last-word

bruce-callenIn my virtual newspaper this morning, five bright and passionate people from across the country debated the causes of the “creativity crisis.” Is it valid to conclude that we’re becoming less creative? If so, what are the implications for our future, economic and otherwise?

I’m glad that we appear to be waking up to the importance of these questions. I’m reminded of Sir Kenneth Robinson’s arguments that schools, as often configured, stifle creativity. His books, viral TED talks, and captivating diagrams make a powerful case for insisting on the inclusion of the arts at every level of education. I’m happy to endorse that as part of the solution, but I think there’s a prerequisite that all of these arguments overlook: as teachers, do we do enough to cultivate the aesthetic of wonder? Do we encourage, recognize and value those who, when faced with new things, respond with awe and appreciation for the marvelous? Or, using wonder in its other sense, do we provide the space for students who, truly intrigued by what they’re learning, immediately turn to puzzling out the reasons, or connecting it with other things within their experience?

Wonder has a great, and often unrecognized, lineage in science. I’m troubled when science is blamed for taking the beauty out of things, for reducing objects of wonder to objects of boring analysis. Over 30 years ago, the great physicist Richard Feynman took issue with this view as well. An artist friend, after luring him into acknowledging the beauty of a flower, asserted that the reductionism of science turned it into “a dull thing.” Feynman responded that he, too, could appreciate the beauty of a flower (although not with his friend’s more refined aesthetic sense), but could also see much more that was beautiful about the flower: its cells and structure, the intertwining biochemical actions that govern its development, and the evolutionary reasons for its coloring. He proclaimed: “Science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

Feynman challenges us to add together our understandings, to listen to those with differently tuned senses of wonder, and to add them together in a way that creates a whole whose parts interact with and enrich each other. And he highlights both aspects of wonder at work in the act of understanding: appreciation for the marvelous organization and interactions of a beautifully complex system, and the host of questions that stem from such recognition.

Thankfully, wonder is alive and well at Drury. I can easily call to mind conversations with a musician who wonders about astrophysics; an English professor who wonders about the similarities between grammar and mathematics; a philosopher who wonders about the congruence between truth and learning in science and in the humanities. But more important, these teachers, and their colleagues, walk into classes every day and share such questions with their students. And those questions, as they should in a liberal arts university, cut across the boundaries we use to initially organize our experience of the world. Our students wrestle with questions about ethics, business, arts, science, creativity, politics, economics and behavior, and then turn around and bring their own sense of wonder into play in crafting new connections and explanations.

Since I see that happening every day, I’m confident that our students leave Drury with their wonder and creativity not only intact, but enhanced. And that bodes well for their future, and ours.