces lit up and one student told him, “Nice!  You’re done.”  Those were his exact words.  The goal seems to be to gain skills which lead to employment and then go and earn money, which they’ll then spend on the things they’re actually interested in.  It’s all a means to some other end.

Because of the grading system, students come to hate tests.  They pray for easy tests and easy classes, because making mistakes is too costly.  They don’t want to be challenged because there is no room for mistakes.  If they get bad grades, they lose scholarships and grants, and that means more debt.  Also, if you get bad grades, you’re less employable and can’t get into the colleges and graduate schools you’re interested in.  Bad grades can completely destroy your career ambitions, permanently.  The result is students obsessed with compliance and grades.  The attitude is not to question, it’s to obey.  So, students worry that they have to do everything perfect on the first go because every score is kept in a permanent record.  If a person is not allowed to fail, they’re never going to learn to venture out and take risks; you can’t be creative without taking risks and failing over and over.

Taking tests can be of some use – for students – “where I am, what I know, what I’ve achieved,” or for teachers – “what should be changed or improved”

Beyond that, they never really tell you very much

– Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics, MIT

It feels like every other day you have an exam around the corner.  If you divert some of your time to explore your own interests, even if those things are just further explorations of a topic you’ve covered previously in that very class, you’re severely punished when you do poorly on future exams.

In science and engineering, it’s easy find yourself scrambling to master the material for the next exam, lacking the requisite time to make the material your own.  It’s very easy to learn things just well enough to answer the types of questions a particular professor will put on the exam.  You can skate through college, making really good grades, without a deep grasp of the material.

A person can do magnificently on a test and understand very little. We’ve all had the experience of “acing a test” and forgetting everything two weeks later.

– Noam Chomsky

I’ve found this to be true with really complicated survey courses, where the course is supposed to give you a brief overview of the field.  To get through them, you really don’t understand things, but you memorize how to work certain types of problems because you have no other choice.  To give you an example, in an introductory particle physics course, we were studying some sort of excitation process rooted in quantum electrodynamics, and I did not remotely understand it.  Equations were just pulled out of thin air, there was little explanation of what the variables even were, and the text basically said, “This is the equation that’s used.”  I shrugged and said, “So?  How does that help me?”  I went to the library and got every book I could find, read them all, and still did not understand it.  I could tell it was a really complicated, deep subject, and I suppose that was why it just gave me the equation without explanation.  Even still, I really wanted to understand it.

The test was coming around the corner and I thought, “Well, I don’t get this at all.”  I got copies of old exams, sort of figured out how to use the mystery equation, and somehow skated by.  I got 100% on the exam but that didn’t mean much.  With complicated material, even if you want to understand it, the class pushes forward and exploring the topic further only leads to you getting left behind.  I’ve known many curious students over the years who have interesting questions in mind but they’ve never had the time to pursue and explore them.

A sixth grade teacher came up and told a story how one of her students asked if she could learn more about something about a particular topic and the teacher said she felt compelled to tell her that she shouldn’t do that – that she instead should be studying for the upcoming national exam because it will determine the teacher’s future and indirectly, the girl’s future.  The little girl may have been a lot better off if she explored what interested her and not the test.  Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with inquiring, searching, pursuing topics that engage us and excite us.  In fact, you will remember what you discover – if you pursue this kind of learning.

– Noam Chomsky

American universities have many factors which crush creativity.  For one, they assign so much homework, reading assignments, and papers, you really don’t have time to pursue your own self-directed endeavors.  When I was signing up for classes in the past, two of my professors were visibly upset with me when I didn’t take the full class schedule which they recommended.  I told them I had ordered a stack of programming books on artificial intelligence, was interested in learning about the technology behind self-driving cars, and that I would resume being a full-time physics student the next semester.  One professor just chuckled and laughed to himself.  The other stormed out of the room and wouldn’t talk to me.  I found it bizarre, said nothing, filled out my schedule, slid it back to them, and then left in silence.  During the subsequent months I went on to study AI in depth and found it incredibly interesting – infinitely more interesting than the classes they were trying to push on me.

To pursue your own interests in your own way in college is considered laziness and you’re looked down upon.  The professors are often cynical and assume you’re at home playing video games or watching television, so they feel they have a moral imperative to “push” you, which really amounts to stealing the little free time you have for self-directed endeavors.

noam-chmosky education

Students are also crushed by massive financial burdens.  Over and over again, I see students taking huge course loads because they’re worried about the massive student loan debt they’re incurring.  They have no free time.  I was hanging out with a graduate student in the library one evening and he told me how he was taking double the normal course load.  I asked him why and he told me how terrified he was of the massive debt he’d been accumulating and needed to finish up so he could get into the workplace and pay it off.  How are you ever supposed to develop a venturesome, independent, self-directed personality when you have no free time of your own to explore anything?  Doing any sort of self-exploration in a college environment is impractical.  There are too many assignments diverting your attention and the financial costs are too high.  You need to have a directed goal before you go in there.  It’s not a place to explore.

As for the university environment, it’s generally passive, not interactive and involved.  When I was a child, my grandfather loved to tell a story where he’d ask me, “Jason, what do you do during church?” and I replied, “I sit still while daddy preaches.”  He’d then erupt in laughter.  Sadly, my high school and college experiences have been just that.  You sit still while professor lectures.

Professors will answer your questions, but they almost always have a rather rigid class agenda.  There is so much material needing covered before the next exam and if you try to get elaborations and further explore topics, there simply isn’t time.  And even if you’re interested in exploring it on your own, if you take all the courses the university system shoves onto you, you won’t have time.

Going back to extrinsic motivation, many employers want to find self-directed, self-interested scientists to work in their laboratories.  This leads to many science and engineering students faking interest in their subject or field to look more employable.  They get involved in several small, petty research projects which demand very little of them.  Then they self “publish” papers on these topics which are never intended to be looked at or read.  From what I can tell, they’re just resume filler.  These tactics may fool some naive employers, but I don’t know.  It’s all rather bizarre to me.

I’ve had several students recommend that I get involved in several projects of this sort.  We’d be in the hallway having having this discussion and their primary selling point was how little time was involved and how easy it was to write up the paper.  If you look at the papers themselves, they look very technical, but the students lacked any real deep understanding of what they were doing or what they were writing about.

Creativity demands teamwork and there is some degree of working together in teams within universities, but it’s generally on superficial assignments which don’t really mean that much.  No real comradery develops and it rarely lasts beyond the particular class assignment you share together at that time.  Universities are solo institutions.  When you do your homework and take your exams, you’re in it alone.  It’s actually worse than this though.  The top students are awarded scholarships, so everyone is in silent competition with one another to leave the university with the least debt.

In general, I would not say the environment is supportive either.  I’ve never been asked by anyone there what I’m interested in or why I’m pursuing what I’m pursuing, or felt like there was this system in place wanting to support me, encourage me, and help me achieve my goals.  Despite people lamenting how uncaring and brutal the corporate world is, every single business partner I’ve ever worked with has sat with me in a restaurant, asked about my direction and interests, and how we could effectively work together.  Universities are not like that at all.  They’re generally expertise factories.  You’re put on an assembly line, stuff is crammed into you (which is rapidly leaking out of you at the same time), and you come out the other end with a GPA (grade point average) stamped on your chest.

“It doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.  That’s what teaching should be: inspiring students to discover on their own; to challenge if they don’t agree; to look for alternatives if they think there are better ones; work through great achievements of the past, and try to master them on their own because they are interested in them. Students will really gain from them but will remember them and use it as a basis for going on their own.  Education is really aimed at helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own because that is what you’re going to do during your life, not just absorb materials given to you by the outside, and repeat it.”

– Noam Chomsky

I don’t think very highly of universities or schools, but an education is a very important thing.  Without a high level degree, your opportunities will be limited.  Most of us have to just grit our teeth and deal with it.

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