Creativity as a Quest towards Career and Meaning
The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once wrote something which I believe perfectly encapsulates my own educational experience and which helps explain my approach to teaching:
“Any subject taken in depth relates to other subjects.”
Today there is a great deal of controversy surrounding what role higher education should play in the lives of young adults and whether or not it is a wise decision to seek a Bachelor’s Degree in any field other than in the bio-medical, technological and applied sciences. Unfortunately, I think that this is a fair question because many humanities related fields don’t appear to have an obvious practical application the way medicine or engineering do. When I began my path toward higher education and told people that I was pursuing a BA in the humanities I was immediately asked two questions: 1.) “Are you going to become a teacher?” 2.) “Are you planning on going to graduate school? Because you’ll need to/ Because you should.”
Considering how expensive a BA has become we are all well to wonder if the degree is still worth the price of admission if it cannot promise a lucrative profession without further expensive education and training (if it even offers the promise of a profession at all anymore).
My own response to that conundrum is this: a Liberal Arts education remains worthwhile and worth the investment but not because it offers any obvious answer to the question: “What shall I do with my life?” A Liberal education actually offers entire sets of answers to this question and I think that that is in fact the point.
The question of what each one of us should do with our lives is becoming more difficult to answer in an age in which long-term employment is becoming increasingly rare. I no longer know many people who stay in any one place of employment for more than 5-7 years (often less). In response to this culture-wide development a range of writers across a variety of professional fields from cultural studies to management (from Richard Florida to Barbara Ehrenreich to Henry Giroux, etc.), either criticize or extol the contemporary unpredictability of the global economy. Depending on your socio-economic and political views you might think that Globalization, a “flexible workforce” and the greater fluidity of workers, markets and capital is either a new utopia or dystopia. Yet regardless of how each of us may feel it is now conventional wisdom that successful people are those who remain flexible, creative and entrepreneurial in the face of change. In fact, “entrepreneur” might just be the new buzz word of our time. But what does it mean to be an entrepreneur? I believe it means situating yourself out on the vanguard; anticipating trends in the market and in cultural/consumer demand; and embracing creativity, unpredictability and yes, flexibility.
When I read all of these different books and articles or listen to these many writers, thinkers and observers talk about the current economy I keep returning to McLuhan’s statement and its appropriateness for our time. I think of my own educational and work experiences: I am a writer, a former graduate student and a former public and charter school teacher. I have seen job opportunities come and go in the university and public school fields and have on numerous occasions asked myself the often painful question: “Where do I fit?” What I do know is that I love learning: I love to write analytically, critically and creatively; that I have an insatiable appetite for new knowledge and for exploring problems and topics which fit under the rather wide umbrella of “social theory.” So, what type of career options did this offer me?
My answer is that I have become a teacher who seeks out his students rather than wait for them to come to me. I am “entrepreneurial” about finding where my classroom is located since I believe it can be anywhere. Fortunately, I have discovered that by seeking out my students I have happened upon the very bread and butter not only of my teaching, but also of my writing. The most vital window I now possess into the contemporary culture, its trends and apparent u-turns comes from my work with young people. They show me where the action is and the audiences are but they also prove that my question: “How do I lead a creative, sustainable and fulfilling life?” is their question too. We face the very same challenges and we are often brought together by our shared interest in exploring subjects which excite us.
We live in a time when we are told that we must re-invent ourselves. I don’t actually believe that it is reinvention that we are doing: We are actually rediscovering the excitement and spirit of adventure we first felt when a subject “turned us on.” We are faced with realizing that what McLuhan said is actually correct: one subject is all subjects. Our intellect and our imagination are hybrid abilities whose power is drawn from the human desire to achieve insight. That is what I believe the educational and career quest is about: achieving insight.
I now believe that the single most important skill set a student can possess is the ability to turn their personal quest for meaning and fulfilment into a creative project of self-discovery and into a search for community. Work is located in community. And this quest, like any great one, will take them into fields they never could have imagined. When they enter those fields they should feel confident and prepared that they already possess the pluck, imagination and grit to meet the frontiers they will face. This is where I believe that I come in as a teacher: I am prepared to help them see that their interests and instincts are the very basis of their intelligence and adaptability. They already possess the very kernel of their success in their desire to inquire and explore.
My job, my responsibility and my mission is to help students see that their search for insight and meaning is their greatest strength and it is born out of a fierce intelligence, an obvious aptitude and a thirst for challenge. They can and should feel confident that they already posses abilities and insight seeking tools that are ready to be applied to whatever field(s) of inquiry they wish to explore. If they learn this early and learn it well they will be ready for the challenge of making a career and meaningful life for themselves. But the key is giving them the opportunity to follow (and test) their instincts and interests and learn that by following their passions they will embrace the skills, the discipline and the training that their passions demand of them. After all, that is what a quest is and what it entails.
I am absolutely certain of this.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks