Critical thinking used to be considered the paragon of intelligence, but proponents of creativity courses argue that students ought to swap analytical skills for those that are less formulaic and more marketable. What we need, supporters suggest, is coursework that involves creative tasks—like building structures with Popsicle sticks—and assignments that break cultural norms, like doing cartwheels in the library (both are activities performed by students in a first-year creativity seminar at Penn State).
Some universities have adopted creativity courses to satisfy a growing demand for graduates with creative thinking skills. It is not clear to us, however, that universities ought to eschew traditional pedagogical practices for creativity lessons. For instance, a budding pianist—someone who has been learning the intricacies of the art and mastering the works of Beethoven and Chopin—is likely to produce novel music only if she truly understands the history, mechanics and potential of her craft. Working with existing formulas, she is much more likely to come up with her own chef d'oeuvre than someone who is encouraged to discard age-old thinking and start banging on the keys.
Creativity is an unattainable feat for those who lack technical skills and a solid foundation from which to reinterpret historic practices. Creative people evaluate the tradition they inherent, begin to understand what does and does not work and develop, over time, the audacity to challenge old structures. Creativity is never just dreaming up something brand new.
Creativity courses frame creative ability as though it consisted in a collection of ideas and practices, rather than a mode of thinking. It is, moreover, deeply contradictory to try to institutionalize creative processes, since creativity, by definition, involves challenging convention. Creativity is not an in-born skill or a product of divine intervention, and, yet, it is not something that can be taught. A higher degree of creative thinking among students is not a goal that can be accomplished by more coursework, but a feat that requires widespread cultural shifts and a greater number of communities and spaces that allow people to take risks.
It strikes us as ironic to try to justify creativity courses by casting them as an effective way to satisfy the market's demand for creative employees. Classes that teach creativity, if they have any value at all, are only worthwhile insofar as they are able to encourage deep thinking and intellectual exploration. To conceive of these classes as tools that can help graduates fit more easily into the contemporary workplace is to miss the point and undermine the benefits of creative thinking.
When we think of creativity as just another line-item in the long checklist of marketable credentials, we temper its power and make genuinely creative thinking more difficult to attain. The purpose of creativity is not to make us better employees, but to make the world a more expressive and innovative place.