Since its first publication in 2005, Thomas L. Friedman’s book The World Is Flat has assumed almost Sputnik-like qualities. Like a warning shot across the bow of prosperity, it has forced us to rethink our position in the world and re-examine education’s contribution to the American dream. Seemingly innocent technological revolutions in distant lands have become dominoes falling toward us, threatening our economy. A sense of urgency permeates our thinking. It is heightened by alarming reports that U.S. schoolchildren lag their international peers, imperiling both their future and the nation’s.
The shaken conservative education community, reacting to a stirred business community, has responded in typical 1960s fashion: Send more troops—more engineers, more scientists, more mathematicians. The radical liberal-arts community, reacting to an overstimulated Starbucks community, questions the wisdom of this business decision: Where is Yeats? Thoreau? Where’s art for art’s sake? The debates have been limited mostly to academic arenas, but if the economy disintegrates, there will be intense pressure to move from Friedman’s sounding of the alarm to a call to arms. Lines will be drawn. Sides taken. The future of the U.S. economy is at stake. It comes down to an either-or proposition. Or does it?
Conventional wisdom tells us that the United States needs to do a better job of preparing students to participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers if we want to get our economic engine back on track. To accomplish this, so the thinking goes, we will need to draft our best and brightest students into STEM fields and support them with the tools necessary for high levels of academic achievement. In theory, this strategy will eventually produce an army of world-class scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists, and our future will be secured.
But there is a downside to this plan. In today’s structure of schooling, the emphasis on specific disciplines creates a de-emphasis on others. Unfortunately, in the context of STEM, the de-emphasis comes at the expense of the arts. While there are those who say it’s a fair trade-off, especially in terms of economic development, cutting the arts may be sacrificing our greatest asset in the 21st century: creativity. Pushing STEM may help win a battle or two in global competitiveness, but ultimately cause us to lose the war, unless we can re-engineer our system of education to include the genius of “and.”
The trench warfare employed by U.S. companies since World War II—squeeze the margins and drive the competition out of business—still works. Unfortunately, with the ascent of India, China, and Wal-Mart, it’s American workers who are being squeezed and our companies that are losing ground in the battle for profitability. Under the new rules of global engagement, we can no longer rely solely on strength in numbers to secure strongholds in an ever-changing economic environment. Companies that traditionally have carried America’s fortunes are struggling to navigate this new terrain (GM ↓). Corporations that once seemed invincible are suddenly on a slippery slope (Ford ↓). To stay competitive, American businesses must find new ways to be successful, new strategies to deploy. In other words, it’s time to get creative.
The companies finding traction in the new economy are those that create new markets to infiltrate (GOOG ↑) and new products to proliferate (AAPL ↑). Their modus operandi is to attack unsuspecting competitors with unconventional means. They utilize sophisticated technology to sabotage established supply chains, and invent new methods of access (iTunes). They seize market share by scrambling traditional lines of communication with high-powered hand-held devices (iPhone) and decoding coveted information at the click of a mouse. While these rebels clearly possess the technological savvy and engineering know-how to be disruptive forces, their arsenal also includes something more powerful to attract legions of devoted followers—creativity. For these Zen masters of the new universe, the clever uses of science, technology, engineering, and math are survival tactics, but creativity is the weapon of mass destruction.
Unfortunately, the creative thinkers our businesses will need are currently being schooled in a system that was designed to do the work of Henry Ford, rather than produce the next Steve Jobs. In the manufacturing model of education, the ability to connect literature and social science or see the influence of art on engineering is left largely to happenstance rather than intention. While the utility of this approach is rarely questioned, the significance should be. Despite multimillion-dollar investments to dismantle education’s assembly-line mentality, we continue to treat students as Model T’s, bolting parts on bodies as they roll down the line. Even though we pride ourselves on our customized options (French, Spanish, or Latin!), the end product still looks a lot like a Model T. In our current way of doing things, creativity is an elective and innovation is a vocabulary word.
If the business world is seeking creative thinking as the means to provide a competitive edge in the global economy, shouldn’t we plant the seeds of creativity in our education system? Shouldn’t we design a system that nourishes the arts as well as science? As the last few months have painfully illustrated, the global marketplace is fiercely competitive, and only the strongest will survive. But we should remember that strength comes from a variety of sources. While there is little dispute about the importance of the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math, we must consider beauty, art, invention, and imagination. It’s quite possible that emphasizing certain disciplines at the expense of others would be an economic mistake. The law of unintended consequences may work against us. A better strategy may be to ensure that there are multiple paths to knowledge.
Can trigonometry be taught through painting? Can engineering be taught through sculpture? Does literature enhance the understanding of science? While these are rhetorical questions, they are worthy of consideration, as are a thousand others. What we do know is that we can’t afford, as a country, to rely on the status quo. The countries that will be successful in the 21st century will be forward-leaning ones—those pushing the envelope of education system design for the full development of their people
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week as Creativity: The Path to Economic Recovery