And now for something completely…creative?

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If you were hoping education might be put to work to propel Ontario out of its deepening economic hole, February was a bad month.

It started with Margaret Wente’s response to York University’s lengthy strike. Only one thing, she concluded, can fix the Ivory Tower: if the general public wants universities to be “vast credentialing factories,” give it to them (“Higher Education? Aim lower,” Globe and Mail, 3 February 2009). Wente may think the traditional university promise to expand students’ minds is outdated, but are universities about delivering the skills necessary to gain immediate employment and nothing more?

The month ended with the Ontario government’s reaction to Roger Martin’s and Richard Florida’s bold report, Ontario in the Creative Age (Martin Prosperity Institute, February 2009), in which the duo emphasizes the importance of education in helping Ontario adapt to economic change. The premier may want to help Ontario escape its Rust Belt association, but has decided it is easier to try boosting the old car one more time before replacing the battery: “after paying a premium price for a glimpse of the future,” John Barber writes, “Queen’s Park shut its eyes and ran” (“Imprisoned behind a wall of mistrust.” Globe and Mail. February 21, 2009).

It’s ironic that bailouts intended to prop up an outdated status quo inspire market confidence, while new ideas promising meaningful progress undermine it.Ontario won’t emerge from the worst financial crisis in eighty years if knee-jerk reactions define our various responses. We need to think our way out of this mess.

To be fair, Premier McGuinty probably agrees in principle with the Martin-Florida claim that it is “time for Ontarians to take bold actions” (he did, after all, once take a hands-on approach to leading the innovation portfolio within in his government). But I wonder if burying the report belies his confusion about how to implement their recommendations. Martin and Florida gave us an appropriate aspiration, but they didn’t provide the necessary blueprint for building a creative society.

How do you go from strategic vision to changed society? What is the catalyst that enables the desired change to take place? How do you inspire confidence so people believe they are up to the task of generating “new ideas and better ways of doing things”?

Martin and Florida may have the right idea, but the government senses the public’s unease with something perceived to be unconventional. Change won’t happen until we erase the notion that “creativity” is an alien concept.

Something fundamental has been overlooked: there’s nothing “alien” about innovation in this province. Innovation isn’t something that happens elsewhere, it happens here. The culture Martin and Florida want already exists.

The problem Ontario has is that it has lost track of its story: we lack knowledge of the events that link us to our identity. Getting Ontarians to believe the province is “where next happens” might be as simple as persuading people that creativity and innovation is an established part of Ontario’s DNA.

To inspire confidence in the claim this is “what we do,” Ontario can draw on a long history of accomplishments. We can boast of developing the concept of blood transfusions, discovering insulin, inventing Pablum, and manufacturing vaccines; of helping Canada become an agricultural bread basket through the invention of Red Fife Wheat and Massey-Harris farm implement manufacturing; enabling exploration and business development thanks to hardy bush planes and passenger jets. Inventing both the telephone and the Blackberry positions Canada as the book-ends of the global communications industry. Harnessing the powerful Niagara River showed us the value of turning-on the lights; our pioneering network of provincial parks reminds us of the importance turning them off. The T. Eaton Company brought retail into the modern age; Don Mills introduced Canada to suburban culture. Flexible thinking helped win the two great wars of the 20th century when manufacturers responded to crisis by re-tooling their production lines.

Naysayers who dismiss this deeply-rooted experience as meaningless to the present and future, are a bit like those who reject a university’s expand-your-mind promise as “nonsense.” In fact, the reverse is true: understanding where we’ve been will bring clarity, focus, and renewal to our identity, and ensure we move ahead with confidence.

May be the humanities and social sciences – even if they don’t prepare students for a specific vocation – are relevant in a complex and technologically demanding world after all. Martin and Florida felt education would cultivate the necessary “analytical and social intelligence skills we need to compete at the frontier of the creative age.” The ideal of a liberal arts education, one that produces knowledgeable graduates who think critically and can adapt their thinking over time and through changing conditions, is precisely what society needs.

It seems unlikely that schools focused on processing students like widgets will help society cope with a shattered economy, and prepare us for whatever comes next. Narrow training that deals with the “now,” may, in fact, only compound Canada’s difficulty at adapting to – call it what you will – the “creative age,” or the “knowledge economy.”

We need to think our way out of this mess and the humanities are there to help prepare us for “what’s next.” No, the liberal arts aren’t perfect, but universities haven’t been emphasizing their practical value. Even the best universities, William Deresiewicz, writes in the summer 2008 issue of The American Scholar, “have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers.” We need students, Deresiewicz says, capable of thinking their way out of problems, “to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.” Turning our backs on the liberal arts, Susan Jacoby writes in The Age of American Unreason, has left us “unprepared for an increasingly global future.”

York University won’t rebound from its troubles by aiming lower and commodifying its product. A newly unconfident Ontario needs to be reminded of what it is capable of achieving. What’s the link? Strengthen, rather than diminish, liberal arts teaching. Expand, don’t narrow, our minds. It’s not the only path ahead, but it’s a creative way to start.

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