Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Big Question: Hey, what's the big idea?

written by Melanie Rothschild
Defining the question.

The sacred foundation of creative problem solving is the essential importance of clarifying the question. Many are well acquainted with advice from a pretty solid thinker, “a problem well stated is a problem half solved” (Albert Einstein). To that end, I believe an examination as to the genesis of any big question is critical.

There is a formidable range of perspectives from which to discuss creativity: education, business innovation, organizational effectiveness, maximizing personal strengths, artistic pursuits, as well as philosophical and spiritual musings, offer an extremely brief, yet general overview. In accessing the value of a big question however, we might be well served by determining any commonalities which exist between these disparate views.

I believe it’s fair to say that all of the aforementioned “categories,” share a desire to improve human life in some fashion. This makes sense since all definitions of creativity ultimately refer to the human condition. Rollo May’s definition of creativity, “the encounter of the intensively conscious human being with his or her world” (May, 1975) is the one which I find most adroitly supports inquiry around issues of ultimate purpose. Perhaps a first attempt at a BIG question might be something like …. What is all this creativity ultimately for?”

Certainly, we’d like to assume that any large scale effort in the name of creativity is going to promote a “goodly” outcome. Although the word creativity may imply altruistic intentions of great vigor, creativity and morality are not necessarily on the same continuum.

On the Relationship between creativity and morality.

The word creativity has such a powerfully optimistic force for so many of us, however it is essential to be abundantly aware that, “The human power to be creative is morally neutral, and it is revealed as much in the novel practices of torture and human extermination as in the innovative practices of an inspired teacher” (Schwebel, 2009 p. 319).

Gruber (Gruber, 1993) discussed an inherent disparity between the concepts of creativity and morality and points out that tests of creativity do not correlate with tests of moral reasoning. He explained the distinct separation between those two domains: “It is claimed that morality is essentially a historically evolved, culturally determined code; in that case creativity seems to be entirely excluded from morality, and moral conduct consists in conforming to the code. Creativity is by definition innovative and idiosyncratic” (Gruber, 1993, p.7). Not at all content to accept an estranged relationship between these two domains, he stressed, “The creative person must compose or construct some relation between his or her moral thought and feeling on the one hand and his or her creative impulses on the other” (Gruber, 1993, p.7).

Yet, if building on a premise, at least for the purposes of this discussion, that the “good” of mankind is at the heart of the issue, the next word to explore is the meaning of good. Perhaps this is too formidable a task for the undertaking of a student paper as preceding thinkers have been mining this territory certainly for centuries. In the service of the scope of this paper, I will refer to the word good, as meaning morally excellent or virtuous, although certainly one could exert considerable reflections on the comprehensive meanings of good.

Possibly we can at least construct a general, overarching schema of what would pose a good outcome for mankind. Surely effective methodologies and practices engendered by creative approaches to benefactors of industry and trade, give way to benefits for a host of recipients; but not everyone. As an artist, I believe with certainty that the profoundly nourishing gifts yielded by the arts, add a spiritual dimension, which undoubtedly serves life’s ultimate values. Once again, my passionate perspective may have far reaching effects but the arts are not a fully comprehensive representation of creativity’s potential harvest.

Proposals around the idea of insuring good health may start coming closer to an all-inclusive approach, yet good health, definitely a top priority from this writer’s outlook, is still susceptible to complete negation of purpose if supplanted by the effects of warfare. While Alex Osborn reminds us that, “the history of civilization is a record of man’s creative achievements” (Osborn, 1953 p. 3), we must also take heed from this initially inspiring observation and be keenly aware of the perils associated with a creative spirit.

After centuries of homo sapiens on earth, how developed are our collective creative gifts if our governments are still issuing large scale kill orders for other creative human creatures? Our methods of preparing food, of transporting ourselves, of sharing information, of tending to our illnesses, of recording our achievements and amusing ourselves have all been dramatically developed by our creative abilities. We both educate and entertain ourselves with enduring sights and sounds bestowed upon us by previous generations and are ever increasing our collective pool of academic and aesthetic contributions. There are few systems in our world, with the exception of biological functions, which remain “as is” from our ancestors of previous millennia.

There is one exception: war.

To be more precise, creativity has enabled our methodology of killing to become more efficient, effective and devastating, but the basic approach of man killing man is still firmly in place.

I cannot help being left with the persistent din of why this is so. How creative can we fancy ourselves to be if we are still killing one another, as did our ancient predecessors who did not have the benefits of our sophisticated ways? In a response to the celebrated “swift success” of the Persian Gulf War, Ruth Richards brings a different perspective: “It involves war in general. Surely, in an ideal world, we could find saner and safer ways of resolving international conflict. Why, in the present, case, were we not more aware of the human toll in the Persian Gulf? What forces keep us from seeing the realities around us? And to what extent can creativity help us, both to see more clearly and to act in morally responsible ways? (Richards, 1993, p.166)

In this light, would not all creativity which has been exemplified thus far fall under what Csikszentmihalyi would consider, “little c” creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996)? Compared to finding an elegant alternative to stopping wholesale murder, I’d contend there are essentially few creative accomplishments which might really be considered worthy of a capital C.

If the task at hand is to define a BIG creativity question, then I can think of none bigger in actuality than, in what ways might we take advantage of our selected gift of creativity to stop attempts at wiping ourselves out of existence? Perhaps the question might be refined somewhat as … what is the role of creativity in the pursuit of bettering the human condition?

A “culture of creative thinking.” “Do your duty” rants Kant.

Emmanuel Kant’s ethical teachings admonish each of us to act on what he believed is our intuitive sense of morality as a categorical imperative (Goswami, 1993). Similarly I would posit that inherent traits which define creative behavior such as a tolerance for ambiguity and risk, the ability to imagine the unimaginable, capacity for dogged persistence and a propensity for exuberant play - whether intuitive or learned - are key ingredients in contributing to solutions in contexts which are often dominated by fixed paths. Those who are capable of operating in such “enlightened” realms, those who can claim membership in what I’ll call a “culture of creative thinkers” are charged with a moral responsibility to consider the broad potential of their contributions and take action.

Ruth Richards explained (1993): “Creative persons may have an edge in addressing these limitations because of their sustained cognitive-affective awareness, creative courage and resilience, and capacity for universal perspective-taking” (p.165).

All right. With task in hand, we can get to work: what is the role of creativity in the pursuit of bettering the human condition?

What to do: Education.

Living in Los Angeles, I have spent an excessive amount of time in traffic behind rear bumpers which make a stand for Peace. Many of us are also acquainted with the efforts toward world harmony as sported on t-shirts. Intuitively and through experience, we know that these efforts are not enough to effect real solutions.

Education seems like a good place to start, but what of the details? We live in a numbers- driven society and as Ken Robinson reminds us repeatedly, we have by and large restricted ourselves to one definition of intelligence … that of academic prowess, which severely limits development of so many potential strengths and talents within our reach (Robinson, 2000). By subscribing strictly to classic models of education, which enforce conformity to existing paradigms, we immediately threaten to undermine one of creativity’s greatest components … aptitude for seeing things from a different perspective.

Bronk’s (Bronk, 2010) studies among high ability adolescents would no doubt be simultaneously satisfying yet depressing to Robinson. Bronk concludes in his study about purpose amongst this population of high ability adolescents, several revelations: “This result suggests that particularly strong academic abilities are not required or even preferred for the pursuit of purpose” (Bronk, 2010 p.142). A possibly counterintuitive observation which speaks further to the importance of appreciating a range of abilities: “A related study determined that youth with particularly intense commitments to purposes varied widely in terms of their academic achievement: one purpose exemplar was a Rhodes Scholar while another was a high school drop-out” (Bronk, 2010 p.142). These findings are closely aligned with the work of Kyung Hee Kim who presents a crucial statistic, “Many gifted students are underachievers and up to 30% of high school dropouts may be highly gifted” (Kim, 2008, p.234).

Our assumptions about words like gifted, best and success need to be addressed, head on. “In sum, these findings suggest that high ability youth are on an accelerated path toward conventional aims rather than purposeful ones” (Bronk, 2010 p.142). It’s not unusual for parents in L.A. to find a way to live in Beverly Hills during years they perceive as critical to their children’s education so that they can partake of that school system which, because of the association with wealth, they assume is “the best” there is. “Educational settings specifically designed to cater to the needs of high ability youth may send an implicit message that students should be highly concerned with promoting their own welfare and best interests” (Bronk, 2010 p.142). Is it fair to suggest that someone should have taken the time to clarify the question about what all this education is really for?

Milton Schwebel brings a salient perspective about the “culture of creativity,” with his thoughts on the nature and intent of education:
The oppressed require what they have always needed and never been given, namely, quality liberal education. On the contrary, they have witnessed poor quality made poorer as governments have emphasized accountability, testing, and more testing, all with an emphasis on basics, while reducing a focus on the humanizing experiences of art, music and literature; on discussion, debate, and critical thinking. The highly advertised No Child Left Behind program represents the very opposite of the need, for this, like other accountability programs that invested in testing but not in smaller classes, expert teachers, and subject matter that touched the children’s lives, have reinforced racial and ethnic bias. (Schwebel, 2009)

Off Campus.

The fictional albeit brilliantly real character of Don Draper on the currently popular Madmen television series, is a sleek embodiment of a creative, yet morally neutral entity. His ad agency has no concern with issues of morality, yet he is revered and abundantly rewarded for his remarkable creative aptitude.

Not a television version, but in the real world Global Journal of Business Research, in its first issue of 2011, will be a paper about the developmental stages of adolescents for the purpose of harnessing their “substantial purchasing power” as they are appreciated in the context of marketing (Jackson, 2011). Creative efforts exerted in the direction of controlling developing youth for profit is not generally what many of us may picture when contemplating the relationship between kids and creativity.

Haste’s discussion of moral creativity, outlines three essential components for moral commitment and responsibility: vision, efficacy and responsibility. She describes vision as, “the ability to take a wide view, to see beyond the conventional constraints of the situation” (Haste, 1993, p.154). “Seeing possibilities,” is how Robinson described the process of imagination, which is a fundamental principle of creative activity (Robinson, 2000). Yet we are living with abundant educational environments which are ultimately slaves to a continuing flood of standardized tests which edge out more nuanced and complex modes of understanding and the kinds of pedagogies associated with creativity. People who study creativity and understand the potency and potential power of developing creativity skills, must take responsibility for including a moral orientation in their actions and teachings.

Keyword: Empathy.

As glue is used to join two pieces of paper, the social and emotional skill of empathy might be considered the connecting material between various aspects of creativity which can serve to further insightful moral sensibilities. Victoria Stevens (2000) spoke of empathy as an expansion of imagination … a key component of creativity. We can only reach that emotional attunement with another person if we can imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes; our imagination is the glue that connects us to them. Empathy is the opposite of stereotyping, racism and violence and is crucial for democracy. Theatrical play she explains is an excellent vehicle for teaching empathy. An empathetic perspective respects diverse points of view, enabling persons of divergent opinions to work together.

Richards believed that empathy, “a complex process requiring a high level of psychological development” (Richards, 1993, p.176) alone is not a total guarantee of moral behavior. However, those qualities associated with empathy, of sensitivity to similarities and differences in others, “should at least make more likely the seeing of the commonality across humanity, while minimizing paranoid visions of persons who seem ‘different,’ such as the always-alien ‘enemy’ (Richards, 1993, p.176).

Engaging a highly creative re-framing of the term empathy is the concept of inclusive cultural empathy as explored by Pedersen and Pope (2010). Their plea is to associate empathy deeply with multiculturalism. Each of us brings thousands of “teachers” with us, resulting in the person we ultimately become. The authors believe that living in a world with so many cultures interacting so very closely with one another, a “one-size-fits-all” approach completely misses the point and a practice such as this, which requires highly complex and messy thinking in order to incorporate all the pertinent information inherent in the cultural countenance of any individual, will be an increasingly essential component of successfully co-existing. (Pedersen, P. and Pope, M., 2010)

Deliberate teaching of empathy was the focus of students at a university in Finland who have devised a program called The Empathy Project. In “playshops,” they teach children to observe, experience and act on empathy, using games to propel the activities. Their approach of acting with tiny steps as opposed to a more grandiose approach has been hailed by Howard Gardner as potentially much more promising than programs which are overly ambitious.

Right This Way.

In The Skilled Facilitator, Schwarz (2002) presented a single nugget, which may just be the best, possibly the only “fire starter” around. He points out that a leader can be anyone who chooses to lead based on the example she sets as opposed to a formally anointed position. I would heartily encourage creativity practitioners in whatever capacity, to include in their teachings and trainings, meaningful content as to the abundant applications which speak to the weighty potential inherent in the DNA of creative behavior. People trained in creative problem solving techniques for innovation in industry, may not necessarily realize the rich connections that can be made in additional settings and situations pertaining to issues around social justice.

Traditionally, moral reasoning had been considered to be predominantly based on reason. Pizarro and Detweiler-Bedell however point out evidence revealing that other processes are significantly at work in determining moral judgments. Apparently, the process is less rigid and more emotional than had previously been thought and as such, there is much more room for creativity than had been assumed earlier. “Creative appeals are often at the forefront of moral movements, although the domain of moral judgment making has traditionally been thought of as not very creative at all (Pizarro, D. and Detweiler-Bedell, B., 2006).” People who are talented at “making us see things in novel ways, creative communicators whose skilled recruitment of emotion” play a large role in reaching and touching our ability to make moral judgments are key players in shaping our ideals (Pizarro, D. and Detweiler-Bedell, B., 2006, p.96).

In the 1993 special issue of the Creativity Research Journal on “Creativity in the Moral Domain,” Howard Gruber, who edited the compendium, closes his article with these words:
In a time of multiple crises, however, our knowledge of the possible alternatives and of their combined consequences has its limits, and it is at this point that creativity is called for; to scan the horizon for new alternatives, to detect and amplify them, to clarify and perfect them to the point where they enter the arena of limited rationality, the world of the possible. The improvement of means for rationally combining the knowledge of scientists and policy makers would itself be a major creative act. (Gruber, 1993, p.14)

Maybe the best question would be: Ask not what creativity can do for you, ask what you can do for creativity?

Written by Melanie Rothschild
Artwork copyright Melanie Rothschild
Artist, Los Angeles

Melanie Rothschild is an artist who decided to pursue a degree in the Study of Creativity since it is the call to creativity, for ideas leading to art-making as well as social action, she finds most compelling. Since the early 90’s, Melanie has had a line of interior accessories sold nationally and has been showing fine art since 2003. A decade ago, she began a middle-school in her community which focused on principles of social justice. Currently, she is making a documentary about mistakes and how our attitudes around them impact our creative abilities. She is the mother of boy/girl twins and lives with her husband in Los Angeles.

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1 comment:

marcisegal said...

Brilliant, thanks for this. See also Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape and Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization.