Shelley Carson, in a piece written a while back at Scientific American, explores the link between eccentricity and creativity:
Albert Einstein picked up cigarette butts off the street to get tobacco for his pipe; Howard Hughes spent entire days on a chair in the middle of the supposedly germ-free zone of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite; the composer Robert Schumann believed that his musical compositions were dictated to him by Beethoven and other deceased luminaries from their tombs; and Charles Dickens is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London. More recently, we have seen Michael Jackson’s preoccupation with rhinoplasty, Salvador Dalí’s affection for dangerous pets and the Icelandic singer Björk dressed for the Oscars as a swan.
It isn’t just average Joes who perceive highly creative individuals as eccentric. These individuals often see themselves as different and unable to fit in. The latest findings in brain imaging, creativity research and molecular biology suggest that these perceptions are not just based on a few anecdotal accounts of “weird” scientists and artists. In fact, creativity and eccentricity often go hand in hand, and researchers now believe that both traits may be a result of how the brain filters incoming information. Even in the business world, there is a growing appreciation of the link between creative thinking and unconventional behavior, with increased acceptance of the latter.
If eccentricity is so vitally linked with creativity, then it’s likely that efforts to rein in the one will have a dampening effect on the other. Traditionally, schools have not been noted as particularly welcoming environments for eccentrics. Part of the blame there can be assigned to teachers and administrators, who need to create some kind of orderly environment and who end up enforcing a good many social norms without ever giving the matter much thought. But a large share of the blame must also be apportioned to the students themselves, who are tireless enforcers of social norms and who can be tremendously intolerant of departures therefrom.
Obviously there has been a good deal of progress in these areas over the past few years, and there is no question that schools today are more tolerant of differences, even some very odd differences, than they were a decade or three ago. And partly through efforts such as the various anti-bullying campaigns, but also due in part, I think, to a generational tendency towards a more live-and-let-live approach to to the world, students are a significantly less hostile to the Weird Kid than they were in the past.
This is all to the good if we want our schools to provide an environment where creativity can flourish. And as Carson sees it, that is probably something we should want very much:
The good news is that the plight of square pegs may be improving. The ascendancy of innovative technology as a key factor in economic growth has elevated creativity from merely a positive trait to a highly sought-after commodity in the global market. Many leading corporations—such as Coca Cola, DuPont, Citigroup and Humana—now have chief innovation officers on their leadership teams. Prestigious business schools—such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale—have added courses on creativity to their curricula. And Fortune 500 companies, including PepsiCo, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Aetna and Marriott, now routinely put employees through creativity training programs. Trainers in these classes use a variety of tools and techniques to help noneccentrics open their minds to “out of the box” thoughts and stimuli that might otherwise be ignored or suppressed.
It makes sense that the economic value of creativity would drive us towards greater tolerance of eccentricity. But technology may have a greater role to play than just that of an economic driver. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been looking at the role that technology can play in enhancing student creativity. A whole new literacy is evolving, powered by computer technology, which enables students to combine verbal expression with more visual forms in ways that were never before possible; shared social spaces are providing motivation for students to improve the quality of their work (even the choice of computer hardware is being evaluated from the standpoint of how it will contribute to such spaces). Meanwhile, a focus on learning outcomes rather than adherence to traditional classrooms on the one hand, or the gee-whiz aspects of technology on the other, is allowing for some truly innovative educational options, particularly where creativity is involved.
It has been established that one of the key benefits of effective educational technology is its ability to individualize the learning experience, to make it specific to a particular student’s learning style. These shared social spaces will have to do that one better. Accommodating individual learning needs and preferences is a great start, but what we ultimately need are social spaces that accommodate individuals, period. The social learning space must be one where eccentricity can flourish as it never has before, a place that says, “Come on in. And let your freak flag fly.”