Rather bizarre news this week. First, Tasmanian multimedia artist Leon Ewing started a campaign to give drugs to teenagers to unlock their creativity. He plans to raise the idea of “educational marijuana” at an Australian museum event next month highlighting difficulties in schools. Then, the museum hosting the event stood up for him, refraining from actually endorsing the proposal, but calling his suggestion “brave and creative”.
Setting aside the distinct aroma of coup de publicité, as well as the inherent legal issues (cannabis is still illegal in most of Australia), there are several major problems with this proposal as part of an educational program. Although creativity can certainly be developed, and recent research even shows that it can be stimulated with electricity, the introduction of a substance that students already view as recreational is just ridiculous. But the suggested approach raises even bigger issues than whether or not the prescribed drugs would be abused. It raises critical questions about the way we think about creativity.
There’s the genetic factor to consider, as growing evidence suggests that creative capacity is somewhat linked to heredity. If some people are naturally more creative than others, is it right to drug the others? Isn’t that just another campaign for conformity? What happens if creativity in one person looks different than equally effective approaches in another?
Even assuming that an effective screening system could be developed, how can we be believe that medicating students identified as “creatively deficient” could possibly be consistently effective? There are just too many variables with each individual, in terms of biochemistry, personality, family history, beliefs, socioeconomic privilege, access to experiences, home environment… and on and on. Further, once a program is established, what about the parents and/or students who decline participation? What does that “us/them” categorization do to the real possibility of developing whatever creativity does actually lie within each individual?
Ewing points to the use of other medications, arguing “We already prescribe amphetamine-like medication for focus and docility. What if we medicated for creativity?” But he seems to ignore the simple fact that medicating hyperactive children, for instance, is more likely to be embraced by parents, by schools and even by the children affected because it increases their ability to conform. Because school models are largely dependent on consistent behavior and group activities, it’s not surprising that teachers and administrators would welcome substances that make day-to-day life easier.
But where dealing with hyperactivity and other true disorders may require a legitimate re-balancing of biochemistry, creativity itself is neither symptom nor a discrete goal — it is a skill of mindset, the ability to open up to lateral thinking and non-linear problem-solving. It is process more than talent, and can be developed, on some level, in anyone. We can either grow or diminish our creativity through habits and behaviors, and it can be either nurtured or repressed, without drugs. So introducing chemicals into a closed environment is just unnecessary, and makes one wonder about Mr. Ewing’s true agenda.
Predicting the good news: Education won’t go for it. Not because it’s a bad idea (though it truly is), but because introducing sanctioned weed into schools is too unpredictable to be anything but terrifying to most educators. We don’t need to lose sleep over this.
But in the meantime, the controversy should be entertaining.