U.S. news magazine Newsweek reports on long-term, longitudinal research that suggests that in the USA creativity is declining. I find myself wondering if this trend is consistent with what anthropologists around the world experience in their classrooms and workplaces.
Possible explanations for the trend include intellectual shallowness attributed to TV, video games, the Internet, i.e., the usual culprits in discussions of information overload and its negative effects on cognition and empathy. The publish-or-perish audit cultures that now plague higher education in the UK as well as the USA my also share the blame. So might misguided back-to-basics movements in primary and secondary education.
Whatever the cause may be, if the trend is real it contrasts starkly with the advice of management gurus like Daniel Pink or labor economists like Robert Reich, who see creativity as the only sort of high-valued labor in a world where, given the combination of automation and Asia's huge and hungry populations, the downward pressures on the price of repetitive physical labor and routine personal service seem irresistible.
There is also the ingenuity gap described by Thomas Homer-Dixon, who argues that human ingenuity is falling behind the scale and complexity of global problems. While there may be those who question the equation of creativity and ingenuity, there is no question about the growing demand for what management theorists call out-of-the-box thinking that leads to real solutions, to which purely negative critique makes no contribution.
Even the U.S. military is worried about zero-defects rigidity in a world where everyday life seems more and more to approximate the fog of war. As U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis, recently appointed to head CENTCOM, the Central Command that overseas U.S. operations in the Middle East has remarked,
“We need disciplined and unregimented thinking officers who think critically when the chips are down and the veneer of civilization is rubbed off — seeing the world for what it is, comfortable with uncertainty and life’s inherent contradictions and able to reconcile war’s grim realities with human aspirations.”
Putting aside direct involvement in war, "seeing the world for what it is, comfortable with uncertainty and life's inherent contradictions and able to reconcile grim realities with human aspirations" sounds to me like a good description of a useful sort of anthropology.
Others, I suspect, will be appalled.