The Origin of “Creativity”

In a fascinating new book chapter*, Dr. Camilla Nelson documents the history of the concept of creativity. Prior to the mid-19th century and the Darwinian revolution, the words “creative” and “creativity” were not used at all (see her Google Ngram on page 173), and “creation” was associated with the divine. Darwin showed that nature could be creative, without appealing to a divine creator. But still, for decades after Darwin, “creative power” in humans continued to be associated with a spiritual force (e.g., various forms of vitalism, such as Bergson’s elan vital).  In the same Ngram, you can see that the word “creativity” was not used at all until long after 1900, with a rapid growth in the 1950s forward.

So, what happened in the 1950s? Here’s Nelson’s answer:

Arthur Bestor published Educational Wastelands in 1953, and MGM released Blackboard Jungle in 1955 to a major public outcry. Newspapers carried interviews with critics under headlines such as ‘Mass Produced Mediocrity” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 1956). Then, the Russians launched Sputnik, and the education crisis spilled onto the front page. Education promoted conformity and “group think”, argued critics such as Hyman Rickover (1959). In contrast, he envisioned “a future dependent on creative brains” that required a qualitatively different kind of education that was capable of producing “creative people, sworn enemies of routine and the status quo”, in opposition to totalitarian Russia. The United States needed to support the kind of “freedom essential to the creative worker.” [Rickover is better known as the man who directed the development of the nuclear submarine.]

Bibliographic surveys indicate that there were as many studies of creativity published between 1950 and 1965 as there had been in the previous 200 years. Much of this work was funded by military and defense concerns.

Basically, she argues that today’s concept of “creativity” was created by the Cold War, and the need in the United States to contrast democracy with totalitarianism. She argues that this is why creativity researchers define “creativity” in heavily Western and individualistic ways.

The language in this quotation should sound familiar, because it’s the same argument we’re hearing right now: Today’s schools aren’t preparing students for the 21st century creative economy. Have we really made no progress in education, in the 60 years between 1955 and 2015?

*Camilla Nelson, 2015, “Discourses of creativity”. In The Routledge Handbook of Language and Creativity. Warning: it’s written in an extremely academic style!


2 thoughts on “The Origin of “Creativity”

  1. I am always amazed by this fact. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word ‘creativity’ in print was in 1875 ! We are pretty good at giving lip service to creativity and promoting it abroad – the CIA actually secretly funded a tour of Abstract Expressionist paintings in the 1950’s and 60’s as a way of promoting US creativity and Freedom. But we still struggle with in our education systems. One reason I believe, is that we still frame creativity in terms of ‘problem solving’ and the ‘competitive advantage’ – in other words we frame it in business and militaristic terms. There is so much more to creativity than that.

  2. I agree, it really is surprising. Oh, another interesting fact: The words in French and English (cre’ativite’ and Kreativita:t “are actually Anglo-American derivatives that were exported back to Europe via the discipline of psychology”

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