What I Learned About Creativity from My Worst Subject

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student

May in the Park, No. 24
Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

I do not typically write about Education per se.  Two of my favorite bloggers ModernDayChris and Matt Wilson of Everything Needs to Change do the best writing about the subject, particularly the education of children in our public school systems from Kindergarten to 12th Grade.  This essay is not so much a critique as it is a reminder about something often forgotten when conversations and analyses take place about what is wrong or right or that needs fixing in American education overall.

First, let us be honest.  Not all American public education is flawed; it is often unequal based on race and/or socioeconomic factors.  It can also suffer from certain regional economic problems, which are beyond the scope of this essay.  The quality of American higher education runs the gamut from mediocre to the best in the world.  Yet, there are certain actions and habits that can help any student regardless of the quality of that education.  Of course, the best education nurtures these habits.  So here goes…

For the record, I was possibly the world’s worst Biology student.  After routinely making grades of “A” in subjects like History and English, I nearly flunked Biology in high school.  I will not bore you with the stories about my nausea and headaches when I had to dissect some dead animal preserved in formaldehyde—That is a whole other essay by itself.  When I had to take Biology in college, I determined that I needed to not only study, but also come up with some creative ways to study.  After getting a lousy two out of twenty identifications correct on a Biology Lab Practical Exam, I arranged a meeting with my professor.  (For those of you who have forgotten what a lab practical is, it is simply a test where you identify bacteria, amoebas, and other items physically located in a biology lab, many of which are under a microscope.)

My professor informed me that he typically set up everything in the lab on Saturdays.  I asked if I could come by on Saturdays.  He said that I could, and that I could stay as long as I wished so that I could examine and take notes about all of the items in the lab.  Off to campus on Saturday I went carrying my notebooks and an assortment of colored markers so that I could literally draw what I was examining so that I could study it at home, over and over again.  On nearly ten consecutive Saturdays, I also got a chance to talk at length with my Biology professor.

I joked with him that a historian’s brain dealt with a lot, and it did not have much room for Biology.  My professor admitted that he had never been a good student of History.  We both took note of the fact that History typically tells a story; and it also typically argues a thesis, which is why you can find so many different History books about the same event that argue entirely different positions about why that event happened.  This is why Law students typically have to have some academic background in History—History teaches you to see more than one side of an argument.  Biology, however, is another matter.  That amoeba cell that you just examined under that microscope is going to remain an amoeba cell.  You can either recognize it or you cannot!

During these Saturday sessions, I had the opportunity to ask my professor numerous questions about everything in that lab.  I swiftly took notes of everything he said.  When both he and I were taking breaks from the subject matter, we discussed History, Politics, Performance Arts, and whatever was happening in the news.  He quickly discovered that while I would never be a great biologist, I was a good student in History, and a burgeoning intellectual.  So, what is my point?

The point here is I listen to students and some educators talk about subjects they describe as not preparing students for the kind of work they will be doing as adults.  “Why do I have to take Biology if I am never going to use it?”  That is a fair question.  Yet, my experience with taking a subject I might not have to use or need to use taught me several important lessons about the intrinsic value of a good education beyond the mere mastery of any particular subject matter.

First, when I made a solid “B” as my final grade for Biology, I knew I had earned it.  No one—and I certainly did not—really wants to go back to school on Saturdays.  I went back and stayed long hours and it paid off.  Second, because I was often the only student in the lab on those Saturdays I was free to speak with my professor without interruption.  Technically, I got free tutoring lessons simply by showing up and availing myself of his expertise.  Third, my professor witnessed me making an extra effort in a difficult subject.  While professors do not grade for “effort” (nor should they), it does not hurt for an instructor to see a student put in extra time in order to master a difficult subject.  Fourth, I learned that I could conquer that which was difficult.

I also finally understood lessons that my mom and my uncle, both educators, often emphasized throughout my childhood and adolescence:  Education is as much about endurance as it is anything else.  And as my mom often stated: You cannot expect a student to become the next Einstein if he or she cannot get along with other students (teamwork) and also willingly and creatively work on difficult subject matter.  Importantly, both Mom and my uncle insisted that one of the keys to a good education was the “social” skill of learning how to navigate difficulties and put in extra time without resorting to short cuts or cheating or other forms of skulduggery.  Tackling a subject that one is not good at forces a certain level of creativity—that is creativity often born of unorthodox or unconventional ways to retain and master the subject matter, and pass the class.

It is right about now that the folks that know me well would assume that I would go into one of my soapbox sessions about the necessity of arts education in schools, and how the arts make students more creative and help with spatial reasoning and a host of other skills, including enhanced skills in Mathematics and Sciences.  Well, I am not going to do that, exactly.

Exposure to the arts certainly enriches and develops creativity; and I have never met an artist that was not creative at something.  Yet, creativity is not the exclusive domain of the arts or artists.  I have met many individuals who did not have an artistic bone in their bodies, but who were highly creative people.  If students are to develop into productive individuals who can think their way through and out of complex problems, regardless of academic discipline, then education needs to not only expose students to the arts, but it should also advocate that creativity—artistic or otherwise—is an essential skill for all academic disciplines.  Furthermore, arts education advocacy need not exist on, nor should it lay sole claim to, some creative island minus its other academic counterparts.  Perhaps, this is where the real debate about education needs to begin.  More to come later…

Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

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5 thoughts on “What I Learned About Creativity from My Worst Subject

  1. Leslye, first of all thank you for the kind words. Your writing inspires me and I am very touched to know that you appreciate mine as well. Second, you danced beautifully around an idea that I think of all the time – the difference between teaching and exposing. The best educators never really teach anything, they only expose their students in a manner that hopefully sparks curiousity and in the best circumstances passion. I hope every school will always offer the arts as an elective but not a requirement because expectation and externally imposed structure are the antithesis of creativity. And for the record, I felt the same way about history that you do about biology in school.

    • Actually I did poorly in biology for the same reason I did poorly in history; I am terrible at simply memorizing facts and assessments in K-12 education rely far more on memorizing names, dates and parts of thr cell than analyzing, comparing and creating meaning. And sadly, at that age I was too shy to share any perspectives that contradicted (in my young mind) the views of my teachers and classmates – so I in essence stifled my creativity in those subjects. Being ‘good’ at math and physical sciences allowed me to be more confident in expressing my thoughts and I was thus praised and encouraged by teachers and classmates in those subjects. I really wish I could find my HS English teacher and share my blog with her. Her head would probably explode!

  2. The unfortunate part about public education and its approach to History is that it is the exact opposite of the way History is taught in college. Historians really don’t memorize dates and facts, we argue about what these events, trends, etcetera mean. We argue about the causes which means that there is not one answer to any question. Unfortunately, a lot of school systems insist on memorization of facts which really doesn’t help a student to understand the “why’s” of History. Funny you should say this about memorization–that is exactly what killed me in Biology, plus dissection. I had a really hard time with dissections.

    • It is the same for all subjects really – mathematicians don’t memorize theorems and scientists don’t memorize formulas. My history classes were full of great discussion and analysis, but the test was always names and dates. This is why I got a great education despite getting mediocre grades.

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