Monday, February 22, 2010

Creativity and Youth

Jonah Lehrer has a fantastic article in the Wall Street Journal about the connection between age and creativity:
Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists. Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus; Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the tender age of 26; Werner Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics in his mid-20s. At the time, these men were all inexperienced and immature, and yet they managed to transform their fields.
Youth and creativity have long been interwoven; as Samuel Johnson once said, "Youth is the time of enterprise and hope." Unburdened by old habits and prejudices, a mind in fresh bloom is poised to see the world anew and come up with fresh innovations—solutions to problems that have sometimes eluded others for ages.
Lehrer goes on to enumerate the brain-drain in NIH funding, as funding goes more and more towards older, lower-risk researchers, and the younger, higher-risk innovators are left unable to get their revolutions funded. Creativity, he argues, especially in scientists is most noticeable early in careers, right when funding is becoming impossible to get.
One theory suggests that creative output obeys a predictable pattern over time, which is best represented by an "inverted U curve." The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts to decline in middle age. By the time scientists are eminent and well-funded—this tends to happen in the final years of their careers—they are probably long past their creative prime.

It seems to me that two major disservices are being done to our youth that have broader implications here. First, NCLB is draining creativity-fostering programs out of schools and second, inner-city kids are spending their creative years in jail.
While I recognize that the motive for NCLB was entirely altruistic, it is being incredibly poorly executed. Schools continue to face extinction if they cannot produce math/reading regurgitating robot-students, and in order to increase classroom time on those subjects, well-proven, creativity-fostering curricula such as art and music (and yes, recess) are getting increasingly crowded out. When the NCLB generation of kids reaches college and graduate school, will we have a generation of creative problem solvers, aggressively pursuing the impossible, or will we have a bunch of drones, mindless and hopeless? As NCLB results continue to frighten me, I consider private school for my daughter more and more seriously.
As to the second point, what number of hidden geniuses do we lose as a culture to the jail system? How many bright-minded kids are born every day that could potentially change the world at age 25 but instead spend their 18-30's behind bars for crime? Who is at fault for this? They are? We are?
I think it would be hard to argue against the fact that it is a sick tragedy how many young people's lives become a waste in this country due to cultural pressures. And world-wide? How many brilliant minds are wasted in the desperate need to simply find food every day?

Maybe I should pout that my best years may be spent in a struggle to get funding, then when I no longer need the funding, it will be more available. Or maybe I should instead lament the millions of humans on this planet who are probably smarter than even I, and the fact that they'll never even get a chance to write a proposal, never get a chance to just sit and dream up ideas.


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