From the President

Critique and Creativity, Dissatisfaction and Hope

By James Wagner, President, Emory University

Emory President James WagnerA few years ago, I learned what I have come to see as a lesson in the complementary roles of critical analysis and creativity—maybe even a lesson in the difference between dissatisfaction and hope. What I learned as well was that all of these things—analysis and creativity, dissatisfaction and hope—are necessary to human flourishing.

I had been invited to speak with a group of students participating in a weeklong retreat as part of the national leadership training program. The program was being hosted for the first time by Emory leaders. On the evening that I arrived, the students had just completed a visioning exercise. Without conversation among themselves, each had crafted a version of a newspaper front page that might appear on the morning after their vision for utopia had been achieved. It was a great exercise, and the headlines were bold—“WAR ENDED,” “DISEASE ERADICATED,” “HUNGER ELIMINATED.” Similar headlines shouted from the sixty-five “front pages” posted along the walls of the main meeting room.

As welcome as these news stories would be to wake us up with our morning coffee someday, I was struck by the fact that, for the most part, the headlines written by our students implied that their utopia would be defined by the elimination of what dissatisfied them—by the bad that would be absent, rather than by the good that might be present. Ending war is not the same as establishing peace. Eliminating disease and hunger is essential for human flourishing, but not sufficient.

Optimism based on the desire to rid the world of what is bad may be a vital component of healthy human community and service. But such optimism must be complemented by hope, which is more like a sustaining, creative vision of what can be. Failure to combine these two ways of seeing is like setting off to cross the Atlantic focused only on the endless task of fixing the leaks in the boat while neglecting to propel and navigate it toward its destination. Both the integrity and the direction of the ship must be attended to in order to assure a successful voyage.

At our universities, students, faculty, and researchers are of course working to solve society’s problems, to fix our leaky boat. This is where the role of analysis and critical thinking comes in. But through the exercise of creativity, they also are equipping themselves and serving us by imagining new possibilities.

A great example of the practice of critical and creative thinking together was given to me by two Emory employees with whom I spoke just a few weeks ago. I discovered that one of them was an alumnus of Candler School of Theology. He had come from a strong religious home, and I joked with him about the admonition I sometimes hear offered to theology students, when families and friends warn, “Don’t lose your Jesus!” In other words, don’t let too much testing of your faith make you lose it.

He gave a knowing laugh but then said, “You know the answer to that challenge, don’t you? If you do your best to knock it down and it falls and shatters, it must have been an idol. But if you do your best to knock it down and it bounces back up, it must be the real thing.”

Emory’s new Quality Enhancement Plan, “The Nature of Evidence,” is all about that same dynamic. What is evidence and what is not? How do you collect it? How do you use it? How do you test it? How do you tell the difference between evidence and prejudice, or between evidence and dogma? How can evidence fix our leaks and also advise our course?

The point is that at Emory, and at universities in general, we ought to—and do—require each other to examine the basis for what we believe to be true, and to be prepared to defend our belief. That kind of deliberation may not guarantee an end to disagreement, dispute, and difference, but it does encourage people to rethink their positions, risk changing their minds, and open themselves to new approaches and creative thought. It is a kind of healthy criticism that invites creativity. Such deliberation is also, in turn, a kind of creativity that welcomes true critical analysis and does not need to fear the lightweight, sensational criticism that we often encounter, disappointingly, in media and politics. It is through the pairing of creativity with healthy critique that someday newspaper headlines might speak of peace, flourishing, cooperation, compassion, and happiness.

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