Creative studies classes fail to deliver jobs

The New York Times reported this week on the growing number of “Creative Studies” programs on college campuses in this country in an article called “Learning to Think Outside the Box” by Laura Pappano. This intrigued me because the word “creative” is thrown around so much—can you slap some puff paint on a poster? You’re creative. Can you stack chairs in strange formations? Super creative.

There is an entire Ted Talk series on unlocking, cultivating and otherwise injecting creativity directly into one’s bloodstream. As Pappano reports, “‘creative’ is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles.” American universities are developing a massive hard-on to this creativity zeitgeist and are responding with departments devoted solely to its study. It is not so unrealistic to think that in the not-too-distant future, Lawrence may consider a “creative studies” major or minor of its own. Here is why I hope it doesn’t.

For one thing, I question the wisdom of having a creativity department, distinct from all other departments. If creativity is such an essential skill for jobseekers, then why wall it off into its own discipline? Ideally, creativity would be taught in all classes, professors would build it into all curricula and creativity would be inculcated into all students, not just those who decide to major or minor in it. If creativity drives success and universities begin to recognize this, they would be irresponsible to teach those skills to only a subset of their student population.

But that said, I have a problem with the basic premise that creativity is needed across the board for all students. The top 30 fastest-growing jobs by 2018, as predicted by The Boston Globe include physical and occupational therapists, computer technicians and home health aides. Many are skill-based technical jobs that will be abundant now and into the future as the Boomers continue to age and the world becomes increasingly technology-based.

It does not behoove us to put all our eggs in the creativity basket when the real payoff is in fields that often require no more than an Associate’s Degree, let alone a minor in Creative Studies. Indeed, creativity was the “factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries.” So, great. If you want to be one of the small number of CEOs in the workforce, go for that creative studies concentration. For the rest of us? Probably not so useful. I could see the prevalence of emphasizing creativity on campuses backfiring and producing graduates that will be dissatisfied with any occupation that does not constantly utilize their creativity.

The other reason the article gives for the creative studies courses is the “pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking.” But what does a curriculum devoted to creativity do if not standardize the creative process? It says, in effect, “Take these classes in this order and you’ll be creative!” Once again, we are all reduced to identical machines that will come out the same when subjected to the same process.

This is all the more galling when the end goal of creativity is opposed to rote mechanization. The more effective method would be to integrate an emphasis on creative solutions into already-existing classes. It’s more useful for a biology major to have to be creative in a lab setting than in an out-of-context class on creativity.

I agree that creativity is a useful and satisfying skill to cultivate and that everyone should be encouraged to think creatively. But when something becomes a line on a résumé, it is reduced from a fun and satisfying skill to just another box to check off on the road to employment. Just as many of us (myself included) felt compelled in high school to volunteer for causes we weren’t invested in in order to include that on college applications, I worry that creative studies courses will encourage students not to be creative for creativity’s sake and its inherent worth, but because they think a future employer will appreciate it. That is the true danger here and is why I hope Lawrence remains the wholly creative place it is without feeling compelled to render it an academic discipline.