Creativity Crises

Crises come and go. I think if you look deep enough into any field you can probably find a crisis brewing and probably a few that were brewing a few years or decades ago. There’s something that appeals to our hind brain whenever someone lets loose the cries of crisis. Just look at how long we’ve been inundated in the “education crisis.” (N.B. Education does have serious problems, I’m talking about the trope/rhetoric of crisis, not the specifics of education)

One of my pet intellectual interests for at least the past decade is creativity. Where does it come from? How can it be measured? How can it be fostered? The only lesson I feel I’ve learned with any great confidence is the value of eclecticism. I almost wrote a speech about that for my high school graduation, which means the decade estimate above is off; I’ve been interested in this stuff for a long time.

I noticed another peek at the mole of the creativity crisis a few days ago at Christine Martell’s weblog. Po Bronson, an author I’ve admired but never read, is prepping the ground for a new book on the latest creativity crisis. According to Bronson, with supporting research by Kyung Hee Kim, the creativity test scores of children in the United States have been on the decline since 1990.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

As so often happens there is never a single story or link that pertains to the same topic. Following a few breadcrumbs from here leads me to this dandy report from 2005 about the coming dark age of innovation this time based on the research of Jonathan Huebner. Huebner studied various lists of patents and important technology developments to reach the conclusion that as a proportion of population the peak of patent production in America was reached in 1873!

But Huebner is confident of his facts. He has long been struck by the fact that promised advances were not appearing as quickly as predicted. “I wondered if there was a reason for this,” he says. “Perhaps there is a limit to what technology can achieve.”

In an effort to find out, he plotted major innovations and scientific advances over time compared to world population, using the 7200 key innovations listed in a recently published book, The History of Science and Technology(Houghton Mifflin, 2004). The results surprised him.

Rather than growing exponentially, or even keeping pace with population growth, they peaked in 1873 and have been declining ever since. Next, he examined the number of patents granted in the US from 1790 to the present. When he plotted the number of US patents granted per decade divided by the country’s population, he found the graph peaked in 1915.

I need to take the time to track down both studies and read them in more depth before I’ll cast judgment on whether we’re any closer to dark age today than we were 25, 50, or 100 years ago.