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In praise of creativity

Ninety-one years have passed since that moment. By Eastern Establishment standards (to say nothing of European standards), Reed is still in its adolescence. And so, it is perhaps not surprising that Reed remains faithful to the rebellious spirit of its founding generation. For those who believe that history is destiny, that history of iconoclasm is reason enough for us to continue to place creativity at the center of our focus.

With due respect for the determinists, I believe that we can choose our destiny. We should valorize creativity, not because we are predestined to do so, but because we choose to do so. And we should choose to do so for both instrumental and intrinsic reasons. Viewed instrumentally, creativity is the engine of our economy and our culture. Ours, for good or ill, is a society built on ideas, on discovery, on change. We at Reed can best repay that society, for its investment in us, by producing people and ideas that enable society to progress—to solve even its most intractable problems, and to realize even its most elusive dreams.

To me, the pursuit of creativity finds even greater resonance for intrinsic reasons. The act of creation is, for most people, the highest attainment of human striving. In Abraham Maslow’s formulation, the act of creation is the means to, indeed virtually synonymous with, self-actualization. In religious belief, the act of creation can be seen as an expression of one’s divine nature. To create is to touch God.

If I am right that Reed College should foster creativity, how should it carry out that task? That is a difficult question to answer without understanding the roots of human creativity. Serious study of creativity in the artistic, intellectual, and scientific realms dates back only about half a century. Over that time, the subject of creativity has been investigated by cognitive and behavioral psychologists, historians, sociologists, economists, literary theorists, and aestheticians. Not surprisingly, the findings of these researchers are diverse, often divergent, and only with difficulty translatable into prescriptive terms.

Colin Diver is the fourth Amherst College alumnus to become president of Reed. The others were Dexter Keezer, Duncan Ballantine, and Paul Bragdon, the longest- serving president in the history of Reed. Diver currently serves on the Amherst board of trustees, and Bragdon is a former member of the Amherst board. In addition, former Reed president Peter Odegard was previously a member of the Amherst faculty.

Colin Diver is the third lawyer to be president of Reed. The two others are Victor Rosenblum, who came from and returned to the Northwestern law faculty after his presidency, and Paul Bragdon, who was educated at Yale law school.
Still, when one reviews the literature, a number of themes emerge that provide a framework for thinking about the conditions and traits that correlate with creative achievement. I would like, briefly, to talk about two conditions—mastery and versatility—and three traits—passion, curiosity, and playfulness.

Virtually all creative individuals have been masters of at least some domain. As Louis Pasteur said: “novel ideas come to the prepared mind.” Economist Herbert Simon argues that creative problem-solving requires a “skill at searching spaces of possible . . . solutions in a highly selective manner, [recognizing] familiar patterns . . . that give access to bodies of knowledge, stored in memory.” Echoing the findings of other commentators, Simon argues that it takes at least 10 years of sustained effort to acquire sufficient mastery to make major contributions to a field. Even Mozart had been publicly performing and composing music for 10 years before he produced his first genuine masterpieces. Of course, he began at age four! I’m sorry to break the news: but, all of us—even you undergraduates—are over the hill.

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