Sunday, 1 January 2012

Beyond Good and Evil: Creativity and transversal competency

Whilst I'm working on an EU bid on creativity, I'm wondering about the idea that creativity can be considered to be (in the terrible jargon of the European Commission) a 'transversal competency'. I've struggled with the idea of competency generally, and the business of seeing creativity as 'competency' seems to be the most extreme example. What the commission, governments, education ministries, universities want us to think is that creativity can be taught. Now within that assertion, there is a presupposition that creativity sits within the individual's psychological and bodily predispositions and that these dispositions can be acquired through educational processes.

I have no doubt that creativity can be acquired - I have attempted (and sometimes succeeded) in instilling greater creativity in my students. But I believe creativity is a form of life which sits neither within the person or within their environment alone, but is situated as a relation between the two. In our educational processes to establish it, we change the environment as much as try to influence psychological attitude: indeed, our exhortations to change attitude (which the commission might see as instilling competency), or to play (which is the key to creativity) are themselves changes in the environment of the individual, who would hopefully see our efforts as a 'breath of fresh air' after the staid and oppressive social environment of their everyday practice.

But behind such attempts to 'instill' creativity, there is - when they are successful - something deeper. Because creativity is relational there is something fundamentally good about the situation which transforms the form of life of an individual from one where oppression rules to one where individuals feel free to play. The essence of this is the absenting of fear, for it is fear - which is the human reaction to pathological material and social environments - which gets in the way of creativity.

So that then leads me to think that the logical corollary of creativity as a transversal competency is to see 'goodness' as a transversal competency. What would that mean? Would it mean 'goodness' could be learnt through educational process? Of course, goodness is genuinely transversal - applicable is so many contexts! What would the educational processes around instilling 'goodness' look like? But then we might similarly be tempted to say "goodness is a form of life". Which I think it probably is - and indeed related to creativity, as it is related to the absenting of fear.

What then about evil? Could that too be a transversal competency? Let us say that that too is, for the sake of argument, a form of life.. But unlike goodness and creativity, evil is characterised by pathological relations and by individual fear which either constrains creativity, or focuses it to pathological and selfish ends. Of course it is possible to be evil and creative (think of the Nazis), in a way that it may not be possible to be good and uncreative. But that then gives us a problem in thinking about creativity. Because, for those who wish to assert the goodness of creativity and raise it to the status of a transversal competence, do not want to think about the possibility of creative competence used to do evil. That in itself may be a failure of thinking about competency, not creativity.

Competencies are really forms of life: the form of life of being a doctor, builder, academic, computer programmer or hairdresser. Living creatively is to live a particular form of life (which may co-exist with other aspects of a form of life). Those who elevate creativity as a 'competency' mean to think of creativity as essentially good, where the form of life of creativity is the form of life of goodness, and an absenting of fear. But the idea of instilling a 'creative competency' already contains within it a fear of deeper critique of creative processes (which would highlight the meaninglessness of 'competency'). It may contain the seeds of its own pathological unfolding, and the antithesis of the hoped-for 'goodness' of creativity.


Simon Grant said...

Thanks Mark! My comments were going to be too long, so I've posted them separately at

Mark William Johnson said...

Thanks Simon! That's a refreshing way to start 2012... Happy New Year!

Simon Grant said...

And a Happy New Year to you, looking forward to ever more intriguing conversations! Mind, I haven't answered the actual question, and I'd like to work on it with you.