Assistant ANDY Editor
You might not read this fact in any recruitment brochure, but the most distinctive feature of McMaster’s campus is presently a gaping hole in the ground. This state of affairs will likely persist until September 2015, when construction on L.R. Wilson Hall is scheduled for completion.
Even though the new Humanities building is not yet standing, the emerging superstructure does stand for something. The site symbolizes the convergence of several different kinds of creativity. The engineers who designed the new building and the musicians who will someday perform in its 450-seat concert hall are bound together by their common creative spirit.
I started seeing the girders and concrete forms this way after reading Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited (2012). According to the author, the titular class is a fundamental driver of economic growth and anyone who creates new ideas or engages in complex problem solving is already a member.
Florida also offers a compelling vision of how universities fit into this creative economy. Although he never specifically mentions Hamilton, Florida’s observation that many cities have transitioned from manufacturing to “meds and eds” sure sounds familiar. Yet Florida cautions that educational institutions should not be viewed as self-contained and inexhaustible economic engines. Universities don’t just “crank out research projects that can be spun off into companies.”
On the contrary, universities have the potential to play a much broader role in growing prosperous communities. By fostering technology, talent and tolerance, universities can contribute to “quality of place.” This encompasses all the characteristics that define a place and make it attractive, from architecture to art crawls.
In this way, Florida argues that universities and their surrounding communities are profoundly interdependent. Universities bring together talented people who generate new ideas and knowledge. Vibrant communities, in turn, encourage these individuals to pursue their projects locally and attract still more creative types. Thus, the benefit that a university brings to its community is less a straight line than a self-reinforcing circle.
From this perspective, helping to organize an artist’s talk for the Spotlight on the Arts festival, an activity that improves quality of place, is arguably as important to regional growth and vitality as programming the next Tinder.
Not all of Florida’s theories are so persuasive. He acknowledges that creating quality of place can sometimes resemble gentrification, but fails to elaborate. Furthermore, his concluding argument that all jobs can ultimately be made creative seems like tacked-on panacea for any accusations of elitism. I am also mystified by his guess that “if Bob Dylan were to come along today, his agent would probably send him to the weight room.”
Nevertheless, the model of the university as a “creative hub,” rather than just an assembly line for patents and spin-off companies, remains powerful.
With this in mind, the Wilson Hall construction does not have to be an eyesore for the next year and a half. Rather, the site can be seen as a reminder that all students, regardless of their faculty, are connected by the camaraderie of their creativity and can contribute to a community as vibrant as the brightly painted slats of the construction fence.