Can Creative Thinking Be Taught?

Crush #10

There are limits to what a person can teach someone. Everything that’s known can be learned, but it doesn’t follow that it can also be taught. By creative thinking I have in mind forms of knowledge that are inventive, unformalizable, and at times mysterious, from improvisation to artistic creation, philosophical thinking, judging and discerning, play-making in certain sports, cooking, and many other modes of thought in which someone isn’t just following rules. Many institutions claim to teach these skills, but what I want to emphasize is the limits of the capacity to impart thinking’s higher reaches in any planned course of activity or instruction.

A stubborn fact about education is that for all that the teacher or the institution does, in the end everyone must find their own way to it, their own path to knowledge, to thinking, and to their own way of thinking. In this pursuit the best educators are neither institutions nor teachers in the usual sense but experience, ordinary trial and error, history, love, or life itself. It’s these things from which we learn in an ultimate sense, through immersion in an environment that is the world of experience and ideas, and by cultivating habits and capacities of mind that make it possible to participate in the life of one’s culture or a given field of knowledge.

There’s much that can be taught directly and much that can’t. Into the first category falls primarily information and the more technical forms of knowledge, while into the second falls the greater part of what’s called thinking in a larger sense of the word. What can’t be taught directly are the more advanced, the less informational and the more creative forms of knowledge of the kind that are often thought the crowning achievement of education. The reasons for this are several and include factors of intellectual agency, responsive uptake, habits of mind, and the important matter of self-education. I’m going to talk about just a couple of these.

The first is agency. Etymologically, to educate (from the Latin root, educere) is to “draw out” or “lead forth” the mind from where it is to where it might be, but to say this immediately raises the question of agency. What kind of leading is this? To lead forth is not to cause. John Dewey’s notion of growth is about as fitting here as Michael Oakeshott’s conception of education as an initiation into what he called “the conversation of mankind.” Neither institutions nor educators grow the mind in any sense that’s remotely causal but at best provide the conditions that make growth possible. The student is an agent in the making who gradually becomes responsible both for driving the process and for whatever results it attains. Students at the outset of their schooling years are not autonomous agents, but by the time they enter the university they’re not patients in any sense. If, as we often hear today, there’s a problem regarding passivity in the contemporary university, the problem may lie far less in that students must listen to lectures than that they have spent too much of their education becoming habituated to the “what every student must know” approach, with its top-down power structure, insipid conventionality, and predictable motivational deficit. By the time they enter the university, too much structure has often undermined any mode of agency but that which conforms to procedures and runs through mazes. Their degree program is often perceived as yet another maze which again affords too much structure and too little autonomy. One becomes an agent by exercising agency over some considerable period of time, and one learns creativity in the same way.

In any cultivation of creative capacity, as with learning in general, there’s a rising up to a certain form of agency and freedom that’s involved, and too much structure kills it. So does too little, but the point I’d emphasize concerns the freedom of mind which this kind of cultivation requires. This isn’t the kind of freedom often implicit to educational approaches that speak a little too loosely of “self-expression,” as if it’s simply a given that any person, be it child or adult, has something original to say provided only that they are provided with an appropriate outlet—the idea that everyone has a book in them. An education of this kind consists not so much in expressing what’s already there, buried in one’s inner depths, than in finding something worth saying and learning how to say it, both of which arise as a free response to what another has said. How, and also where, does any creative person learn what it is that they know? How did Socrates learn the art of philosophical dialogue? How did Nietzsche learn how to write books? How did Bob Dylan learn how to write songs? You can think of a thousand similar examples, but in these randomly chosen cases, Dylan learned by listening intently and constantly to other songwriters, Nietzsche learned by reading other philosophers, and Socrates picked it up on the street. Songwriting, like many arts, is also taught in an institutional setting, yet Dylan attended none of them and learned what he knows from listening constantly to other songwriters, only listening with an inventor’s ear borrowing and revising at will until some original composition would emerge. Nietzsche, like any philosopher, learned from other philosophers (especially Schopenhauer) and was inspired this way and that by what he read on his own. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates credited Diotima with having taught him something about the philosophy of love, although what she actually taught him in the usual sense is anyone’s guess.

These cases are anecdotal, but they’re also easily multiplied, and the general point they suggest is that creative work is learnable outside of an institution. I suspect it’s best learned there. Proving the point is probably impossible, but it’s worth asking what it is about extracurricular experience, or some of it, that so many find more conducive to creativity than what happens in formal educational settings. The crucial differences seem to bear upon both the time frame and the freedom to experiment which are more or less unlimited outside of an institution, to allow an interest or talent to emerge slowly and to wander in the wilderness for as long as it takes. Here process matters more than outcomes, following your instincts and allowing something to take form in its own time rather than conform to a plan designed by a teacher to lead toward a specified result. In an extracurricular environment it’s possible to still the mind and without a thought in the world about outcomes to ask a question which is the beginning of all creative thinking—questions like: What is this? What does that mean? What are its implications or what might be done with it? Why did this happen and what if it had been different? What if I tried this or changed that? How can this be applied, reconfigured, or viewed in a different light? What bearing does this have on that, or what connection can we draw between one idea and another? Creative work begins with a question that’s posed by someone who’s fully immersed in a given area of thought or activity. You follow a path of your choosing, unhurriedly and habitually, then ask what would happen if you ventured this way or that, varied this or reversed that. The question isn’t likely to form in a mind that’s overly accustomed to structured activity, external direction, task-completion, and speed.

Teachers must plan, get through the material, and attain results. They’re charged with getting their students from here to there within a specified time frame. Wandering in the wilderness isn’t done with one eye on the clock. Any cultivation of creativity requires an unhurried approach which allows one to find, or form, your own voice in your own time. Nothing about it is efficient or externally imposed. Even when creativity is deemed a “learning outcome” that’s pursued directly, educators don’t “grow” inventive minds in any direct or causal way but at best provide the conditions that allow them to grow of themselves. Where do creative ideas come from in a discipline like philosophy, for instance, if not constant reading and from the habit of borrowing and varying ideas found in this tradition? Thinking here is a thinking along with writers of one’s choosing and a selective yeah- and nay-saying to what they’ve written, refining, criticizing, and synthesizing ideas that are received even while the configuration or synthesis is your own. Philosophers have influences just as artists do and construct ideas ex nihilo about as well as they can draw blood from a stone. Without Socrates, no Plato; without Plato, no Aristotle, and so on and so forth. Of course, it’s more complex than this. Refining, varying, and critically interpreting ideas is the opposite of straightforward and becomes possible as a consequence of spending a long period of time immersing oneself in the world of ideas. The student of philosophy becomes at home in the realm of concepts, is able to discern which arguments are not only valid and invalid in a technical sense but persuasive and unpersuasive, and to exercise judgment and inventiveness in this field of knowledge. The ideas that we’re immersed in, the questions we habitually pursue, and the truth that we seek all in some way or other form the mind.

One becomes a philosopher in dialogue with tradition, and becoming an artist or scientist, or doing much of anything that involves creative work, is no different: one learns by following an exemplar(s), learning from the masters, or seeing how it’s been done and thereby how one might want to proceed. Learning here is a matter of taking it further, and not in any way but in the right way or the way that the situation before you seems to require. No rule indicates how this ought to be done, and the ability itself can be neither directly taught nor measured but only judged qualitatively after the fact. As we ascend from information to technical knowledge to the higher capacities, the locus of agency shifts from the teacher to the student. Teaching becomes increasingly indirect, on the model of master and apprentice and then exemplar and thinker in a more creative sense of the word. Knowledge in more than an informational sense of the word can be taught in no way that is remotely causal but in some instances by performing what needs to be learned for a student who in time may or may not get the point, and where “getting it” means adjusting what’s learned to one’s own requirements and in a way that can’t be exactly duplicated. In the transition from becoming informed to taking it further, the teacher plays at best a supportive role.

Creative thinking is teachable at best obliquely and in no way that can be counted upon to get results. The ground may be prepared for the kind of uptake it requires, but teachers and institutions themselves don’t make it happen. The student makes it happen if they’re informed, habituated to the world of ideas, free to experiment, and if they’re so inclined.