Everyday radical creativity

With the title of my book being Creative Universities, what do I actually mean by creativity? A voluminous academic and popular literature exists that seeks to define this complex and context-specific phenomenon, with its intellectual, emotional, practical and ethical aspects. In spite of this multidimensionality, there are a few commonly-cited characteristics of creativity: originality, curiosity, playfulness, divergent thinking, risk-taking, open-ness to new experiences and an ability to tolerate ambiguity and accept uncertainty.

This representation of the analytical (left) and creative (right) brain is common but things are much less clearcut.

In education, many people agree that teaching and learning are inherently creative processes, even though they might not be recognized or acknowledged as such. There are instead increasing demands from policy makers to bring more creativity into education in general and into HE in particular. These demands are usually connected to education’s contribution to national growth and economic competitiveness, often in the context of the creative industries. Another aim of creativity in education is to fully develop students’ personal potentials and to prepare them for a rapidly changing workplace. For example, Jackson Norman, founder of the Creative Academic Network, argues that ‘an education system that does not commit to the development and recognition of learners as whole, imaginative and creative beings is not enabling them to prepare themselves for a future that none of us can imagine.’ In my book, I am not looking at these economic and individual aspects of creativity but at how a socially-oriented creativity in especially the social sciences can contribute to addressing global challenges. For this, I distinguish everyday and radical creativity from its elite and instrumentalist counterparts.

Elite definitions attribute creativity to either exceptionally gifted individuals or base it on exceptional outputs, achieved through a combination of hard work and the right context, that are recognized by experts. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is sometimes cited as a proponent of this circumscribed definition of creativity. By contrast, I work with a definition of everyday creativity that is latent in everyone, meaning that everybody has creative capacities that can be developed. Ruth Richards, for example, has shown that originality is found across diverse activities of everyday life, where individuals constantly have to adapt, innovate, be flexible and try out new ideas. What matters is both process and product. According to Ken Robinson, creativity can operate on several levels: from individual creativity expressed in practices that are new for an individual, to social creativity that results in novelty for a particular group of people, to historical creativity that takes humankind and history as its point of reference. It is the later version of creativity that most closely corresponds to elite conceptions, often found in artistic or scientific breakthroughs. Alongside these, everyday creativity celebrates the creative achievements of individuals in the context of their own lives. Correspondingly, Robinson defines creativity as ‘imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.’

In education, everyday creativity is often connected to pioneers in alternative and child-centered education such as John Dewey, Rudolf Steiner and Johan Pestalozzi, who argued that education should draw out the inborn abilities of each child. In the context of adult education, Paolo Freire, whose critical pedagogy is significant for my own critical-creative pedagogy, showed the importance of education engaging people’s natural artistic and creative expressions and harnessing these for personal and social change. More recently, the Creative Academic initiative has identified being imaginative (moving beyond the immediate, obvious, conventional), original (adding to what already exists), exploratory (being open, experimental and flexible), analytical (thinking critically about new ideas) and communicative (often through story telling or visual means) as key aspects of pedagogical creativity. David Staley, in his proposal for ‘feasibly utopian universities,’ argues that creativity entails looking at things from multiple perspectives. This includes mashing up disparate ideas coming from different domains, making unusual and surprising connections across different areas or putting unrelated things together. Similarly, for Ken Robinson, it is about the transfer of knowledge from familiar to unfamiliar domains and the ‘ability to leap out of familiar habits into new idea spaces.’ Such domain bridging can be nurtured in students, all of whom have everyday creative capabilities, even though mainstream education often works against their development. It is important to make creative education inclusive and accessible to different learners, so as to enable all students to participate in creative activities.

Another common definition of creativity I am writing against is the instrumentalist version that connects it to economic competition and corporate growth. Rob Pope, in his far-reaching book on creativity, argues that this narrow conception of creativity emerged in a particular time and place – the mid 20th century West – as a modern response to problems associated with rapid social and technological change. Here creativity aims to bring about scientific discoveries and technological inventions in the service of capital; indeed Pope calls this instrumentalist creativity ‘one of the most prized commodities of capitalism.’ It has led to a human-resources view of creativity in universities, connected to employability, managerial and corporate agendas. Pope presents the 1999 publication The Creative Age: Knowledge and Skills for the New Economy by Kimberley Seltzer and Tom Bentley as a prime example of this approach. The report’s authors argue that ‘to realise the creative potential of all citizens and to boost competitiveness in the knowledge economy, we must make radical changes to the education system.’ Instrumentalist creativity in universities is therefore employment-oriented, economy-driven and governed by market logics, which connects it to current critiques of the neoliberalization of universities.

Against this instrumentalist notions of creativity I follow Sarah Amsler in arguing for radical creativity that works outside of mainstream growth agendas. It can be harnessed to imagine and work towards a number of alternatives I am exploring in the different chapters of my book, which are presenting more radical, heterodox proposals to address current social, economic and environmental challenges. I believe that nurturing students’ creativity and imagination is vital if they are to participate in realizing these proposals. As mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead wrote almost 100 years ago:

A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful. . . . A university which fails to impart information imaginatively has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes. ‘The Aims of Education’