Curriculum: A Springboard to Creativity

by Guest Blogger
June 20th, 2013

By Diana Senechal

Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, was published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in January 2012. She is the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. She has written numerous articles and blogs for American Educator, Education Week, The New Republic, The Core Knowledge Blog, The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), GothamSchools, The Cronk of Higher Education, and other publications. She teaches philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in NYC.


One chilly day in February, I sat down with a stack of tenth-grade philosophy tests to grade. Within minutes, I was roaring. This is not typical of my grading experience, so I will explain.

I teach ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade philosophy at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, a selective public school in Harlem. (Through our partnership with Columbia University, eligible high school students may take courses at Columbia.) The high school philosophy curriculum, which I wrote in consultation with colleagues and the principal, focuses on philosophical and literary texts. The ninth-graders study rhetoric and logic; the tenth-graders, ethics and aesthetics; and the eleventh-graders, political philosophy. (In several pieces published by GothamSchools, I have written more about these courses.)

The tenth-grade Ethics and Aesthetics course consists of four long units. The first unit focuses on human choices in the face of suffering. Students read the Book of Job, Blaise Pascal’s “Wager” (from his Pensées), a substantial excerpt of Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, the first part of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and Saul Bellow’s novel Seize the Day. The second unit focuses on virtue, measure, and symmetry; students read Book IV of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, selections from Epictetus’s Discourses, Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose,” and selections from Desiderius Erasmus’s treatise Praise of Folly. The third unit, on freedom and responsibility, includes the story of the ring of Gyges (from book II of Plato’s Republic), Leo Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions,” the prologue of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The last and shortest unit, on ethics and aesthetics, features works of art, music, and poetry, as well as commentary by Søren Kierkegaard, Oscar Wilde, and others.

For the test, which I gave at the end of the second unit, I asked my students to write a letter from a character (or author) of one work to a character (or author) of another, or else to create a dialogue between the two. They had to demonstrate knowledge of both works and relate them in a meaningful way. The responses were intensely imaginative and funny, yet grounded in the texts. In discussing one student’s piece (which you can read in full below), I hope to show how literary and philosophical study can inspire creativity instead of stifling it. Beyond that, I want to give readers a chance to enjoy the piece for its own sake.

What is creativity, and why does it matter? Merriam-Webster’s Concise Encyclopedia defines it as the “ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form. The term generally refers to a richness of ideas and originality of thinking.” Creativity matters because it enlarges our sense of the possible; even to a minuscule degree, it alters how we see the world. Sometimes the alteration is profound, as in Rilke’s sonnet “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends with the injunction, “You must change your life.”

For all its importance, creativity in education is often misunderstood. Many perceive it as spontaneous, unfettered activity that is stifled by traditional schooling; this is a misconception. Creativity demands working material, among other things. A poet is immersed in poetry, words, etymology, sound, rhythm, and more; a potter, in the work of potters past and present, in nature and art, clay and wheel, kiln and glaze. A strong curriculum can provide much of the working material for creativity. If students read interesting texts that have been combined thoughtfully, they can find interesting things to do with them.

The student’s piece, a comic dialogue, draws on Gogol’s story “The Nose” and a chapter from Epictetus’s Discourses. The continuation (which the student wrote voluntarily, after the test) additionally invokes Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. The first three works were part of the unit on virtue, measure, and symmetry; the second, part of the unit on freedom and responsibility. How on earth would one relate these four works through dialogue? It turns out that there is a way.

Some background is required. I recommend reading these works in full; for now, brief summaries will have to do.

“The Nose” is about a barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, who discovers a nose in his bread one morning, and a certain Major Kovalev (given name: Platon) who finds his nose missing. (I use the word “about” warily, as we could endlessly debate what the story is about.) Toward the end, when Kovalev recovers his nose, he asks the doctor to reattach it; the doctor refuses. Kovalev finally finds his nose reattached, but there’s no telling how this happened.

Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher of the first and second centuries. In Book I, Chapter 2, of his Discourses, he advises his listeners to act according to their true character. To illustrate his point, he tells of a certain Florus and Agrippinus. Florus is deliberating whether to attend Nero’s festival; Agrippinus replies that the very consideration of that question indicates a wish to be like the others, whereas he wants to be the red thread, the thread that stands out and makes the cloth beautiful.

Leo Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” concerns a king who seeks answers to three questions: What is the right time to begin things? Who are the right people to listen to? What is the most important thing to do? He ultimately visits a hermit; during the visit, he answers the questions for himself without realizing it. The answers are: (1) now, (2) the person you are with, and (3) good.

The Renaissance humanist Erasmus wrote a treatise titled Praise of Folly, in which Folly, personified, praises herself and explains why she is essential to life. (Students enjoyed this work tremendously; many were disappointed that we didn’t read it in full.)

Now for the student’s piece. In the first part of the dialogue, we find the doctor and Kovalev (“Platon”) from Gogol’s story arguing about the reattachment of the nose. They have summoned Epictetus, who gives advice in keeping with his philosophy and character.

I would raise the suggestion that, because pain and pleasure are subjective to a person, there is no greater violation of the Hippocratic Oath than allowing someone to die. Thus, I suggest you consider all harm you could do by inaction greater than any you could perform, and reattach his nose even if you have to use hot tar to do it, for this man is not one that would ask such a thing lightly; it is his specific nature to value his appearance on any level more than his life.

Funny, dark, and true to the texts, this speech of Epictetus brings out aspects of “The Nose” that I hadn’t seen before. Indeed, one paradox of Gogol’s story is that Kovalev’s very superficiality makes his loss profound.

Later, in the second part, which begins after Epictetus’s exit, the comedy rises to another level. In walks the hermit from Tolstoy’s story, followed by a Familiar-Looking Disciple of the Hermit (FLDOTH), clearly the king, and a Guy Following Him (GFH). The hermit begins: “What have we here? It appears that I have arrived at exactly the perfect time. For the perfect time is always now.” Swiftly, in few words, the student has shown the silly side of Tolstoy’s moral. The parody doesn’t stop there:

HERMIT: The time is now. This man is the most important. Reattach his nose immediately, while you can.

DOCTOR: Or what?

HERMIT: Or the world will conspire against you.

DOCTOR: Are you threatening me?

HERMIT: No, I’m terrifying you. There is a difference, and it is as important as everything else.

Through the hermit’s words, the student nails the problem: if the most important time is now, and the most important person is the one you are with, then there can’t really be any importance at all. Anything is as important as anything else, as long as it is now. Understandably, the doctor becomes enraged and throws everyone out, including Folly (but not before Platon’s life wish comes true). I wish Russian majors and scholars knew about this piece. Platon, the doctor, Epictetus, and Folly have probably never been in a room together before, and they make the most of the occasion (the most important occasion, after all, since it is now).

This was one of many inspired pieces I read that February afternoon. One must know the original texts, or something of them, in order to enjoy the wit—but isn’t that always the case? We are in continual dialogue with texts; the richer the text, the more substantial the dialogue, and the more it asks of us. Of course, that doesn’t explain this particular piece’s existence. No curriculum or pedagogy could produce it predictably. I initially set out to demonstrate that a rich curriculum can inspire creativity; I ended up with more. Education has purposes and goals, as well it should, but sometimes it shakes us into something greater, like a glass bead game, where the beads and their combinations (the books, the thought, the writing) take us to things we haven’t known or planned.


The student (who requests anonymity) and his parents have given permission for his piece to be quoted, discussed in this article, and posted in full on Scribd (where it is easier to read).



  1. [...] also, is a link to my most recent article, “Curriculum: A Springboard to Creativity” (The Core Knowledge Blog, June 20, 2013). In it I discuss a piece by one of my students. [...]

    Pingback by Crossing the Threshold | Diana Senechal — June 20, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

  2. I have to say that’s extremely good work your students did there. Kudos for having the creativity yourself to allow your students to do so much!

    Comment by Glenn — June 20, 2013 @ 8:21 pm

  3. For a sad contrast with Senechal’s rigorous courses, see this article in The Washington Post:

    “Collier, the 2011 valedictorian at Ballou Senior High in Southeast Washington, said the first thing she noticed when she arrived at Penn State University was how intently her fellow students paid attention during class…. Collier had been a star at Ballou, where fewer than one-quarter of students are proficient in math and reading. But she said that her classes largely dealt with the basics: summarizing story plots, for example, and learning how to write complete and grammatically correct sentences.”

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — June 20, 2013 @ 9:32 pm

  4. Great post, Diana. The evidence you provide here contradicts the orthodoxy that knowledge is somehow the enemy of imagination. My history students have been making amazingly clever skits, historical fiction and other artifacts this year. How did I “make” them so creative? By pouring facts into their brains (I know, malpractice). At the start of the unit I tell them they will be producing something creative at the end, but before they can start on their creative work, they have to get the FACTS first. “You can’t be creative unless you have facts to be creative with.” So we spend two weeks mastering the facts before I unleash them on their projects, which most do with zeal. Part of the beauty of this system is that kids start to attend more carefully to lectures (my major vehicle for fact-delivery), videos and readings in hopes of finding juicy material for their projects (I give the option of skit, story, comic, song or journal).

    Diana, your experience and mine seem to belie the gospel of 21st Century Skills. People are naturally creative, analytical, problem-solving creatures. But they aren’t naturally knowledgeable. Teachers can’t impart creativity or other thinking skills, but they can impart the knowledge that gives WIDER SCOPE to kids’ naturally creative analytical and problem-solving cognitive hardware. Or so it seems to me. Am I missing something?

    Comment by Ponderosa — June 21, 2013 @ 8:53 am

  5. One of the insights I arrived at reading all the Eulogies to Steve Jobs when he died was that he lived at a unique intersection of American culture and education. He had a classic education in the Humanities, but also exposure to a wide range of design and manufacture concepts because his father worked with wood. The ease of the internet and dare I say it products like Iphones is that they allow us the conceit to not know until it is too late.

    Comment by DC Parent — June 21, 2013 @ 10:24 am

  6. Thanks to everyone for the comments so far.

    Ponderosa, your comment makes me think of something related. I enjoy listening to good lectures precisely because they allow my mind to play. No one is making me produce or say anything right away, so I can consider what the lecturer is saying, form questions, find loopholes and problems, etc.

    Even dull lectures have their benefits. The late astrophysicist Thomas Gold wrote in his memoirs about an experience with one such lecture.

    “A dull lecture is like an experiment in sensory deprivation. You are sitting in your seat, you can’t leave the room because that would be too rude, you are carefully shutting out the incoming information because you have decided you don’t want to hear it, and your mind is now completely free from external disturbances. It was during this lecture that I suddenly saw how all the facts of the case would fall together.”

    While sitting still in the lecture hall, he figured out why a sound entering the cochlea produces a “microphonic potential”–an electric potential that both amplifies the sound and mimics its waveform.

    Of course, to do something like that during a dull lecture, you need to have the working material in your mind.

    That’s another way that knowledge can contribute to creativity: by allowing you to work on problems and projects in your mind, without any additional supplies or equipment.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — June 21, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

  7. Learning to listen is a lost art. I notice the more I have a smartphone and internet at hand I struggle to pay attention to a collegue or in a meeting. Just listening and processing may be the 21st century skill coming from the previous centuries body of knowledge.

    Comment by DC Parent — June 21, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

  8. The Thomas Gold example shows the power of built-in knowledge. To me it seems that 21st Century Skills advocates and educators alike are plagued by fuzzy thinking about the nature of thinking and brain-building. The business people seem to be demanding powerful brains sans knowledge, and the teachers seem to be saying, “OK, we can provide that” and proceed to ply their kids with activities that elicit thinking. But raw brain power may be something only DNA can create –i.e. it may be a “hardware” issue –while schools’ scope may be limited by the nature of things to the realm of “software”, i.e. installing knowledge. Is there any doubt that teachers can impart knowledge? But I’ve never heard a convincing account explaining how teachers can impart thinking skills. We elicit them, sure, but this isn’t the same as making them, and I’m not even sure it strengthens them (though I’d concede that that it probably does make them more limber).

    Comment by Ponderosa — June 23, 2013 @ 10:15 am

  9. [...] Today it is more or less assumed that a teacher must fight for attention—that she must employ all sorts of “strategies” to get the students to listen, even at the outset of the lesson. But what if it could be assumed? What if our society understood it not only as a courtesy, but also as a foundation for learning and creativity? [...]

    Pingback by Teaching, Reserve, and Listening | Diana Senechal — July 6, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

  10. [...] do creative ideas come from? I wrote an article recently about how a good curriculum can stimulate creativity by combining and juxtaposing works [...]

    Pingback by The Key to Creativity? | Diana Senechal — July 28, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  11. Diana, so moving!

    Comment by Rick Moody — October 30, 2013 @ 7:21 am

  12. [...] Aside from that, perhaps the most important factor is that I have time to think—and lots to do with the thinking. I teach part-time; thus, there are days in the week when I am planning lessons and correcting student work but not running around. Last year, I also taught part-time but had an enormous challenge: 270 students and three new philosophy courses that I had designed. It took all I could do just to keep up with the grading, and I was generally exhausted. This year, other teachers took over the ninth-grade philosophy course. I provide them with the materials, but they teach the classes. I teach “only” the tenth-grade ethics course and the eleventh-grade political philosophy course. Teaching them for the second time in a row is a delight; they are more solid and more flexible at once. The students have been doing inspiring work; reading their homework is a treat (as it was last year). [...]

    Pingback by Turning Our Attention Toward Interesting Things | Diana Senechal — November 15, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  13. […] topics ranging from time to tyranny. (My students’ work has previously appeared on the Core Knowledge Blog and […]

    Pingback by CONTRARIWISE Is Here! | Diana Senechal — March 5, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

  14. […] teaching philosophy at Columbia Secondary School, I found myself learning from (and sometimes roaring over) my students’ work. One line I recall often: “What have we here? It appears that I have […]

    Pingback by “But that was the thing that I was born for” | Diana Senechal — August 15, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

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