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Robert Slayton Headshot

Why Americans Are Becoming Stupid

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The New York Times recently carried a profound article on the group work settings so common in our businesses and schools. It turns out, however that these are the worst possible environments to foster the kind of creativity America needs badly if it is to maintain leadership in so many fields.

Instead, as the article points out, "solitude is a catalyst to innovation." As many inventors and artists -- creators and innovators -- have pointed out, the key to original work is to think and also toil in solitude, without distractions or interruptions except for regular breaks where one can interact with colleagues and friends. Steve Wozniak, co-founder with Steve Jobs of nothing less than Apple and the computer revolution, proffered this advice to those who would emulate him: "Work alone....Not on a committee. Not on a team." According to the article, one study of 600 computer specialists at 92 companies found the secret to more output was not experience or pay. Instead, it was how much privacy and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. The ability to fold back into private, quiet space and close the door was crucial to producing results. Conversely, open format work spaces, with no walls and constant background noise, was detrimental to achieving goals. Work groups, furthermore, tended to stifle creativity. Employees or students in such settings can slack off and not produce ideas, follow other participants' leads too easily, and give in to peer pressure.

Yes, it is good to break and interact with others. But organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham bluntly wrote, "The evidence suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming sessions... If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."

One topic the Times' piece neglected, however, is the conversion of public space in America to "no thinking" zones. We are gradually eliminating even the possibility that these venues can produce useful thoughts, can permit contemplation of a problem and the discovery of a solution.

Airlines lead the way in trying to dumb down the American public. It used to be that the airline lounge was a place where -- because you had to wait there for possibly long periods -- you could get a lot of work done. Yes, there was always the background noise, and the occasional intrusion of a wailing baby. But more often than not, one could find a corner to tackle the latest report you had to master.

No longer. Every airline has determined that it will help things by imposing a TV screen and speakers on every seating area. There will be sound, whether you want it, or not. Thinking has become impossible at airports.

Added to this is the cell phone. It seems that one of the prerequisites of using these devices is to talk loud. These folks do not seem to realize that they are using an electronic device to reach their distant friend; they don't have to depend on lung power alone to maintain contact.

The railroads have found a way to handle this, and foster quiet, contemplative work. Many have quiet cars, where talking or noise of any kind are banned. A passenger can still use their cell phone or carry on a conversation during their journey. Just not in that car.

The airlines, similarly, could set up such a zone. They have chosen not to.

Where the flyers have led, the rest of America follows. I go to a brand new hospital, opened only three years ago. Every waiting room, even in the pharmacy, has a TV set to entertain you while you wait.

And so it goes. The public sphere is no longer a place where Americans can solve problems, and neither are open format workplaces or classrooms. Is it any surprise that we're worried about our rate of creativity?

I'll think about an answer to that problem -- but I don't know where.