Creative People Who Want
To Make a Difference
The Power of Liberal Arts Education
Creativity is as important in education
as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.
Sir Ken Robinson*
When I first saw the talk on the left, I wanted to share it with all my colleagues at Hendrix College.
I knew it had been seen by ten million viewers around the world and that it was having a wide impact. I knew that many people are impressed by Sir Ken Robinson's proposal that, today, we need to develop a new educational paradigm that treats creativity with the same status as literacy.
I wanted my colleagues to see it because, if he is right, then they - we -- are at the leading edge of a learning revolution. In making the case for creativity in education, he makes the case for liberal arts education of the kind being developed at Hendrix.
At Hendrix we call this kind of education engaged learning for several reasons. It engages multiple forms of intelligence of which a student is capable, including interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. It engages a student's heart and mind with social and historical realities of the wider world. And it engages a student with some of the big questions in life.
But this kind of learning might also be called education for creativity, because one of its outcomes is to help students discover and enjoy new ideas that are valuable for themselves, for their societies, and for the broader world.
One of our tasks at Hendrix College is to nurture this kind of creativity. We do this in many ways. One is by offering education that is more personalized than standardized. We offer small classes that often become learning communities in their own right, in which students freely enter into a creative exchange of ideas with their professors and with one another. While we give tests, we are not interested in turning students into test-taking machines. We want students to realize their own capacities for creativity and multiple forms of literacy, including global literacy
Often the classroom itself becomes a context for such engagement. In class discussion students enter into a creative exchange of ideas with fellow students and also with professors, often following the method of Socratic Dialogue there is a give-and-take of ideas, with all parties seeking truth together.
These kinds of discussion are helpful because they enable students to develop two skills that are as important as creativity: critical thinking and empathy. By critical thinking I mean thinking in ways that are coherent and that rely on evidence rather than prejudice. And by empathy I mean perspective-taking: imagining yourself in the shoes of other people, looking at the world from their points of view.
Taken together these three skills -- creativity and critical thinking and empathy -- form a trinity of skills that empower students to participate effectively in a globalized, multicultural world.
The Hendrix Odyssey
Another way that we nurture creativity is by requiring students to have at least three experiences in various kinds of engaged learning: creative and performing arts, service to the world, global awareness, leadership and professional development, and undergraduate research. We call our program the Hendrix Odyssey because, when students have these experiences, they undertake an Odyssey -- that is, a journey -- where they discover their creative potential.
The proof of the effectiveness of Odyssey learning is in the stories students tell. You will hear some Hendrix students explain their Odyssey projects in the videos on the left. And you'll hear some faculty explain why they think these projects are so important.
Often Odyssey experiences are built into the very design of classes. A science class will include a requirement for undergraduate research; a business class will include a requirement for an internship; a world religions class will include visits to religious sites. In the process horizons are expanded.
Is it Practical?
As we see things, this kind of education is very, very practical. Education for creativity better prepares students for the unpredictable, challenging, but exciting world than does any other form of education today.
Of course we know that students need to acquire skills that will enable them to participate and succeed in the economies of the twenty-first century. We know that there needs to be a significant dimension of vocational training in their education. We believe that many of our majors offer this. They provide skills which can be prepare people for satisfying work in the twenty-first century.
However, our experience is that, today, many employers train their employees on the job. What they want is people who arrive for on-the-job training with already existing competencies in creativity and communication, critical thinking and empathy. They want people who are emotionally secure, confident, energetic, and forward looking. They want whole people.
Education for the Whole Person
At Hendrix we are interested in helping people become whole people. For my part I hear three ideas in the phrase.
First, being a whole person means that our intellects are not separate from our subjective feelings and aims. We are always on a journey -- an odyssey, if you will -- toward personal fulfillment, and even the pursuit of truth has a kind of passion in it. A passion for understanding, for truth. We may not find the fulfillment and the fulfillment may be in the journey not the destination. But we are seeking satisfaction, and we would not want to understand anything at all, were we not seeking.
Second, being a whole person means that our intellects and feelings, our minds and hearts, emerge out of their engaged relations, their interactions, with the world. An engaged relation is different from, say, a geometrical relation. A geometrical relation is a relation between objects in space as witnessed by a relatively detached observer. An engaged relation is a relation between a living being -- a human being, for example -- and the social and physical environment. We humans are not isolated egos cut off from the world by the boundaries of our skin; we are relational selves whose very selves emerge in response to the social and natural worlds with which we are actively, intellectually, and emotionally
Third, being a whole person means that our minds and hearts are shaped and nourished by our bodies. There are trajectories within the western intellectual tradition which draw overly sharp separations between minds and hearts and bodies, between intellect and feeling and the kinesthestic dimensions of life. At Hendrix we think all three parts of our lives are important.
Multiple Forms of Intelligence
The emphasis on being a whole person influences how some of us at Hendrix College think about intelligence. As educators in our Department of Education train teachers, they encourage them to take into account what Howard Gardner** at Harvard calls multiple forms of intelligence:
6. Naturalistic (understanding nature)
7. Interpersonal (empathy)
8. Intrapersonal (self-awareness)
The general idea is that each person is a blending of these various forms of intelligence, and that all of them are important. As faculty at Hendrix approach our students, we hope that they can grow in all of them.
To these eight forms some of us add still another: existential intelligence. By existential intelligence we mean the intelligence of asking the big questions in life: What can I know? Is the universe friendly or hostile or indifferent to my life? What are the values by which I choose to live?
The Social Entrepreneur
Many faculty at Hendrix believe that the last question -- the one about values -- is especially important. The very aims of our college include the idea that being a truly fulfilled person rightly includes a concern for others. As the college catalog puts it, we want "to serve the social, ecological, and spiritual needs of the world."
One way to put this is to say that, at Hendrix College and other liberal arts colleges like it, we hope that students can become social entrepreneurs.
A social entrepreneur can be a coach, a business leader, a waitress, a poet, or a physician. She is someone who combines "making a living" with "helping make the world a better place." In the words of the novelist Frederick Buechner, she seeks that place where the gladness of her heart meets the hungers of the world.
Hendrix is a place where many students find their gladness and learn about the hungers. Thus, education for Creativity is not simply about becoming whole person while neglecting the needs of society. It is about becoming a whole person in helping others: helping other people, to be sure, but also other living beings and the Earth itself.
The Earth as Context:
A Sense of Planetarity
Increasing numbers of students at Hendrix College are majoring in environmental studies. They are interested in what, in our time, has come to be called sustainable community. A sustainable community can be a neighborhood, a village, a city, a province, or a nation. It is a community that is creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.
Often I find Hendrix students thinking wanting to help build sustainable communities. They may or may not be religious; they may or may not think of themselves as environmentalists; they may or may specialize in the sciences or the arts or the humanities. But they feel a sense of bondedness with, and allegiance to, the greater web of life as something which transcends nationalistic, religious, and ethnic divisions.
They think of their vocation, not simply as finding a job, but as finding a way of helping preserve and promote the beauty of the planet. They are social entrepreneurs with an ecological heart. They have a sense of planetarity.
The twin themes of sustainable community and planetarity point to another dimension of education for creativity that is important at Hendrix. You will find it in our our Crossings program. Here's how we describe it on our website:
The purpose of the Crossings program is to allow faculty and students to explore and identify the hidden linkages that exist between disciplines and to provide a venue for students to deliberately explore those connections during their course of study. This program simultaneously expands curricular linkages and ties the theory of those interdisciplinary themes to experience. Groups of faculty design thematic interdisciplinary threads including three or four course opportunities that may fulfill other graduation requirements. (GO)
The underlying premise of the Crossings program is that there are many subjects worth considering which cannot be intellectually contained within the boundaries of existing academic disciplines and which need to be addressed from multiple, disciplinary points of view.
The Challenge and Adventure
For many faculty at Hendrix College, interdisciplinarity is both a challenge and an adventure. It is challenging because many of us are trained in particular academic disciplines, and we sometimes find ourselves thinking that our task is to train students to become participants in our academic guilds. And yet increasingly we realize that some of the subjects we want to consider, such as the notion of sustainable community, elude such narrow parameters. Thus we find ourselves excited by the possibility of engaging in collaborative learning ventures with fellow faculty, where we learn from one another and help our students learn in similar, transdisciplinary ways.
Along the way, for some of us, the very notion of a discipline gets relativized and transformed. We begin to be suspicious of the idea that disciplines are quite as separate or insulated as our guilds might wish ,or as our division into departments might suggest. I see this in my own area, which is religious studies. Can religious studies really be separated from cultural studies and literary studies and philosophical studies and artistic studies?
I like to say Yes. I like to say that religion is a distinctive field of study which deserves a department of its own. But in so doing I presume that there is something called religion which has relatively definable boundaries.
The more I learn about what some call religion, the more I realize that, if it has boundaries at all, those boundaries are blurred and religion cannot be separated from a deeper reality: the activity by which people seek satisfaction and wisdom in their daily lives, by whatever means are available to them. If religion is rooted in this deeper activity, then it is hard and perhaps misleading to separate religion from ideas and ethics and culture and art, from social life and power relations and stories and history. The boundaries between religion and other areas of life are not, and cannot be, well-defined.
Liberal arts colleges are now places where these questions are emerging. At Hendrix College no "answers" have yet emerged. But in and outside the classroom we find ourselves asking the questions, and this is still another way in which we exhibit the new educational paradigm: engaged education.
Liberal Arts Education
As a Performing Art
It is difficult to know where such engagement will lead us. Perhaps the model developed by Liz Coleman, offered above, provides a clue. Here's the blurb on her taken from the TED talk she delivered in 2009:
"If you followed higher education news in the 1990s, you have an opinion on Liz Coleman. The president of what was once the most expensive college in America, Coleman made a radical, controversial plan to snap the college out of a budget and mission slump -- by ending the tenure system, abolishing academic divisions and yes, firing a lot of professors. It was not a period without drama. But fifteen years on, it appears that the move has paid off. Bennington's emphasis on cross-disciplinary, hands-on learning has attracted capacity classes to the small college, and has built a vibrant environment for a new kind of learning.
Coleman's idea is that higher education is an active pursuit -- a performing art. Her vision calls for lots of one-on-one interactions between professor and student, deep engagement with primary sources, highly individual majors, and the destruction of the traditional academic department. It's a lofty goal that takes plenty of hard work to keep on course." (G0)
The Five Toxins
Today liberal arts colleges around the United States are evolving. Liz Coleman speaks of five toxins which permeate some forms of liberal arts education.
1. Preoccupation with technical mastery
2. Aversion to civic engagement
3. Idealization of the expert
4. Fragmentation of knowledge
5. Valorization of neutrality as a condition of academic integrity
For my part, I sense some of these toxins even at the liberal arts college where I teach. But with our growing emphases on engaged learning, social entrepreneurship, crossing disciplinary boundaries, and a questioning of intellectual fragmentation resulting from disciplinolatry, I think we may be moving beyond the toxins toward something new and helpful for the world at large.
A Twenty-First Century Enlightenment
In Western history the tradition of the liberal arts began with the Greeks, who introduced "liberal arts learning" as a kind of learning for free men, but not slaves, in which they were introduced to three subjects: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Later additional topics were added: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. There were seven liberal arts.
Gradually, in modern times, more and more "disciplines" were added, each of which emerged historically out of diverse lines of inquiry. Now, perhap, we are coming home to our liberalizing roots and, at the same time, moving forward into a new and globalized world.
One possibility is that they play a small but important role in a much larger historical possibility, namely that we humans have an opportunity to enter into a new period of human history, in which empathy and critical thinking and creativity have the same status as literacy.
Matthew Taylor **** speaks of the Royal Society of the Arts speaks of it as a twenty-first century enlightenment. It is an enlightenment which moves beyond the dominating logics of modernity -- the logic of technical reason, the logic of the marketplace, and the logic of bureaucracy -- into a way of thinking and living that is more humane, holistic, and sensitive to the seamless web of inter-existence and the need for sustainable community.
Perhaps liberal arts colleges, places like Hendrix College, are places where such hopes are born. Perhaps a twentieth century enlightenment can begin, among other ways, with small classes, an appreciation of multiple forms of intelligence, a sense of loyalty to the planet, a nurturing of creativity, an appreciation of the arts as well as the science, as concern for the whole person. It's worth a try.
* The phrase "twenty-first century enlightenment" comes from the Royal Society of the Arts, based in London, with some 27,000 fellows around the world: http://www.thersa.org/about-us, The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce): an organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Through its ideas, research and 27,000-strong Fellowship it seeks to understand and enhance human capability so we can close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world."
** "Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation. He speaks to audiences throughout the world on the creative challenges facing business and education in the new global economies. The videos of his famous 2006 and 2010 talks to the prestigious TED Conference have been seen by an estimated 200 million people in over 150 countries."
***"Howard Gardner, PhD has established himself as one of the world's foremost authorities on the topics of intelligence, creativity, leadership, professional responsibility, and the arts. Throughout his writings and lectures on education, he addresses the tension between two important desiderata: the need for years of discipline, in order to master any approach to knowledge, and the appeal of creativity, the impulse to break out of conventional ways of thinking and discover a new truth about the world. Dr. Gardner is the Senior Director of Harvard University 's Project Zero, an educational research group dedicated to understanding and enhancing "learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, at the individual and institutional levels."
****"Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. In this video, Matthew Taylor explores the meaning of 21st century enlightenment and how the idea might help us meet the challenges we all face in today's seemingly "unenlightened world. The RSA's focus on 21st century enlightenment invites us to return to core principles of autonomy, universalism and humanism, restoring dimensions which have been lost and seeing new ways to fulfill these ideals."