Voices in Education

Creativity in Crisis: The “Brain Drain” in American Schools
One often hears from the business world: “Jobs are going overseas, but America will stay strong because of its intellectual capital—its creative spirit.” This is a strange remark given that we so rarely ask our students to think creatively.

Of course, now we have to define “creativity,” a charged term that could easily be diffused by agreeing that “creativity” can mean different things to different people. Given that, creativity—in anybody’s definition—cannot possibly entail any of the following: washing your socks, feeding the kids, updating a database, sitting in traffic, watching TV, or going to sleep. Perhaps you recently saw a movie or attended a concert. Perhaps it was a classical chamber music concert—certainly that must entail creativity, with the bowties and high heels after all. But no, at best you were celebrating creativity, or truly appreciating creativity by knowing every nuance of the piece. But you yourself were not being creative. Maybe you clapped creatively for the encore.

Most adults, with our increasingly hectic schedules, assume that at least creativity is alive in our children when we send them off to drawing class or bassoon lessons. Yet most children’s time in the arts is spent either appreciating someone else’s art or learning the skill required to make the art, so that perhaps in the future one could be creative. This training sometimes leads to amazing technical skill. I have met more than a few children who can perfectly recreate a Dragonball-Z character or still-life bowl of fruit, but who struggle so to create an original character, story, technique, or idea.

So what is creativity? Many will argue about semantics and definitions. I will not enter that fray. Whatever it is, creativity revolves around unique, independent, and original thinking. It sometimes leads to an activity, such as playing the violin or implementing a new program to end homelessness. But without creative thought, the activity simply cannot be creative. In the end, only you can say whether you have been creative—only you can know whether your thoughts are unique, independent, original. So when was the last time you were creative? The answer for many Americans children is “never.”

This “brain drain” in our schools is reversible and could be halted without a single extra dollar in funding. Creativity requires teachers and students to put aside the textbooks and prescribed curricula and authentically engage children in learning. For example, perhaps the classroom forms a comic book company. Students write and publish original comics (literacy skills, check); focus the stories on historical events and leaders (social studies skills, check); develop a business plan with financial forecasts (math skills, check); and bring their product to the community through exhibits and presentations (civic engagement, check). Yes, it takes more time for educators to plan, coordinate, and implement creativity-based projects such as this, but the academic and social rewards are well worth the effort.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Bitz is the author of Manga High. He is founder of the Comic Book Project and cofounder of the Youth Music Exchange. The first recipient of the Educational Entrepreneurship Fellowship at the Mind Trust in Indianapolis, he also received the Distinguished Alumni Early Career Award from Teachers College, Columbia University.