What We’re Reading: Inviting All Students to the Creative Table

illustration by Clare Reid

We’re in a historical moment where creativity is sorely needed from as many people as possible so that we can effectively confront the challenges of our time. And yet, for the most part, we have become accustomed to the idea that creativity is a characteristic of the individual; some individuals have it, and some do not. Do a Google Image search for the word “creativity” and you rarely find images of people working together. (You mostly see people—sometimes specifically Albert Einstein—exploding into rainbows.) And yet Edward Clapp, in his book Participatory Creativity (Routledge, 2016), persuasively argues that creativity is actually socially distributed. In other words, it’s a function of the group, or the community.

Clapp takes on, and transforms, some of our most vaunted myths. For example, he looks at the life story of Albert Einstein and recasts it as the life story not of a person but of the idea of relativity, an idea in whose development Einstein was perhaps the primary agent, but to which many other people undeniably contributed directly or indirectly, perhaps through sharing insights, support, fruitful disagreement, questioning, organization, clarification, or other roles. When seen this way, making a biography of an idea instead of making a biography of an individual lets us see the many different ways in which all people are capable of being a significant part of a creative endeavor.

Why does this matter, particularly in the classroom? It matters because, if we decide that creativity is something inherent in the individual, and that some have more of it and some have less, we’ll exclude certain students from creative work. We’ll be part of the cultural force that convinces them they’re not creative. And the force is cultural, in that societal values are caught up in our understanding of creativity, with the result that students already marginalized because of race or class are likely to be left out of some of the most exciting, self-directed, open-ended, challenging, transformative work we do in our courses. But we don’t have to teach that way. A participatory view of creativity, which Clapp articulates and substantiates well in this book, allows all of our students to come to the table.