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In praise of creativity

Curiosity is linked to that kind of passion, yet it is conceptually distinct. Creative people experience blinding insights, but they recognize them as insights precisely because they have an almost insatiable yearning for understanding. This quality, so natural in children, often declines with age. Somehow, creative adults manage to preserve this quality—what George Santayana called “second naïveté,” or what Erich Fromm called “the willingness to be born every day.” Answers come to creative people only because they ask questions. It’s like the story of the poor man who wanted desperately to win the lottery. One day in frustration he called out: “God, why don’t I ever win the lottery?” A voice thundered back from the overhanging clouds: “BUY A TICKET.”

  "Colin has served Penn as a respected dean, an institutional leader, and a valued member of the faculty. Penn’s loss is Reed’s gain."
Judith Rodin, president,
University of Pennsylvania
Playfulness is a quality observed in many creative people—most obviously in those who, like Einstein, have a whimsical or childlike personality. But even notoriously dour creators, like Beethoven and Freud, had playful minds. A related concept in the literature on creativity is the capacity for visualization. “All this inventing, all this producing,” wrote Mozart, “takes place in a pleasing, lively dream.” Rudyard Kipling’s formula for creative writing was simple: “Drift, wait, and obey.”(Incidentally, from what I can tell, Kipling’s formula seems to have a strong following on this campus.)

Creators in every walk of life, from physics and mathematics to music and poetry, report that original ideas first manifest themselves in nonverbal form, sometimes as visual images, inchoate thoughts, or pure emotional feeling. Robert Frost once said that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” Without that capacity for nonverbal delight, there would have been no “Mending Wall,” no “Birches,” no “West-Running Brook.” And, by extension, no Sacre du Printemps, no Demoiselles d’Avignon, no Totem and Taboo, no Ulysses, no uncertainty principle, no double helix, no E = MC2.

One would suppose that passion, curiosity, and playfulness are qualities that a college can do little to instill. They either arrive with the incoming students, or they do not. Fortunately, those qualities arrive in great abundance on this campus each fall, drawn here by some magnetic force that few of us fully understand, but that all of us deeply appreciate. . . . Well, most of the time.

Still, there is much that a college can do to nurture and reinforce such qualities. The most obvious way is by exemplifying them. To provide an environment that nurtures creativity in students, we must have an environment that nurtures creativity in the faculty and staff. Reed has been blessed with, and must always maintain, support, and encourage, a faculty that exhibits passion for its work, the courage to ask the seemingly unanswerable questions, and the playfulness of mind that opens doors to unexpected answers. Likewise, we as a college must never be content to look in the same old places for answers to the same old questions. Whether the issue relates to campus planning, curricular structure, student services, admissions recruiting, or investment policy, we need constantly to ask, not how Princeton would do it, but how Einstein would solve the problem; not how Amherst would solve the problem, but how Robert Frost would solve the problem.

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