Seek the Blank Spots on the Map!

David Brooks has a curious column in the New York Times today. (Curious is a good word. It absolves George of all wrong-doing. He is not a naughty monkey. He is simply curious. He is in love with the questions generated by the universe.)

Brooks (somewhat precociously for a conservative) thinks our capitalist ethic is inhibiting creativity:

[PayPal founder Peter Thiel’s] lecture points to a provocative possibility: that the competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires.

Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

I think David has been reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces again. I like it. He also reminds us that our emerging cultures will  be difficult to predict since true innovation rarely comes from familiar sources. Instead, renaissance results from new interpretations of the dusted-off volumes of yore.

Brooks notes how our current education climate isn’t making change any easier:

Now think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines those mind-sets.

First, students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Our leading cultural critics have been saying this since, at least, Ivan Illich and his “deschooling” movement in the 1970’s. I guess the forces of stasis are just too powerful and wealthy (throw in apathetic) to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, it seems, the rigid education environment actually makes it more likely that heroic wanderers will emerge with healing visions, since, after all, they have a clearly defined opposition to work against. Plant the trees in perfect rows, you say? I think I will build an asymmetrical Zen garden instead. Multiple-choice? No, I’ll assign questions with no answers at all.

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