Sunday, January 11, 2009

Freedom and Creativity

Specialization is the separation of tasks within a system. In a multicellular creature, cells are specialized for functions such as bone construction or oxygen transport. In capitalist societies, individual workers specialize for functions such as building construction or gasoline transport. In both cases, specialization enables the accomplishment of otherwise unattainable goals. It also reduces the ability of individuals to survive outside of the system containing all of the specialized components.

From another essay in Creativity and Learning, by Nevitt Sanford, on the value of the general liberal arts education:

.... the most creative people in architecture, literature, mathematics, and engineering science are distinguished from less creative ones by, among other traits, their greater flexibility of thinking, breadth of perspective, openness to experience, freedom of impulse, breadth of interest, autonomy, and integrity. .... the argument from this is that, in general, the creative person is above all a highly-developed person, and that education programs can have an effect on such development in college.

Observational evidence suggests that outstanding work in many areas is favored by breadth of education. Creativity is little understood, but it seems to be in considerable part an ability to combine ideas form diverse areas of experience, and thus connect things that are ordinarily treated separately. This would seem to depend heavily, at least in fields such as literature, psychology, and social science, upon breadth and richness and complexity of personality and background..... It is risky to constrict or to speed up liberalizing education in the interest of hastening a student's ascent of a professional ladder....

and this about the problem of too early specialization for the human person:

... Specialization has even deeper implications for the student (than it does for the research professor); it tends toward the fragmentation of him. When everything in nature is conceived as being susceptible to abstraction from its context for purposes of intensive study the student himself does not escape; he too is conceived as an aggregate of part-processes.... each of which can be studied separately from the rest, and each of which is to be dealt with by special machinery set up for that purpose. If a teacher has this conception of the student it is easy for him to say that he is interested only in the student's intellect, which is categorically separated from the rest of him; or, it may be the other way around; if one insists that education is only a matter of transferring specialized knowledge and skills to the student, then the student comes to be viewed as the embodiment of bits of knowledge and particular skills.

In The Latin Centered Curriculum, which I just got in the mail the other day and have been reading, Drew Campbell says of classical education:

"... Whenever possible, subjects are taught in relation to one another and in the context of broader intellectual concerns.... one of the key 'intelligences' is lateral thinking, the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate fields and ideas.."
This makes the case that the classical curriculum, by focusing on the priorities and integrating the different subject areas, allows time to focus on the important things, developing the ability to connect subjects; and that this is an important thing.

Philip Abelson, who I quoted yesterday from the article "Relation of Group Activity to Creativity in Science", wrote:

....The crucial element in creativity in science today is not dramatic illumination; it is judgment. When an experimental scientist seeks to be creative, he must make and implement a series of judgments. The complexity of his needs can be seen by looking at some of the prerequisite steps. First, he must decide upon an are to investigate. .. Having selected the major topic, the investigator must decide what to read, and how intensively. Some research scientists get lost in the morass of the literature, unable to make proper judgments about what to read, what to skip, what to believe, what to be skeptical about.

This seems to argue that one of the key factors in creativity is a breadth of knowledge and a sense of what is more or less important. This judgment, too, requires a general base of knowledge which can be built upon. Cardinal Newman says that the object of liberal education is the philosophical habit of mind, which enables the educated person to make order of different branches of learning and keep a sort of mental framework. This seems to me to be not too much different from what the article above called "judgment", the ability to be aware of and avoid false trails or over-immersion in a less important facet of the subject.

In his Seventh Discourse, Newman quotes a Mr Davison, who says in part:

"Judgment does not stand here for a certain homely, useful quality of intellect, that guards a person from committing mistakes to the injury of his fortunes or common reputation; but for that master-principle of business, literature, and talent, which gives him strength in any subject he chooses to grapple with, and enables him to seize the strong point in it. .....

..... it will not be denied, that in order to do any good to the judgment, the mind must be employed upon such subjects as come within the cognizance of that faculty, and give some real exercise to its perceptions. Here we have a rule of selection by which the different parts of learning may be classed for our purpose. Those which belong to the province of the judgment are religion (in its evidences and interpretation), ethics, history, eloquence, poetry, theories of general speculation, the fine arts, and works of wit. ...

"If these studies be such as give a direct play and exercise to the faculty of the judgment, then they are the true basis of education for the active and inventive powers, whether destined for a profession or any other use. Miscellaneous as the assemblage may appear... they will all conspire in an union of effect. They are necessary mutually to explain and interpret each other. The knowledge derived from them all will amalgamate, and the habits of a mind versed and practised in them by turns will join to produce a richer vein of thought and of more general and practical application than could be obtained of any single one, as the fusion of the metals into Corinthian brass gave the artist his most ductile and perfect material. ...

...a person cannot avoid receiving some infusion and tincture, at least, of those several qualities, from that course of diversified reading. One thing is unquestionable, that the elements of general reason are not to be found fully and truly expressed in any one kind of study; and that he who would wish to know her idiom, must read it in many books.

"If different studies are useful for aiding, they are still more useful for correcting each other..... History, for example, shows things as they are, that is, the morals and interests of men disfigured and perverted by all their imperfections of passion, folly, and ambition; philosophy strips the picture too much; poetry adorns it too much; the concentrated lights of the three correct the false peculiar colouring of each, and show us the truth.
Now I think there are many creative people who have "specialized" at an early age in some area -- perhaps Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein are a couple of examples that come to mind. I am not quite sure how to express it, but I think "freedom" can stand in for "generality" of understanding. Knowledge is in some ways ever a potentiality for human persons; there will always be things we don't know, but freedom allows for the possibility of continuing to learn.

In other words, I think one of the disservices a faulty education can do us is to implicitly or explicitly shut out certain avenues to knowledge, usually the "less useful" kind.

Again quoting The Latin Centered Curriculum, which in turn is referring to Tracy Lee Simmons' book Climbing Parnassus:

"Most public schools in America now strive to be cut-rate educational malls for the intellectually lame -- whether or not students first darken the school doors that way, so most of them leave -- while even some private schools pose as little more than colorful felt boards for the earnestly shallow, commonly confusing pious or patriotic piffle with real education."
I happen to think that no child is born "intellectually lame" except in a very technical sense to which no blame can be attached. They become that way through their educators' and later, perhaps, their own bad choices. To me, perhaps "intellectually hobbled" would be more expressive of what a poor education can do to a mind. But that being said, I think the purpose of education is to free the mind from its ignorance and reliance on faulty methods, as much as its capacities will allow.

And freedom to range through possibilities, to incubate mentally, to keep mental balance, to pursue knowledge without being forced to "consent" to something not yet understood, seems to be of value, judging from looking back at the historical times when intellect and creativity seemed to hit high points. Another thing that seems to be important is a certain core curriculum of liberal arts, as explained above, that are held in high esteem by the community. The last thing that occurs to me, though actually it needs to be on the ground floor, is an essential sense of safety in the learners' environment -- not that there aren't dangers out there, but that the forces of good are constant and stable; "that dragons exist, but ... dragons can be beaten” as Chesterton says.

In our society we don't generally seem to have any of these to a strong degree, in the usual way things are done. Which is probably why homeschooling seems to have an advantage that makes up for its amateur nature.... it can provide freedom of intellect, a consensus of value, and a stable foundation that make creativity and learning possible.


the Walker said...

My science professor talked a lot about the importance of the mental framework necessary to attach ideas to, in order to make a coherent whole- understanding, instead of facts jumbled together. Subjects are no more separate than senses. They all interrelate, and a well-educated person can draw on knowledge of, say, basic understanding of economics while studying history, history while studying the development of different schools of art, and art's symbology in theology and literature.

We're a schizophrenic society who thinks that everything can and ought to be contained in separate little mental boxes. Work, home, family, friends, education, religion.

Scattered thoughts.

lissla lissar said...

Drat. That was me.

Willa said...

LOL! I commented once somewhere as Newbot -- Liam's screen name : ).

My dad got his bachelor's degree in German Literature before he went to medical school. His professors thought that was an advantage, the liberal arts background -- and it turned out to be, indeed.

I think specialization in career may be necessary to an extent, in our complex society -- certainly I'm glad there are people out there who chose to spend years of their lives learning the delicate art of pediatric liver transplant surgery -- however, humans are more than just our professional function in society, so that's what a liberal arts education recognizes. ... it doesn't strive to fit us into something narrower than ourselves.

lissla lissar said...

Yeah, career specialization is good, but I agree that personhood is so much more than career (shades of Josef Pieper), and a liberal arts education ideally provides one with wide interests, and the ability to read and understand a wide variety of subjects.