Have you ever wondered why some of the world’s greatest innovators are liberal arts grads? Wikipedia, Disney, Apple; they all have founders or CEOs with liberal arts backgrounds. And it’s divergent thinking that sets them apart.
Divergent thinking is a term coined by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1967, meant to describe a kind of nonlinear, diverse, creative state of mind. We use it when we tap into our creativity and approach problems from different angles. Convergence, the opposite method, encourages restricting one’s ideas and answers to those that might be considered most correct. If you’ve read or seen Divergence, you get what this is all about.
Like the great teachers of yesteryear who told us to “think outside the box!”, divergent thinking encourages a wide range of potential answers for every problem. It’s like using a lightning storm to spark up your idea lightbulb, instead of moving by default toward the most familiar electrical socket.
Divergent Thinking Comes from Curious Minds
It takes a certain kind of person to be a good divergent thinker - the same kind of person who often pursues a degree in the liberal arts. And it isn’t about intelligence. Personality traits actually have the biggest effect on how creative a person can be.
Divergent thinking is found among people who are nonconformist, willing to take risks, persistent, and curious. These people thrive in our classrooms, pondering philosophical dilemmas and writing innovative critical papers for their humanities studies. These are the students who love a lively classroom debate where numerous voices chime in with different viewpoints and arguments, helping each participant move beyond what they believe is definitive.
Divergent thinkers can generate that kind of “idea diversity” on their own too, seeing past the conventional to generate truly innovative approaches to problem solving.
Liberal Arts Environments Encourage Divergent Thinking
Young students in grade school sometimes learn to be afraid to speak their minds, because they might give a “wrong” answer. Traditional testing across the education system may also keep divergent thinkers in check. This is because our grades are largely dependent on our ability to write out what the teacher or school board says is correct.
The best liberal arts colleges are much more supportive of diverse perspectives, guiding students toward unlearning that restrictive mindset.
For example, Shimer encourages group discussions over exams, so instead of struggling in isolation, students work together to see many different possibilities and generate entirely new ideas.
Divergent Thinkers are Master Problem-Solvers
Cognitive flexibility, or open-mindedness, is often the key to finding solutions that provide the most good to the most people. And like its physical counterpart, cognitive flexibility comes naturally to some, but is always improved with practice. Few students practice open-mindedness more than those in the liberal arts.
The world’s challenging and complex problems need creative solutions that go beyond prescribed expectations and rote thinking.
Liberal Arts educators teach students how to be creative, to integrate material across subject areas, to question their own assumptions, and to imagine other viewpoints and possibilities - precisely the skills we need to unravel complicated problems and find solutions that benefit as many stakeholders as possible.
At this moment, divergent thinking skills are among the best problem solving techniques science and academia have to offer. Get your edge with a liberal arts education and harness the power of an open mind.
Are you interested in attending a liberal arts college in Chicago?
Visit Shimer for more information or to speak with an advisor.