Down the Rabbit Hole: The decline of creativity in the U.S.

by Georgia Ansley, Contributing Writer

For generations, the United States has seen an increase in intelligence levels across the board. The psychological evidence to back this up is called the Flynn effect, which suggests that with every new generation basic fluid intelligence—the ability to solve new problems and identify patterns—and crystallized intelligence—utilizing learned knowledge and experience—increases  by 10 points. Fluid intelligence has been measured through tests that emphasize problem solving skills such as the Ravens, the Norwegian matrices and the Belgian Shapes tests. Crystallized intelligence has been measured through the Wechsler-Binet test and purely verbal tests. This increase in intelligence scores is attributed to the increase in the United-States’ standard of living and the enrichment of environments increase with each generation. However, for the first time ever recorded creative intelligence scores have been declining since 1990.

Most of the research backing up this claim comes from a study conducted by E. Paul Torrance, a psychologist who studied 300,000 different men, women, and children from around the world. According to the Torrance study, since 1990 creativity scores for Americans, most significantly the scores of children from kindergarten to 6th grade, have been dropping for the first time in history. These are based on tests which ask individuals to perform a variety of tests that measure divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is defined as generating unique ideas, while convergent thinking involves combining those ideas into the best result.

These creative assessments are useful predictors for creative accomplishment in the future and are three times more accurate than the correlation that childhood IQ scores have on intelligence later in life, according to Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at the College of William and Mary. High creativity scores have also proven to correlate with success later in life. According to the Torrance study, those who came up with what was categorized as a “good idea” on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats and software developers.

This “Creative Class” is essential to our economy, and careers in this area have been continuously praised for providing an avenue for women and other minorities to break through labor divisions. According to Richard Florida, author of The Rise of The Creative Class, 47 percent of Asian-Americans, 24 percent of African-Americans and 18 percent of Hispanics hold creative class jobs. More employed women than employed men hold creative class jobs, comparing 37.1 percent of employed women to 32.6 percent of employed men.

The possible side effects in a loss of creativity can be seen both in the workplace and classroom alike, which has led to many concerns and the scramble to find a solution. When asked why scores have taken such a sudden dip, Education Psychologist Ron Beghetto attributes this not to a “loss of creativity” but the “hampering development of creativity,” specifically in the education system. Students today are conditioned to memorize the information lectured to them and regurgitate the same information when they are assessed. This is how students have been taught to learn, which hampers students ability to come up with their own thoughts and ideas and nurture their creativity. As a common idiom states, if you don’t use it, you lose it—and kids are losing their creativity.

No Child Left Behind and it successor the Every Student Succeeds Act have gotten a lot of push back since the Torrance study was released in the early 2000s, and  many argue that the focus on constant testing leaves no room for creative students to grow and develop. Even if the focus on constant testing does not necessarily reduce creativity, it can suppress the expression of it.

Standardized testing allows the measurement of comprehension and evaluation of knowledge, but does nothing to appraise creativity and interpretation. The long term problem continues to be that younger generations are “much less capable of understanding and solving ambiguous problems…they want to be told what to do and what the answer is,” said Richard Florida. This is seen with the rise of SAT scores over the last decade, while Torrence scores continue to decline.

Some people blame the drop on the rise of technology. They are concerned with the loss of collaboration skills, or the ability to work with groups. They say kids are spending too much time watching television and playing video games, activities that do not encourage interaction with others or spark original thought, thus hindering the development of children’s imaginations. However there is no uncontested evidence to prove these claims, since some studies claim technology is not hurting creativity but instead encouraging a different kind of thinking.

On an even wider scale, the U.S is becoming less accepting of non-conformists and more reliant on the distinction between right and wrong. The kind of standardized testing set up by No Child Left Behind emphasizes a student’s ability to answer a question correctly but does not give any weight to the process they used to find their answer. According to University of Georgia’s Mark Runco, “when creative children have a supportive teacher—someone tolerant of unconventional answers, occasional disruptions, or detours of curiosity—they tend to excel. When they don’t, they tend to under-perform and drop out of high school or don’t finish college at high rates.”

According to Beghetto, the answer to what needs to be done to save and nurture creativity for the coming generation relies on our teachers and institutions. “I think,” he says, “there should be a variety of ways to assess what students know and how they know it.”

Creativity is a skill that needs to be cultivated as much as any other, but it is continuously overlooked. If we lose creativity, we lose the innovation and development that comes along with it, and society loses the ideas behind its best literature, music, art, and business. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The Possible’s slow fuse is lit by the Imagination.” But this appreciation and respect for freedom of thought and individual ideas is lost in a system of rigid requirements and pre-established ideas, putting us at risk of losing the Dickinsons, Shakespeares and Einsteins of our time, who are willing to defy the norms and look at something in their own way.

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