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The Creativity Crisis by Jonathan Merritt

“For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining.”

Thus begins a recent cover story by Newsweek reporting the latest results from tests of our nation’s “creativity quotient” (CQ). The tests were designed by E. Alfred Torrence and are widely accepted as the best way to measure CQ. Children who have scored highly on the Torrence test in years past have become innovators, authors, entrepreneurs, software developers, diplomats, and college presidents.

In May, however, a researcher at William and Mary analyzed over 300,000 Torrence scores and observed that creativity has been steadily on the rise. That is, until 1990. Over the last 20 years, CQ scores have tumbled.

“With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter,” Newsweek informs. “With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.”

What’s driving the drop? According to Newsweek, technology and education are particularly nefarious culprits. At home, kids are spending more time watching television and playing video games; at school, our educational system is evaporating the creative juices. Neither of these criticisms is particularly new, but they are informative within the context of the creativity discussion.

Technology has become a favorite target of many culture watchers in our society. In recent years, we’ve witnessed a torrent of criticism regarding video games, television viewership, internet consumption, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

[Alternative Opinion: Ralph Koster, a video game designer, claims video games actually increases our problem solving abilities.]

With the enactment of “No Child Left Behind,” American education was hoisted onto the hot seat yet again. But some claim that the regulatory program’s testing and accountability techniques have become part of the problem. Other countries from China to Great Britain are introducing “idea generation” as a key component of public education. Meanwhile, the American system focuses on quantifiable results and leaves little room for creative stimulus. If the analysis is correct, we’re systematically training our children to be less creative.

According to Newsweek:

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.

This trend may not seem significant until one considers the centrality of creativity to progress. Without creativity, we can’t find solutions to problems or develop new models of thinking. If creativity disappears, our music, art, and literature will falter and businesses in other places will quickly surpass our own. A recent IBM Poll reported that 60% of CEOs recognize that creativity is the most important leadership quality.

Followers of Jesus feel an addition pinch. One of the attributes of God is creativity, and as image-bearers we have an obligation to cultivate creativity in culture. This is part of our “saltiness” as Christians. We should have masterful artists, revolutionary thinkers, and brilliant scientists among our ranks. In this way, a creativity crisis becomes an opportunity for us to fill a cultural void with creative, redemptive energy and become leaders in those spaces where we’ve lagged embarrassingly behind.

Unfortunately, while some lament the decline of creativity in our culture, very few seem to be proposing ways to restore it. For example, while we should welcome rigorous critiques of technology, the very fact that we continue to consume the things we are criticizing indicates that our words are ringing hollow. Rather than simply cursing this medium, we need new and better alternatives for how to engage the world.

“While our creativity scores decline unchecked, the current national strategy for creativity consists of little more than praying for a Greek muse to drop by our houses,” declares Newsweek. “The problems we face now, and in the future, simply demand that we do more than just hope for inspiration to strike.”

If we indeed serve the Creator of innovation, shouldn’t this issue provoke us to action? Perhaps we can be that hope and inspiration—that creative muse—for which many are now praying.

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Do you think technology and/or the American educational system might be dulling our creative impulses? What can Christians do to restore the brokenness here?

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Editor’s note: The picture above is one of the drawings from the Torrence test in which the subject is given an object within a box on which to draw. While the subject promisingly sketched outside of the box, he chose to draw a hat—an uninspired, common object. Check out Newsweek’s gallery of CQ sketches.