The Creativity Crisis

Newsweek's article on Creativity has been making the rounds recently. I had never heard of the Torrance creativity test, but it does seem like it would be interesting to take. The reason this article has been cited widely is this:

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

I'm not particularly concerned about the downward trend in the scores, and the analogy to the Flynn effect is precisely why I'm not. The Flynn effect definitely does not mean that we are getting smarter over time. Flynn noticed that raw test scores on IQ tests had an upward trend over time, enough such that if you didn't renormalize the scores, the average person of 2000 would score 130 on an IQ test graded on the 1900 scale. This is clearly bullshit. When you look closer at the data, you find that the gains are all in analytical sections of the test, math, logic, and the like, and probably represent the channeling of talent into those areas by means of education, but the overall level of intellectual ability remains the same.

The Flynn effect is good evidence that intelligence is both plastic and determined. An upward or downward trend in raw scores isn't really indicative of much in general. With the Torrance test, I figure it probably measures the personality traits that are correlated with creativity. I don't find it surprising that these measures have begun to trend downward.

The reason this is so is related to the the competition to get into college. John D Cook provided a perfect example of this today, Erica Goldson's valedictory speech:

… I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. … I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling …

That is a pretty good summary of the rat race that education for the college-bound has become. But why? Part of it is surely the vain attempt to extend college to everyone. The hypercompetitiveness of the elites is really just a side effect of something else, the efforts to make marginal students college material.

Students like Erica would probably go to college under most conceivable school systems, but we are trying to send students who are not very bright and/or don't work very hard. So the schools try to force them to be smarter and work harder.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, "We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness - curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don't do that." Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

The primary personality trait that is associated with creativity is psychoticism. This sounds grim, but what it really means is a person who is has trouble getting with the program and doesn't give a damn what you think about their idea. This is precisely what you can't have in schools, because discipline is a problem among the student body.

The students who are marginal for college are more likely to be bored by academic course work, but we force them into more and more of it to prepare them for college. This is a bad combination. Since schools are not really allowed to treat people differently on the basis of their abilities, the solution applied to everyone is to sit down, shut up, and teach to the test. Thus we are systematically reducing the prevalence of the personality traits that the Torrance test measures. This is probably most effective on high-conscientiousness students like Erica, who are more attuned to what the school system is trying to do.

However, despite all that, I'm still not all that concerned. Things like personality traits that are partly genetically determined will tend to reassert themselves over time once you remove the external pressure. I am just not convinced that school can make you creative. School can enhance or diminish the existing abilities, but the American school system is not brutal enough to completely break the spirit of all its students. The students that Erica talks about who did their own thing were not rewarded by the school system, but they just kept on texting during class anyhow. What does happen is that average students are ill-served by their educations.

I don't know the best way to go about encouraging creativity. I wish I could give a suggestion, but I think it is pretty clear that the reason creativity is discouraged presently is that creativity is associated with a willingness to bend, break, or ignore the rules and flaunt social expectations. It seems possible that you could end up with complete chaos in a school if you tried to extend the kinds of freedom creativity requires to everyone. This kind of freedom would have to be limited to those likely to use it well, and I don't think we are willing to make the distinctions that would require.

However, it does seem that we could at least ease the pressure to send everyone to college, and thus at least reduce the incentive to conform.