March 27, 2012
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Creativity and imagination are universal human traits, yet it’s a common idea that certain countries are more creative than others. Can this notion have any basis in fact?
In fact, it does – but not for the reasons you might think.
The conventional wisdom is that Americans are far more creative than our growing economic rivals in China. At a party recently, for example, I overheard someone saying that the Chinese are hiring American consultants to teach them U.S.-style creativity.
Whether or not this is actually the case, history suggests any such state of affairs won’t last. In fact, as a history buff, I can point to examples all the way back to ancient Greece that show a clear pattern has governed global creativity.
It is true that some countries have historically been more creative than others, with a common thread tying this history together: Dominant empires are consistently less creative than that societies that occupy, shall we say, the #2 spot.
Greece is exhibit A. We can all agree that ancient Greece was a marvelously creative culture. The Greeks practically created Western Civilization singlehandedly, breaking new ground in politics, science, medicine and the arts. At the time of their intellectual ascendancy, however, the ancient Greeks were not #1. Greece was a geopolitical backwater, a distant second-place finisher behind the then-dominant Persian Empire.
The Greeks eventually conquered Persia under Alexander – and as soon as they become the highest power, their national creativity fizzled out.
Then came the Romans. The Romans were empire-builders; they were top dogs from the get-go, and other than concrete and the arch, they were not the most creative bunch. They recycled what the Greeks had created, and technology and the arts stagnated under their rule for hundreds of years. They were so dominant in their sphere that there was no #2 culture within thousands of miles to rival them.
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