One of the cool things Google does for me these days is scan the world wide web and send me a daily list of links to current articles based on key words that I’ve submitted. One of the words on my list, not surprisingly, is “creativity.’

I received an article from Scotland in which Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. pledged that “…within the next decade no child would leave school without having access to arts and culture.” Jowell went on to say that, “…creativity, which currently accounted for 8% of the country’s wealth, would be at the heart of the nation’s future success.”

I don’t know how she came up with 8% and I might differ with her on some of the details of her proposal, but it strikes me that I’ve seen articles similarly emphasizing creativity in education from places like India and Ireland and Singapore to name a few locations. What I have not seen is a similar emphasis in education policy in the U.S. (Yes, based on a highly unscientific count.)

 On the contrary, I keep hearing about the importance of getting “back to the basics.” (In other words, repeat what we’ve done in the past.) Here in Minnesota, we’ve had a years-long debate over education reforms that has largely returned our schools to the proverbial tried and true (not to mention the politically correct). The number of mentions of Republican vs. Democratic presidents is carefully tracked and debates rage over whose version of history will be taught while creativity per se barely rates any mention. Nationally, there’s a virtual drumbeat of opinion and hand wringing over whether we’re turning out enough scientists and engineers. Yet I hear very little about teaching creative thinking skills.

I’m not talking about band and choir and art classes. As valuable as they are, I’ll concede that our culture is unlikely to rise or fall over cuts in the budget for the school play. I’m talking about creative independent thinking, the kind of divergent and critical thinking skills that lead to new discoveries, the mental processes that create new products and services, the habits of thought and action that will keep us competitive in a rapidly evolving global economy.

We seem to be all too willing to dismiss creativity as nice frills that are secondary to “real learning.” Our trading partners and competitors have figured it out and they’re acting on those insights. Decades ago, it took the Soviet launch of the first man-made satellite for America to recognize that it might be starting to lag in its scientific prowess. Will we have to wake up to the equivalent of another Sputnik to realize how critically important creativity has become? Even if we have such an epiphany, will we make the right choices, or will our instinct be to turn the academic clock back even further?

There is no shortage of research on creativity, what it is, how to cultivate it, and how to integrate it into our schools’ curriculum. It certainly needs to entail much more than teaching students to be “artistic.” We probably have some sorting out to do to determine what approaches will be most beneficial, but let’s at least start sorting.

 The race we’re running in this global economy isn’t over classroom technology or whose version of history will prevail. It’s about innovation. The issue for education policy-makers is how we are teaching our children to think. Creativity is a skill and a habit—and a choice. It’s a choice we’d better make soon or our economic preeminence may become one more bit of history for us to argue over.