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by Lynn S. Schwebach
Eli Broad, founder of two Fortune 500 companies, billionaire, philanthropist, education reformer, and world-class art collector, told Charlie Rose in an interview exactly what he has learned from artists: “I’ve learned to be a lot more ‘broad’ minded. Artists see the world differently than bankers, lawyers—than we business people.”
Excuse the pun, but Broad stated in the simplest terms how thinking broadly, or expansively, or with a wider lens has made a difference in his life, work, and now philanthropy. He began collecting art in the early 1970s, and soon became friends with the artists whose work he collected.
For the next forty years, Broad associated with artists, gallery owners, and museum curators —a much different group of individuals than his business friends. He saw how they approached and solved problems, and he saw the value of applying this way of thinking across his businesses and philanthropic work.
This type of thinking that Broad found so revolutionary is what psychologists call divergent thinking—thinking that demands flexibility, or expanding thoughts to come up with multiple ways to solve problems and develop solutions. Divergence doesn’t assume there is only “one right answer” to a given problem—the standard bubble sheet type of evaluation. Instead, divergent thinking connects many ideas and thoughts from disparate areas, even those that seem the most outrageous, and brings them together into a unique and often brilliant solution.
Divergent thinking leads to novel, original ideas and breakthroughs. Divergent thinkers find alternative ways to power cars and heat homes, to solve international crises, to discover medical cures, to respond to national disasters, and to help the disabled, those struggling financially, or with a mental illness.
Entrepreneurs and professionals use divergent thinking to grow successful businesses, and invent powerful new technologies. Jef Raskin, credited with starting a project at Apple called the Macintosh, said in interviews before he died that if he hadn’t had a music background, the Macintosh would have never been invented.
The opposite of divergent thinking, and what school systems tend to reward, is convergent thinking. Standardized tests and IQ tests evaluate convergent thinking—thoughts based on an analytical framework that yields one right answer for each question.
No one argues that convergent thinking is not an essential skill. When selecting from numerous divergent ideas, an individual must use analytical and logical thought to identify the best, most appropriate solution. Raskin would probably be the first to say that his master’s degree in computer science was necessary to give him the technical understanding to build the Macintosh.
But in today’s educational environment, convergent thinking is seen as the first and only educational priority. Many education reformers stress standardized tests as the gold standard in learning. When budgets need to be cut, it’s the visual and performing arts programs that get the axe.
What accountability advocates overlook is the need for divergent thinking in a highly complex world. Many still categorize creativity as something individuals are born with, something magical, or inexplicable. They fail to see the interdisciplinary nature of innovation; they see creativity as an extravagance not a necessity.
The Value of Nurturing Divergence
But some in higher education know the importance of nurturing divergent thinking. In orientation meetings at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., the Dean of the College of Architecture and Planning often tells concerned parents about the value of an architecture degree. Mark Gelernter extols the virtue of this degree for a wide range of positions that don’t directly relate to designing buildings.
He admits to a tough job market for future architects, but he describes some of the jobs that architecture graduates secure. These jobs include positions with companies such as Google, Walt Disney Corp., and start-up companies in areas of green technology. In other words, companies value divergent creative problem solving skills that architecture students learn.
That should be an essential lesson for everyone in education and government. Arts education—whether in the schools or communities—translates into marketable employees, which can translate into a healthy bottom line. Let’s tell local school boards and those in Congress not to cut funding for the arts.