Point of View

Critical versus creative thinking: Getting past Paris at NCSU

March 15, 2014 

aris before Christmas is more than what you imagine. More than the Eiffel Tower covered in lights, it is art museums filled with students, young and old alike, ready to learn from a seemingly endless wealth of culture.

Beyond a front row seat to the Mona Lisa and to Monteverdi’s Vespers in Notre Dame – a 500-year-old painting, a 400-year-old piece of music, an 850-year-old cathedral – Paris is permanence. The classic cinematic line “We’ll always have Paris” captures this for those who experience her, even too briefly, the days before Christmas.

Upon returning home to Raleigh, I learned the great oak in the lot behind my house – what must have been the oldest tree in Raleigh – was slated for the guillotine. And so, piece by piece, over several days, they took her down, until by the New Year all that remained of history was laid bare in its rings.

Two weeks passed, then three, before the man showed up to remove even that remnant of days long gone, bringing with him what appeared to be a half-size Zamboni, which he walked like a dog, gently guiding it around my HVAC to the sacrificial altar in the lot out back.

And for the next three hours, walking his Doberman back and forth, the stump-grinder erased all memory of the oldest tree in Raleigh as if it were never there, with a space-age machine emblazoned with the brand name Vermeer.

Apparently it is top of the line, but it put me in mind of the 17th century Delft master, perhaps now retired to construction, his “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (The Mona Lisa of the North) keeping the books for him in the trailer on site.

At N.C. State, where I work, we are undergoing a reaccreditation process by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS, as it is called, encourages a Quality Enhancement Plan to prove that the university is fulfilling its mission of educating students for the 21st century workforce.

N.C. State has chosen an admirable QEP – what it calls “Critical and Creative Thinking.” Critical thinking we do pretty well at State between our engineers and MBAs. Creative thinking, though, is more difficult for us, lacking as we do a critical mass of artists to educate what it means to think creatively.

But who needs experts? Our scientists have taken this up themselves, defining “creative thinking” for future State students as “the generation of ideas.” Yet “the generation of ideas” doesn’t begin to explain the process of what it takes to create a work of art or even the creative process that could lead to the true innovations the state of North Carolina is looking to N.C. State to provide.

The poet W.H. Auden observed that, “Knowing artists you think you know all about prima donnas until you hear the scientists get up and sing.”

Whatever creative thinking is comes about in the interaction of ideas that lead us to connections: the permanence of a culture, for example, versus the impermanence of a tree blocking progress. But it is in the synthesis of differing ideas that the right climate is manipulated for those elusive “ideas” to appear.

It is the juxtaposition of opposites, in conflict, that makes us question what we see, makes us wonder what we would not normally wonder. This is the skill we would hope to instill in our students!

And, perhaps most importantly, creative thinking is a seeking outside of ourselves for an awareness of self that creates moments of true understanding and, if you’re lucky – eureka – an innovation perhaps, but certainly a moment of realization.

Creative thinking asks why, ponders the advantages of the clean slate versus the inherited past and wishes to understand how they might inform each other. Creative thinking juxtaposes the fleeting with the sustained and asks what is lost and what is gained, and what are the responsibilities of stewardship?

Creative thinking equates a Zamboni and a Doberman and watches what happens in the mind, though first requiring the knowledge that the Vermeer chipping wood in the lot behind my house was once the name of an artist who moved us with his (yes!) scientific method of camera obscura to create art.

Science and art working together. For STEM can’t do it alone without the A of Art to give it STEAM.

Without this, all we’ll have is Paris – which says something entirely different for our state, its economy and its educational system than the comfort of that classic line.

Dr. J. Mark Scearce, recipient of the Raleigh Medal of Arts, is the former director of the Music Department at N.C. State and a full professor in its College of Design.

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