All right, y’all, we fucked up.

This past academic year, the decision was made to reboot the long-defunct common reading program for our entering first-year students. During the summer before they arrive on campus, rising first-years would be asked to read a book, the same book for all of them, which they would then discuss (with the help of faculty and staff facilitators) once they got to campus. I was a member of the First-Year Experience Advisory Committee, the group charged with selecting a text and organizing discussion groups. After consulting a number of reviews (some from publishers’ brochures and other pieces of literature whose sole purpose is to advertise first-year common readings), the committee chose a book.

I only wish I’d had time to read the proposed texts.

Kevin Ashton’s How to fly a horse: The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery is a poorly-written, meandering, soppy, poppy, platitude-laden whitewashed sausagefest that, while purporting to reclaim creativity for everyone (while exploding the myth of the inspired genius), offers page after page of examples of exceptional thinkers, mostly in STEM, and almost exclusively white European and American males. Women are almost entirely confined to a chapter whose express purpose is to point out that women are capable of being creative, too; this makes the chapter read like a poorly-planned Women’s History Month project. Persons of color are almost entirely absent, the only mentions of same being a 19th century black Caribbean slave, members of a pair of indigenous peoples (the Ilongots of the island of Luzon, introduced to the reader as “headhunters,” and the Himba, a north African people who serve Ashton solely as an inspiration for Galton’s famous 19th century theories of  eugenics), a WASPily mythologized Robert Johnson, a Japanese Zen master whose story is tainted with orientalist overtones, and a small handful of hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z. The total number of pages granted these folks of color is roughly ten.

Meanwhile, throughout, the book is simply soaking with white male privilege, with tone-deaf proclamations like “time is the great equalizer, the same for all: twenty-four hours every day, seven days every week, every life a length unknown, for richest and poorest and all in between” (pp. 24-25). “I have no time” is an excuse he seems unwilling to grant single mothers who work three minimum-wage-or-worse jobs, glibly assuming they must have the same opportunity to create afforded your typical upper-middle-management executive, the sort of person who, incidentally, I suspect is a member of the actual audience for this book.

I could go on and on about the book’s other shortcomings (its insistence that the best creative teams work in solitude and secrecy, shutting themselves out from others perspectives; its oversimplification, perversion, and out-and-out misrepresentation of recent results in fields like neuropsychology and palaeoanthropology; its sloppy and repetitive prose; its author’s apparent ignorance of Greek and Latin [okay, that’s a cheap shot, but he mistakes the two languages more than once]), but I won’t, because in just a few minutes I have to run off to a meeting of faculty and staff who’ll be leading student discussions on this book in about a month and a half.

With black men being slaughtered in the streets almost daily, one of the worst things we can do at a campus that already has trouble attracting, recruiting, and retaining students of color is present such a book as a representation of what we stand for. Sadly, I fear the best that I might be able to do at this point (though I’m tempted to spend several hundred dollars to buy all entering Honors students a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the world and me) is help our students to process this elegy for uncritical futurism.

Off to the meeting, with a sick feeling in my stomach and a sour taste in my mouth…

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One thought on “How to whitewash creativity

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