Culture, Digested: The PhD in Creativity

Jessa Crispin in The Culture We Deserve: One of the more interesting asides in the extensive coverage of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts’ shutdown has been the information that in the past few years the institution had been offering a PhD in creativity. The first handful of recipients were awarded their degrees in 2022 – among them were a “psychotherapist, a wine writer, an Ethiopian filmmaker, and a Philadelphia School District administrator.” Unlike a traditional PhD program, where a small number of candidates are selected to contribute to a field’s base of knowledge with original research and scholarship, this doctorate was sponsored by a whiskey distillery and sought to teach students “to think more creatively” through “intensive immersion in creative thinking,” according to the university’s official website. (It also deviates from many other PhD programs by charging tuition – more than $50,000 a year for at least three years – and fees, rather than being one of the fully funded programs that is the university norm.)

The sins of the American arts institutions – saddling students with tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt as they train them for jobs that don’t exist, the absence of real artistic instruction, their contribution to the vast divide that exists between the credentialed and the uncredentialed in income inequality and quality of life – have been well documented. But this is mostly discussed in terms of what the university is failing to do – educate, sustain a meritocratic system, create well rounded individuals capable of critical thinking and a love of learning — rather than what it is choosing actively to do. The university system is not failing at these goals, because they are not the goals of the university at all. It is probably more productive to see it as succeeding, flourishing even, at its intentions, which become obvious once the perception shifts away from romantic and nostalgic notions of the life of the mind.

That nostalgia is used to sell you a product that is different from the way it is advertised. It’s hard to tell what exactly the University of the Arts creativity doctorate program provides – there is no reading list or syllabus available because one does not study creativity, one is immersed in it. The vagueness must be part of the point. For the contemporary university, where students are treated like clients, having real standards and expectations goes against the “customer is always right” model. Hence the widespread acknowledgment of grade inflation. How can anyone fail a PhD program in creativity, when creativity is a word that can mean absolutely anything? It is a perfect encapsulation of what the contemporary arts institution has turned into: a university more focused on money than pedagogy, the transformation of the ivory tower into a corporate boardroom, and the focus on churning out creatives than artists.

What even is a Creative? The word, shapeshifting from adjective to noun without anyone’s permission, seemed to float out of the ether of the millennium changeover, closing the divide between someone writing an advertising jingle for a prescription medication that includes kidney failure in its possible side effects with someone painting a portrait with someone designing a new type of drone that can kill civilians even faster than before.

But as Samuel W Franklin documents in The Cult of Creativity, the word “creativity” doesn’t go back much further than that. According to his research, the first entry of “creativity” in a dictionary dates to 1966. This current trend of using “creativity” as corporate-speak is not a distortion of its original intention, that is what the word has meant since its entrance into the mainstream. The word barely existed until the 1950s, when in a Cold War-induced paranoia the United States sought to make itself distinct from its enemy, the communist Soviet Union. Unlike the evil empire, which demanded conformity and sacrifice from its people to achieve its greatness, The United States sought to establish itself as a land of individuals, free to think and behave and live as they chose – as long as they still met their productivity quotas.

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