Let Tall Poppies Grow
CULTURE & SOCIETY
Let Tall Poppies Grow: The Pressing Need for a Culture of Creativity
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
“In present-day America, so it looks to me, the affluent majority is striving desperately to arrest the irresistible tide of change. It is attempting this impossible task because it is bent on conserving the social and economic system under which this comfortable affluence has been acquired. With this unattainable aim in view, American public opinion today is putting an enormously high premium on social conformity; and this attempt to standardize people’s behavior in adult life is as discouraging to creative ability and initiative as the educational policy of egalitarianism in childhood.”
—Arnold J. Toynbee, On the Role of Creativity in History, 1967
Though the above quotation sounds as though it was written today, it is—in fact—forty years old. Writing in the turbulent late Sixties, Toynbee’s call for encouraging creativity in American (and, indeed global) culture attempted to legitimize creativity as humankind’s ultimate capital asset. As he wrote, “To give a fair chance to potential creativity is a matter of life and death for any society.” Toynbee’s point of reference, the history of human civilization that he chronicled in his masterful twelve-volume work, A Study of History (1961).
For Toynbee, creativity uniquely exists as a human faculty; working in tandem with our consciousness, our will and our ability to hand down our way of life from one generation to the next via education.
Though we hand down our knowledge and experience to our children, Toynbee notes, creative souls routinely notice that the available social and cultural heritage needs retooling in order to solve unforeseen problems and find innovative solutions to new situations.
As Toynbee points out, this younger generation of “non-conformists” inevitably comes into conflict with “the establishment” which he defines as those in power; rulers elected by the majority who view the established order as the natural order; and, because preserving that order raised them to power, the establishment sustains it.
Completely in character for a historian, Toynbee proffers several historical figures as examples of “non-conformists” who launched paradigmatic shifts in the established cultural order. He cites Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict, the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi as creative people and thus natural cultural critics. In each instance, each nascent movement began in negative repudiation by the establishment. In some cases, the families of these men rejected their ideas (in whole or in part), as happened with Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi and the Buddha. Occasionally, the religious or political authorities chose to be patient and tolerant with their ideas, as with St. Francis and Gandhi. In other cases, those in power outright condemned them, as with Jesus. In either case philosophic creativity can spill into social revolution, a peaceful one when patience is marshaled, and when met with persecution and martyrdom, one resulting in entrenched sectarian conflict.
Usually, establishment forbearance is in short supply because, as Toynbee writes, “it requires not only tolerance and discernment but also great moral courage…” These are evidently qualities bred out of bureaucrats, victims of their own political success.
As Toynbee once wrote: “Civilizations in decline are consistently characterised by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity.”
Certainly, personal creativity is often rejected (or at least strongly discouraged) in American culture, a lesson introduced in our public schools. Our schools are the relic of the nineteenth-century industrial age where conformity and intellectual egalitarianism were written into the curriculum. How else to produce patriotic children and indoctrinate immigrant children into conformity with “the American way of life?” This school system, which has been little-updated, and—with No Child Left Behind—can even be said to be regressing, was predicated upon national homogeneity and distrust of intellectualism.
This subject has been explored in many circles lately, and from many angles. I will only name a few which recently came to the level of national news.
Robert A. Weisbuch, president of Drew University and former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, recently unveiled a plea for a wholesale makeover of the American educational system with what he termed “a Third Culture.”
Weisbuch’s atypical career has spanned what he calls the “entire educational landscape” from higher education to K-12 public school culture. In his latest Chronicle of Higher Education article, Weisbuch aptly draws attention to the often-ignored artificial chasm that divides primary and secondary education: a profound disagreement about the merits of an intellectual approach to education. Weisbuch writes, “[In the public schools] we’ve tried military-style discipline, standards and tests. We’ve tried vocational ed…We’ve tried using college admission as the carrot, so that our kids are always living the present only in terms of flattering the future…Might we instead begin with the assumption that curiosity is a native aspect of being human? Could we now give inspiration a try?”
Weisbuch’s revolutionary Third Culture? To create partnerships between academe and schoolteachers to allow “the rich life of the disciplines” to flow freely from childhood through maturity. He quips, “May I join with distinguished colleagues…to propose an approach that is directly and unashamedly intellectual? We’ve tried everything else, so how about giving ‘thought’ a shot?”
Garnering the attention of the popular media, the scholar, blogger and author Susan Jacoby recently published The Age of American Unreason (Random House, 2008), a sort-of sequel to historian Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). Along with a few other cultural trends, in her book the previous Washington Post reporter harshly criticizes the failing American educational system for undermining “the intellectual life so essential to functional democracy.”
Back in 1967 Toynbee, too, remarked on the clear link between education and democracy: “People are increasingly troubled about the change in relationship between the individual citizen and the structure of society…the whole idea of a democratic government is simple enough and straightforward enough that the individual citizen should be able to understand the essentials of it. Therefore, he should be able to elect a president or, representatives who will represent what he believes to be the right policy of that country; also he should be able to keep track of what his elected president and representatives do and to influence them or perhaps impel them by peaceful methods to change their policy.”
Toynbee continued, “[A politically unchallenged president] is a sign of some shift in the balance of power, due to the increasing scale of society and the increasing complication of all social and political transactions. I think we’ve got to find some way of making the individual citizen effective again, under these new and much more difficult conditions.”
Toynbee warned against the knee-jerk reaction of some citizens to “just give up, fold his hands and say, ‘Well, it’s beyond me.’…” Toynbee says that is tantamount to the German people’s reaction to their government post WWI—with hindsight—a grossly fatal mistake.
Unfortunately forty years on, as American culture continues devolving into anti-creative, anti-intellectual conservatism, many citizens have indeed given up hope in making any difference. As the Associated Press reported yesterday (3/31/08), local workers in Muncie, Indiana reacted to the destruction their abandoned, local GM plant with statements like:
“Politicians sold us out.”
”We’re the past.”
”It’s not just us, people. It’s everybody in this godforsaken country.”
”When I was growing up in Muncie there was a great middle-class way of life and everything was black and white. Now, it’s become this gray blob — a very large area of gray and it confuses me, I miss my blacks and whites.”
But, how can the populace become engaged if they are uninformed, misinformed, and/or taught to blend in to our homogeneous, incurious culture from the time they enter school?
The answer may be to shine a spotlight on this phenomenon and to change our state of education.
To that end we should be aware of a pervasive trend in English-speaking countries, often called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome.” Or, as my parents would call it, “getting too big for your britches.” Typically “TPS” is seen as a societal means of undermining those with natural gifts by openly criticizing and resenting them because they have risen above their peers. The original saying comes from Livy’s History of Rome (Bk. 1) where the tyrannical Roman King, Tarquin, gives his son Sextus Tarquinius advice on how to handle a newly subjugated nation. In front of a messenger, Tarquin took a stick and swept it across a flowerbed, lopping off the heads of the tallest poppies growing there. The clear message: eliminate all the eminent people in that culture to maintain control.
As many have argued, this phenomenon has particularly penalized America’s gifted students: kids who show a natural, genuine ability in the area of creativity (read: cultural innovators). Currently these students are being forced to sink to increasingly mediocre standards in the public school classroom, only to grow-up with a defeatist mentality and lack of innovative drive.
Rather, as Toynbee and others have illustrated, we should be supporting them and cultivating them, not least because we should strive to produce a generation of global leaders who care for humanity and foster peace and prosperity. Furthermore, what a tragedy it would be to produce “merely proficient” citizens that eventually work for the empowered leaders and intelligentsia produced by other nations, perhaps accepting their status as inevitable.
It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but as some more ambitious goal beyond it.
–Arnold J. Toynbee
Let’s turn America into well-tended fields of beautiful Poppies, and let the Tall ones excel.
 “Creating a Third Culture,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/26/2008.
 Daniel Golden, “Initiative to Leave No Child Behind Leaves out Gifted,” Wall Street Journal, 12/29/2003; Susan Goodkin, “Leave No Gifted Child Behind,” Washington Post.com 12/27/2005, Derek Neal and Diane Schanzenbach, “Left Behind By Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-Based Accountability,” University of Chicago Study, 7/2007; Susan Goodkin and David G. Gold, “The Gifted Children Left Behind,” Washington Post.com 8/27/2007.