Creativity and the Sputnik Shock
Creativity and the Sputnik Shock
Creativity and the Sputnik Shock
By Nick Currie August 6, 2005


 In 1966, Jim Henson started a Muppet slot on the Ed Sullivan Show with each sketch lasting three or four minutes. In one slot called “The Art of Visual Thinking,” Kermit the Frog (orange shirt, yellow tie) plays a Beatnik instructing a Square (white shirt, grey tie) on how to think visually:

“Man, see, you don’t learn stuff like this; this is just what’s happening,” says Beatnik Kermit with all the authority of a jazz master or a Buddhist guru. “I’ll show you, baby, just follow me... Think of something nice, like little birds in the trees, or maybe like flowers that bloom in the spring, fah la, fah la!”

Above Beatnik Kermit’s head we see animated pictograms of graceful birds and flowers, but above the Square there’s just a clumsy quacking duck and a straggly geranium in a pot. He’s just not “switched on,” man, not creative. As the sketch proceeds, the Square learns how to generate imagery, but not to stop it. Soon, a chaotic stream of Hebrew characters and algebraic symbols fill the screen and erase the world, as the characters shriek “Help!”

It’s just a comedy sketch, of course, but it tells us a lot about the cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, a time when the Cold War both hastened innovation and threatened annihilation. It might seem odd at first glance to connect Kermit’s depiction of a spaced-out hippy to the Space Race, but there is a link. If we consider the 1960s a decade during which creativity was more fashionable than ever before or since—seeming to concern the layman viewers of the Ed Sullivan Show as much as professionals in the “creative industries”—it’s because of a shock America received in 1957: the Sputnik shock.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union beat the United States to the launch of the first satellite to orbit Earth. In severe public humiliation, America lost round one of the Space Race. How had it happened? How could America win the next round? The whole education system came under intense scrutiny. “Why can’t Johnny read?” became the catchphrase at school, while rote learning and the tendency to reward and reinforce unoriginal thinking came under attack at university level.

“This perceived failure of American science and engineering,” wrote educationalists David H. and Arthur J. Cropley of the Sputnik shock, “was attributed to lack of creativity, and judged to be the result of defects in education. University-level teaching of engineering was widely regarded as indifferent or even hostile to creativity, and empirical studies supported this view ... Students who preferred trying new solutions dropped out of engineering courses three times more frequently than those who preferred conventional solutions.”

In 1959, Harper published a book, edited by H. H. Anderson, called Creativity and Its Cultivation. Among the papers was an essay entitled “Traits of Creativity” by J. P. Guilford, president of the American Psychological Association. Guilford related various personality traits to creativity using aptitude tests. Problem-finding skills, fluency and flexibility of thinking, originality, re-interpretation of familiar objects, ability to fill in blank spaces, tolerance of ambiguity and interest in both convergent and divergent thinking were found to be the traits that correlated most highly with creativity. The idea was that once clusters of traits had been isolated, they could be encouraged and enhanced in just about anyone. Even Squares and Scientists, it seemed, could learn fluency of thought!

To be fair, although the Sputnik shock may have made creativity studies a hot topic for academic research (and a nice way to tap into government money earmarked for defense), papers like these had been appearing throughout the 1950s. Guilford himself delivered a speech in 1950 calling for immediate action in the “neglected field of creativity research.” At the University of Southern California, the Aptitudes Research Project determined that creativity could indeed be learned.

In 1953, Alex Osborn published an influential book called Applied Imagination, which introduced a strategy called “brainstorming”—a temporary suspension of judgment designed to produce copious and bold ideational fluency. Osborn’s “creative problem-solving” strategies focused on quantity, deferred judgment, unexpected combinations and an activity he called “freewheeling” (a certain Bob Dylan picked up the term 10 years later for an album title). This profuse loosening strategy was very much in the air in the ‘50s, evident in the work of artists like Jackson Pollock, Ornette Coleman and Allen Ginsberg. More was better. Spontaneous was cool. Anything went.

Meanwhile, in the heat of the Utah sun, north of the nuclear tests being conducted in neighboring Nevada, Calvin W. Taylor was leading investigations into “The Identification of Creative Scientific Talent” by way of conferences. The conferences started in 1955; funding came from the National Science Foundation. The aim of these “creativity conferences” was to find ways to cultivate exceptionally gifted individuals. After the Sputnik shock, the government increased funding.

By the 1960s, it must have seemed like everybody wanted to be—or already was—one of those “exceptionally gifted individuals.” John F. Kennedy promised that American ingenuity would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade; every Beatles press conference seemed as wacky and quip-filled as a Marx Brothers comedy (asked if the band was insured, Ringo quipped, “Who wants a rich mother?”).

Meanwhile, watched by millions on the Ed Sullivan Show, the archetypal 1950s Square was learning “visual thinking” from a Beatnik frog: “Listen, man, you’re being too literal. Now, what you need is a lesson in abstract thinking. See, watch this. Now, first you really have to let go and you sort of unwind into the cosmic infinity of everything, see, then you go wop diddly scoo widdly ah pah, ah pah doop diddly de wap wap ...”

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