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In praise of creativity

To become a master one must immerse oneself in the history and literature of one’s field of study. One must understand how knowledge has built up over the centuries like layers of sedimentary rock, how the search for knowledge has so often led down blind alleys, only rarely lurching into fertile pathways. Newton famously attributed his success to the fact that he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” It is probably more accurate to say that the true creator stands on the shoulders of a few giants and a throng of midgets.

A four-year course of undergraduate study cannot instill mastery in any intellectual or aesthetic discipline. But it can instill the foundation for mastery, and an understanding for what the achievement of mastery requires. I can think of no better way to start this process than by requiring undergraduates to immerse themselves in the formative period of Western thought. Reed’s introductory humanities sequence has famously served this purpose. The sequence has, of course, evolved over time and will continue to evolve. But my hope is that it will always serve as an epistemological foundation—as a living model of the process by which human society, through ceaseless investigation and reflection, has built up the layers of knowledge and understanding on which the next generation of creators must stand.

  "Colin is an astonishingly and delightfully intellectual man, someone who loves ideas and the arguments and differences that come with them. He will make a great president at Reed."
Tom Gerety, president,
Amherst college
An even more important instrument for leading students toward mastery is the structure of departmental majors. Undergraduate programs around the country have relaxed major requirements, often substituting a horizontal smorgasbord for vertical structure. Reed has resisted that trend, and I hope it will continue to resist it. Mastery requires immersion, sequence, structure, coherence. Reed should maintain its historical focus on the classic academic disciplines. It should set the bar high for satisfying a major within one of those disciplines. It should approve of interdisciplinary programs only if they build on a strong disciplinary base. And it should remain stubbornly committed to basing curricular structure on faculty consensus about the organizing principles of a discipline, rather than the shifting tastes of the educational marketplace.

If mastery speaks to depth, versatility speaks to breadth. Creation is, almost by definition, the act of seeing an old problem through a new lens, of finding a principle that gives coherence to an otherwise incoherent jumble. Arthur Koestler talks about the “bisociative” powers of creative individuals—that is, their ability to see connections between two previously unconnected ideas. We know precious little about the magical process of making a creative leap. But we do know that, in order to leap across a chasm, one must know what is on both sides of that chasm. Few creators have mastered more than one field, but most have acquired at least a working familiarity with methodologies, assumptions, and ideas drawn from other fields. Charles Darwin, for example, was an avid reader of geology, zoology, botany, embryology, economics, and anthropology. He claimed that his breakthrough insight into the mechanism for natural selection came from his so-called “recreational” reading of Malthus’s “Essay on the Principle of Population.” Ironically, Darwin misread Malthus! But no matter. Darwin was, thank heavens, a biologist, not an economist.

An undergraduate education tries to accomplish this objective of breadth through various devices, most significantly its distribution requirements. Because the Reed faculty has just completed a yearlong discussion of distributional requirements, I take my life in my hands talking about this subject. Fortunately the college’s distributional system does assure at least a reasonably high degree of methodological breadth. But I worry that too many students still graduate from this college without ever having grappled seriously with two essential vehicles for liberating the creative process: first, the framing of a hypothesis that can be expressed in mathematical terms and tested through statistical analysis; and second, the act of producing, and submitting to criticism, an original work of literary, artistic, or musical expression. The scientist who has never tried to write haiku or the literary critic who has never tried to estimate a confidence interval has, by that fact alone, constricted her capacity for breakthrough insight.

"There is no better person to lead a fine institution. Colin is absolutely enthralled by Reed and excited about serving as president."
Michael Fitts, dean,
Penn law school
I characterized the three traits conducive to creativity as passion, curiosity, and playfulness. By passion I mean what the cognitive psychologists call an affective connection to one’s field of study—not just an intellectual interest, but an emotional attachment that can drive someone to almost obsessive extremes. As the mathematician Henri Poincaré put it: “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful: he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.” Or, in Einstein’s words: creative achievement in science requires a “state of feeling akin to that of the religious worshipper or of one who is in love.”

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