Fish Unaware Of Water: What America Can Learn From Iceland About Creativity

Fish Unaware Of Water: What America Can Learn From Iceland About Creativity

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Published August 12, 2016

Psychologist, teacher of counselling psychology and endowed chair at the University of Kansas Barbara Kerr specialises in the psychology of creative individuals, with a particular focus on adolescents and young adults. In the course of her research, she discovered firsthand some stark differences between Icelandic and American public policy towards creative people, and shared what she’s found with us.

What drew your attention to Iceland in particular?
My personal story is that my daughter was dissatisfied with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After seven years there, she found she was not finding the community that she needed. We had taken a short trip to Iceland, and she said, “I need to go to Iceland.” Which she did, in 2011, and plans to stay. She found her creative community here and I don’t think she’ll ever leave.

What were the main differences she noticed between Iceland’s creative community and Chicago’s (which I would’ve expected is vibrant)?
It’s a rich creative community [in Chicago], but more like rich in terms of wealth. There, the emphasis is on competitiveness instead of collaborativeness. In Iceland, she found a spirit of collaboration. In Chicago, she found an increasing interest in elitist art; performance art that was accessible to very few people; an increasing emphasis on the interests of the affluent. In Iceland, she found that art was much more grounded, more earthy, more connected. Ordinary enjoyment of beauty and surprise. There was also the ease with which artists can find one another, and find a sense of community in Iceland.

One young man we spoke with downplayed matters by saying, “Oh, we’re just having a poetry craze right now.” The idea of a “poetry craze” in America would be something for The Onion.

Now, like a lot of people who come to Iceland, I had an idealised version of the country. You know, happiest people, safest country, that kind of thing. What I found is that, as Politifact would put it, this is mostly true. I learned rapidly, from talking to my daughter’s friends, that young people spend an extended time here in their “first jobs”: coffeehouses, tourism, that sort of thing. It’s hard to live in Reykjavík; the cost of living is very expensive for young people. It was clear that her life, and those of other artists, musicians and writers was just as frugal here as it is back home.

Another surprise is that we thought everyone would acknowledge how creative Iceland is. They would disagree, and then immediate launch into a complaint. Usually because they have no idea what it’s like in the United States. One interesting conclusion that my students came to was the “culture of complaint” in Iceland. This idea that it’s never good enough. This actually spurs people on, to do better, to do more. So you don’t find the complacency that you might expect.

Was your daughter’s experience the impetus for putting this together and bringing your students over here?
That was part of it. Another part of it is that in the US, creative people—especially creative young people—are losing hope. This isn’t an opinion; this is the result of our research at the University of Kansas Department of Education. Comparing 2006 and 2016 cohorts, we found that young people now experience a much higher level of anxiety, hostility, and introversion. We started seeing, for the first time, enormous increases in young people who had suicidal thoughts, that they had lost all hope. I felt we needed to do something to help these young people. A way to compose a life in what I consider to be an deteriorating capitalistic society.

And what have you found so far on this latest visit to Iceland?
We met with an extended Icelandic family and asked them questions about their experiences with the education system here. We asked them, for example, about “innovation education,” something that has been in place in Iceland since the 90s but isn’t very widely found outside of Scandinavia. This means giving children hands-on work, such as learning to knit, woodworking, being able to use power tools. But these Icelanders we spoke to acted like fish in water who are unaware of the presence of water—to them, this is all completely ordinary.

I find that Icelandic kids have so much more time on their own. That alone time is so critical to the development of the imagination.

One young man we spoke with downplayed matters by saying, “Oh, we’re just having a poetry craze right now.” The idea of a “poetry craze” in America would be something for The Onion.

How many of these differences between Iceland’s education system and America’s education system do you think are culturally or politically based?
I would say they are politically based. Americans suffer from a false populist belief in the intellect; the idea that we all start out equally, we all have equal ability, and anybody can be creative. In the US, the idea is to slow down the kids who are doing well, so that they’ll get along socially with the other children. There’s only one field in which American children are allowed to move as fast as their skills will take them, and that’s athletics.

What was the most surprising thing you encountered in Iceland’s creative scene?
The casual acceptance of creativity as a part of life, and the celebration of creative people. I think people saw with their own eyes what encouraging creativity did for the country after the crash. There’s somewhat of a cliché that after the crash, all Icelanders learned how to knit. However, what I saw is, the country experiences a financial crash, and a nation searches desperately for any way to bring in dollars and euros, and found the best way to do that is to encourage arts, culture, science and technology.

What can the US learn from Iceland when it comes to public policy towards the creative arts?
First, all policymakers need to accept that individual differences are real. That creative children should be found early and encouraged. And by encouraged I mean not cutting funding for arts and music, or technology. The funding needs to increase for that. But we also need to celebrate and appreciate creative people, like they do here. But another really important point is this: leave them alone. I find that Icelandic kids have so much more time on their own. That alone time is so critical to the development of the imagination. Here, social solitude is not seen as a sign of social failure, but as a choice. I think that in the US, we need to let kids play, let kids alone, don’t force them to do activities they don’t want to do, and don’t be too concerned about them being alone. Social skills are not all they’re cracked up to be.


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