Robert Fulford's column about Canadian creativity

(The National Post, May 30, 2001)

There may be no way to halt, at this stage, the proposal that the federal government try to enhance Canadian creativity by studying it under the microscope of a task force. This process will no doubt add to the sum of foolishness afflicting our national life, as well as costing money and time. Even so, it is just the sort of exercise governments welcome. It gives the impression politicians and civil servants are serious people taking serious action, though it will commit them to nothing but attendance at tiresome conferences and the utterance of pious platitudes.

We citizens, in our pathetic optimism, have assigned our governments a number of tasks, most of them fairly specific. We have asked them to educate the young, build and manage safe roads, protect our borders and the quality of the environment, maintain the value of the currency, and run the health care system, all the time providing peace, order and good government. There are some who say the health care system is not bad at all, considering what it tries to do, but those of us who hold this view are now so few in number as to be statistically uncountable. Otherwise, the citizens tend to agree that our various governments have spectacularly failed at their essential work.

The governments know our opinion. They may also be aware that hardly anyone alive can remember when our political class was as ineffective, inarticulate, fractious and clownish as it is today.

Against this background, worrying about something as ineffable as creativity looks attractive. It's like persuading people to eat health-enhancing foods or start jogging: No one can argue with it, no one can imagine it does any harm, and no one can prove it helps anything except the careers of those professionally involved. In vagueness and self-righteousness, the proposed committee resembles the famous California State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem, established in 1987. The announcement of that unfortunate commission naturally provoked widespread laughter. So the words "and Personal and Social Responsibility" were added to the title, to make it look more serious. But in three years of talk, it did nothing for the self-esteem of anyone except those taking part. Its report couldn't even say precisely how self-esteem and academic accomplishment are linked. Its single accomplishment was to provide a great long-running joke for Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury strip.

The suggestion of a task force on Canadian creativity appears in a National Research Council report, released May 23 at the annual meeting of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Quebec City. It results from two years of discussion, including a series of Millennium Conferences on Creativity in the Arts and Sciences. A guiding spirit behind those conferences was David Bentley, professor of English at the University of Western Ontario and the author of The Grey Moose: Essays on the Ecologies and Mythologies of Canadian Poetry, 1690-1990 (University of Ottawa Press). It was Professor Bentley who explained last week that "Canada is not a very creative culture. Traditionally, it hasn't been. It's tended to be a receiver, a secondary culture. I would love to see that turned around." That adds an extra reason for becoming a more creative nation: We will please Professor Bentley.

Much of this thinking began to surface in Edmonton in May, 2000, during the Symposium on Creativity and Innovation in the Arts and Sciences. The "expert participants" in that event, as the final report called them, included William Buxton, the computer scientist, Douglas Cardinal, the architect, Herb Gray, the Liberal Cabinet minister, Rudy Wiebe, the novelist -- and, guiding them through their deliberations, Prof. Bentley.

That conference developed a consensual definition of creativity, which sounds impossible and turned out to be. "Creativity," the report solemnly declared, "is imaginative, motivated, transformative, and productive thinking and activity within a particular context or framework of knowledge, inquiry and skills -- a process that generates outcomes which are original, significant, effective and of value or use (or both) to the community."

That's untrue, and dangerously so. Making community use a prerequisite of creativity carries a whiff of totalitarianism. But before you get to the theoretical level, or to that misplaced word "motivated," consider the language: Were the authors of those words, and the colleagues who signed them, even vaguely in touch with their creative selves, or with the English language? The passage is pure bureaucratese, all-inclusive and useless.

The Edmonton conference moved even closer to a philistine view of its subject with the announcement that its members knew how to teach others to be creative. It offered, as if this were scientific fact, an astonishingly arrogant statement: "Creativity is a process that can be taught and learned by all. Creativity should be viewed as a process, a way of thinking, not exclusively an act, an event or a product. It is a learned skill, not an innate trait or gift that some people possess and that others do not." People have brooded on this question for centuries, and produced a library of conflicting opinions. But our Canadian experts reduce the issue to educator's cant. To call this statement dubious would be flattery. It's the happy-talk ethos of the kindergarten, rewritten in the language of a policy paper.

Much of what appears in reports emerging from this process is the opposite of creative. Where creative acts are unexpected and unique, the reports are predictable and general: They are so general, in fact, that they appear to accept without thinking the shaky proposition that creativity is always roughly the same quality, wherever it appears in the sciences or the arts. And where creative acts are usually flavoured with individualism, the reports reek of committees and consensus. Their crippled, strained prose sounds like the work of a royal commission on the lumber industry.

It seems not to have occurred to anyone connected with this enterprise that the earnest and highly generalized attention of a task force is precisely what the sciences and the arts need least. Creative acts are so disparate, and so mysterious in origin, that they defy scrutiny and may well be diminished by it. Creativity resembles humour, as E.B. White described it: You can dissect humour, as you can dissect a frog, but in the process you kill it.

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