Changing the Way We Perceive “Creativity”

Spring 1994 Masthead

Jonathan A. Plucker
The University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA

Flatow, I. (1992). They all laughed…From light bulbs to lasers: The fascinating stories behind the great inventions that have changed our lives. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Gardner, H. (1993). Creating minds: An anatomy of creativity seen through the eyes of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Weisberg, R. W. (1993). Creativity: Beyond the myth of genius. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.

If the two decades immediately following Guilford’s (1950) famous APA address were the “Golden Age” of creativity, there is ample evidence that we are undergoing the “Modern Age” in the study of creativity. Theories are increasingly interdisciplinary and involve system perspectives, centers for creativity research and leadership are becoming firmly established and internationally-renowned, and individuals from a variety of backgrounds express a willingness to tackle some of creativity’s tougher problems (e.g., identification, assessment, acceptance-gaining, relationship to other cognitive processes). The study of creativity is entering its renaissance, and, as a result, there has been a flurry of publishing activity with respect to materials on creativity.

Three of the most recent creativity books to cross my desk are also three of the most thought provoking: Ira Flatow’s They All Laughed…, Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds, and Robert Weisberg’s Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius.

When reading these books, the following questions may serve as guides:

  • Who is the author’s target audience – educators, theoreticians, researchers?
  • What is the author’s stated purpose for writing the book?
  • How does the book attempt to change the way we view “Creativity”?
  • Regardless of the intended audience, how can the author’s ideas be translated into classroom practice?
  • How valuable are examinations of the lives and/or works of creative, historical figures?

Of these three books, Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds will have the most substantial impact upon the study of creativity. Using a methodological framework that has emerged over the past few years (Gardner, 1988; Gardner & Nemirovsky, 1991), Gardner analyzes seven of the “great creators,” all of whom were contemporaries: Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Martha Graham, and Mahatma Gandhi. Creating Minds’ most significant contribution is the method that Gardner uses to analyze all aspects of the lives of these seven individuals. He stresses several overarching, organizing themes to guide his investigations, which he approaches from developmental and social/environmental interaction perspectives.

Some of Gardner’s most interesting findings include the high degree of self-promotion that each individual used to gain attention for his or her creative works, the observation that “important events and breakthroughs” occurred roughly 10 years apart, and the fact that many of the creators grew up in households where affection and intimacy, if present at all, were based upon achievement. While I disagree with some of Gardner’s positions, including the potential importance of a biological basis for creativity, these are minor issues when compared to the book’s considerable contributions to the study of creativity.

Flatow’s They All Laughed…is a collection of stories about some of humankind’s major inventions (e.g., the lightbulb, television, lasers, submarines, nylon). Each section is written in a very readable, almost anecdotal style, but a great deal of pertinent detail is included. Many widely held misconceptions are debunked, including the notion that Thomas Edison tried carbon as a lamp filament in the lightbulb serendipitously (incidentally, no fewer than 13 inventors had tried carbon filaments in their lightbulbs over the previous 34 years).

I found Flatow’s accounts of the “behind-the-scenes” maneuvering and politics that influenced the acceptance of these inventions to be especially interesting. For example, Edison, who had invested a great deal of time and money into the use of direct current (DC) electricity, was worried when George Westinghouse’s company, which sold alternating current (AC) electricity, became profitable. The ensuing dispute included the world’s first execution through the use of the electric chair. Edison, claiming that AC was far more dangerous than his own DC, convinced the State of New York that electrocution using AC electricity (and a Westinghouse generator) would be humane. Of course, Edison hoped that AC would become synonymous with lethality, but by the time the gruesome spectacle was reported in the newspapers, Westinghouse had an unbreakable monopoly in the electricity industry.

In Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, Weisberg seeks to “discuss the components of ordinary thinking and how they underlie even the greatest examples of creativity” (1993, p. xiii). Previously, Weisberg (1986) criticized the widely held belief that creativity is the result of “extraordinary thinking,” or what he refers to as the “genius” approach to the study of creativity.

In his effort to stress the underlying role of ordinary thinking to the creative process, Weisberg uses the first two chapters to familiarize the reader with the genius-ordinary thinking debate and to stringently critique the genius position, especially the role of intuition, insight, and the unconscious in the creative process. The concept of the creative personality is analyzed with the conclusion that the role of the personality has been oversimplified and overemphasized. An impressive amount of evidence supporting the “ordinary thinking” position is also presented. Weisberg often uses historical case studies to illustrate his points, and he is most successful when he analyzes the inventive or scientific experiences of “genius” creators in order to illustrate the preponderance of “ordinary thinking” in even the most renowned examples of creative accomplishment.

Many of Weisberg’s comments will surprise the reader (e.g., brainstorming is highly overrated as a creative thinking technique), and many more will provoke a great deal of debate. This is Weisberg’s most significant contribution: by questioning some of the long-held beliefs and themes of the study of creativity, a long overdue debate may have finally come to the forefront.

From the perspective of a classroom teacher, Flatow’s book is clearly the most useful. Students will find the stories to be quite entertaining, and educators can use it to enrich content across a variety of disciplines, including the physical sciences, engineering, business, and thinking skills. Teachers will also find Weisberg’s work to be thought provoking as it causes them to question their beliefs about creativity.

Creativity researchers will find the Gardner and Weisberg books to be interesting and useful. Gardner introduces a method for investigating creative lives and effectively shows how it can be used, and Weisberg questions many of the underlying assumptions of creativity research, theory, and education. And both authors include enough “bombshells” to spark debate for many years to come.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (1988). Creative lives and creative works: A synthetic scientific approach. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), The nature of creativity (pp. 298-321). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Gardner, H., & Nemirovsky, R. (1991). From private intuitions to public symbol systems: An examination of the creative process in Georg Cantor and Sigmund Freud. Creativity Research Journal, 4, 1-21.
Weisberg, R. W. (1986). Creativity: Genius and other myths. New York, NY: Freeman.


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