Why Imagination Matters

poets walk park

Our schools have vacillated between adulating and dismissing imagination; neither attitude suffices. Imagination involves forming things in the mind; education cannot do without it. Yet to employ it well, one must understand it correctly and combine it with actual learning.

In his bracing book Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, E. D. Hirsch Jr. explores the origins and consequences of our schools’ emphasis on “natural” creativity and imagination at the expense of concrete learning. He points to the destructive effects of this trend, both in the United States and in France (which moved from a common curriculum to a child-centered mode of instruction). In addition, he offers wise commentary on standardized tests, the teaching profession, and the Common Core initiative.

An admirer of Hirsch’s work and of Core Knowledge schools, I object to just one aspect of his argument: By opposing creativity and imagination to specific training and instruction, he limits both. Recognizing this possible pitfall, he acknowledges that a school with a strong curriculum can still encourage imagination—but he does not treat the latter as vital and endangered. Imagination, in his view, has been overemphasized; the necessary corrective lies in specific, sequenced instruction.

He writes (on p. 119): “I am not, of course, suggesting that it would be a good idea to adopt the in-Adam’s-fall-we-sinned-all point of view. Imagination can certainly be a positive virtue when directed to life-enhancing goals. But the idea that imagination is always positive and life-enhancing is an uncritical assumption that has crept into our discourse from the pantheistic effusions of the romantic period.” I dispute nothing in this statement but the emphasis (and the take on Romanticism–but that’s another subject). I would proclaim: “Imagination has been wrested apart from subject matter and thus distorted—but properly understood, it permeates all intellectual domains.”

What is imagination? It is not the same as total freedom of thought; it has strictures and structures. To imagine something is to form an image of it. Every subject requires imagination: To understand mathematics, you must be able to form the abstract principles in your mind and carry them in different directions; to understand a poem, you must perceive patterns, cadences, allusions, and subtleties. To interpret a work of literature, you must notice something essential about it (on your own, without any overt highlighting by the author or editor); to interpret a historical event, you may transport yourself temporarily to its setting.

Civic life, too, relies on imagination; to participate in dialogue, you must perceive possibility in others; to make informed decisions, you must not only know their history but anticipate their possible consequences. Imagination forms the private counterpart of public life; to participate in the world, you must be able to step back and think on your own, as David Bromwich argues in his essay “Lincoln and Whitman as Representative Americans” (and elsewhere).

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the cultivation of the imagination. The uneducated mind, the prisoner in the cave, accepts the appearances of things (as manipulated by others); once embarked upon education, it slowly, painfully moves toward vision of true form. People are quick to dismiss Plato’s idealism as obsolete—but say what you will, it contains the idea of educating oneself into imagination, which could inform many a policy and school.

Schools and school systems have grievously misconstrued imagination; drawing on Romantic tendencies, as Hirsch explains, they have regarded it as “natural” and therefore good from the start. If imagination is best when unhampered and untouched, if it is indeed a process of nature, then, according to these schools, children should be encouraged to write about whatever pleases them, to read books of their own choice, and to create wonderful art (wonderful because it is theirs). Some years ago I taught at a school where we were told not to write on students’ work but instead to affix a post-it with two compliments and two suggestions–so as not to interfere with the students’ own voice.

This is silly, of course. Serious imaginative work—in music, mathematics, engineering, architecture, and elsewhere—requires knowledge, discipline, self-criticism, and guidance from others. You do not learn to play piano if your teacher keeps telling you, “Brilliant, Brilliant!” (or even, in growth-mindset parlance, “How hard you worked on that!”). To accomplish something significant, you need to know what you are doing; to know, you must learn. Mindset aside, you must be immersed in the material and striving for understanding and fluency. You must listen closely; you must acknowledge and correct errors.

Learning draws on imagination and vice versa; a strong curriculum is inherently imaginative if taught and studied properly. Students learn concrete things so that they can think about them, carry them in the mind, assemble them in interesting ways, and create new things from them. On their own, in class, and in faculty meetings, teachers probe and interpret the material they present. This intellectual life has both inherent and practical value; the student not only comes to see the possibilities of each subject but lives out such possibilities in the world.

Hirsch objects, commendably, to the trivialization of curriculum and imagination alike: for instance, the reduction of literature instruction to “balanced literacy” (where students practice reading strategies on an array of books that vary widely in quality). Conducted in the name of student interest, creativity, initiative, and so forth, such programs can end up glorifying a void.

Without strong curricula, creative and imaginative initiatives will lack meaning, especially for disadvantaged students who rely on school for fundamentals. You cannot learn subjects incidentally; while you may gain insights from a creative algebra project, it cannot replace a well-planned algebra course.

But imagination belongs at the forefront of education, not on the edges; it allows us to live and work for something more than surface appearance, hits, ratings, reactive tweets, and prefabricated success. Imagination reminds us that there is more to a person, subject, or problem than may appear at first. It enables public, social, private, economic, intellectual, and artistic life. Without it, we fall prey to shallow judgment (our own and others’); within it, we have room to learn and form.

 

Photo credit: I took this picture yesterday in Poets’ Walk Park in Red Hook, NY.

Missing the Mark

The other day, on the train to school, I overheard an extended conversation among three high school students (two girls and a boy) who were talking about their classes. They were bright, interested kids–and from their demeanor and journey it seemed that they attended a selective school in Manhattan. (I have a pretty good guess which school it is, but I don’t want to “out” them.)

They had to read Hermann Hesse’s Demian (or the first chapter) for English class. One of the girls had read it; she said it was very long. The boy began reading it on the train.

This was one of my favorite books when I was thirteen. I read and reread it. My writing was influenced by it. I read as much Hesse as I could. The book still has great meaning for me; I have brought in passages to my students over the years. (In particular, the break  between Sinclair and Pistorius has come back to mind many times.) I often think back on the prefatory words:

“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”

For a few minutes, the boy seemed absorbed in the reading. His copy was an worn hardcover with a brown canvas cover–maybe a library book. He stopped talking and just read and read. I imagined reading it too, and in doing so, I remembered phrases, cadences, and details.

Then he looked up and asked one of his classmates, “What’s a mark?”

In the first chapter, Kromer,  a bully, tries to intimidate Emil Sinclair (the protagonist and narrator) into giving him two marks. Terrified, Sinclair breaks into his own piggybank on the sly and procures sixty-five pfennigs. Of course that doesn’t satisfy Kromer.

“I don’t know,” one of the girls answered. “I was confused about it too. I think a pfennig is like a penny, and a mark is like a dollar.”

“But they use euros in Germany,” the boy replied.

I held back from saying anything, but I found the conversation puzzling. First, how did they not realize that the book was written long before the adoption of the euro? Second, why did this particular detail stall them? Even if they weren’t sure what the mark was, couldn’t they “mark” that question and proceed?

Beyond that, why the attention to the mark and not to Sinclair’s struggle between two worlds? There is a dichotomy he can’t accept: between the pure, innocent world of light and the sordid, crime-ridden, unspoken world of darkness. He wants something besides these two worlds but doesn’t know yet what it is. Isn’t that something most teenagers can recognize: the longing for way of life that they haven’t found yet?

The mark is important, of course; Sinclair thinks he has to get the money but has no way of doing so without stealing. The incident seems to push him out of his former world. It matters that the mark is much more than a pfennig and that two marks is about three times his piggybank savings (which he does not even consider his own to take). To overlook these details would be to miss a great deal of the meaning. Yet the meaning exists beyond these details and gives them their proper place. If you understand what’s happening with Sinclair, then you figure out the significance of the mark, even if you don’t know German pre-Euro currency.

It would be wrong of me to blame what I saw and heard on the Common Core or “close reading.” I have no way of knowing whether it had anything to do with their instruction. Also, it was good to pick up on the mark; it is an important detail, after all. Still, something was amiss. How could these students have difficulty with the first chapter of Demian? Why did it strike them as “long”?

This may speak to a larger cultural tendency: a weakened capacity to relate to (or even imagine) other times and places, unless they are presented in a way that matches us. Curiously, a number of seemingly opposite educational tendencies play into this. The Common Core is in some ways a response to the extremes of Balanced Literacy, which emphasized “reading strategies” and personal connections to the text. Under Balanced Literacy, students were encouraged to make “text-to-self” connections, which immediately removed them from the text. The Common Core standards demand a focus on the text itself.

What’s curious is that students would even need help making connections between the texts and their lives.  When I was in school, that was the part that came easily. I could relate to just about anything I read, if it was good. The challenge lay in separating myself from the text–in seeing differences between the characters and myself, or between the text’s language and my own. The last thing I needed was practice in making a “text-to-self connection.”

But if I (and my peers) were too attached to what we read, too ready to find ourselves in it, today the tendency is toward detachment. (People read very little, or they read with quick and specific goals.) Like Balanced Literacy, the Common Core attempts to address this problem. But instead of encouraging students to connect the text to their own lives, the Core stresses the importance of reading and making sense of it. Find out what’s actually in it before you start connecting it with yourself.

Yet if people read with absorption and openness, then they would both take in the actual text and relate it (subtly, not crassly) to their own lives. They would need neither “text-to-self connections” nor laborious lessons in close reading. The reading would be the starting point; in class, they would discuss and probe the text further in a variety of ways.

This requires more than an instructional shift; it requires a shift of culture. We are trapped in the lingo of the latest–of updates and takeaways. Students learn to view reading as a form of possession; they must “get something out of it” in order for it to be worth their time. There needs to be more allowance for things that come slowly, for meanings that reveal themselves over time, and for stories that do not match us at first glance but may offer lasting correspondences.

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

Should Schools Make Kids Read Books They Don’t Like?

For the right reasons and in the right ways, yes.

Some educators believe fervently in allowing students to choose which books to read in school. Proponents of “Balanced Literacy” and similar programs argue that if students choose books that interest them, they will be more motivated, gain more from the books, and eventually wend their way to literary classics. By contrast, when schools and teachers impose books on students, then students come to see reading as obligatory, difficult, and dreary.

Ideally, a school should do both: select certain books for their beauty, merit, interest, and significance, while giving students opportunities to choose books that interest them. But because the former requires considerable knowledge, planning, attention, and time, it should receive priority during the school day. Students should have some quiet reading time at school—at least once a week—but should grapple together with literary works in literature class.

Why? There are many good reasons: building students’ literary knowledge, fostering common knowledge, and more. I’ll focus on one reason that doesn’t get mentioned too often: the importance of disliking a book. Dislikes can be fruitful. First of all, to quote Marianne Moore out of context, we “do not admire what / we cannot understand.” Through sticking with something that they initially resist, students can come to a better understanding of it. Sometimes it’s the vocabulary that throws kids off. Sometimes it’s the characters’ names. Sometimes it’s the form; the story may not go the way they expect a story to go. Sometimes it’s an unfamiliar setting or context. Sometimes the kids don’t understand the metaphors or allusions at first. But through attentive reading and lively discussion (guided by a knowledgeable teacher), students may break through these obstacles and find their way into the works. They would not have done this if they had been confined to their own urges, to the books they liked right away.

Beyond that, even if the dislike doesn’t go away, it can be instructive. When it comes to literature, strong reactions serve us well. There are those who don’t like Hemingway, plain and simple, or don’t think Tolstoy deserves all the acclaim he has received. These are important reactions; they come from a person’s conception of literature: what it is, what it should be, and what makes it good. But you can’t form such a view unless you have read something you disliked—carefully. Knee-jerk reactions don’t go far; penetrating critiques do. By honing such responses, allowing oneself to be both right and wrong along the way, one finds one’s ground.

Now, a student should not be subjected to torture, nor should a teacher. There should be enough variety that students will take to some works right away; there should be enough careful planning that he or she may ease into challenges and develop requisite background. Enthusiasm goes a long way, too, as the educator Jessica Lahey has pointed out. Teachers should have room to teach some of their favorite literature so that they can light it up for the students. Even so, a teacher may do a splendid job with a work that isn’t quite a favorite; it challenges her to find the good, which does exist if the work is worth its salt.

There is such a thing as literary merit. It takes different forms but comes down to endurance. An excellent work of literature reveals more of itself over time. It doesn’t fall out of fashion, or if it does, the falling doesn’t harm it. It’s the sort of book that one wants to keep in the shelf, not just for its presence but for rereadings. Teachers should guide students into such works; students should learn to trust the books, the teacher, and their own instincts. The three may clash at points, but such a clash has value. We read not only for pleasure, but also for confrontation: to be lifted out of where we are right now, into other possibilities and ways of seeing the world. In this confrontation there will be some dislike. No way around it. So it should be. And dislike can tantalize the tongue and mind like cocoa.