Reflections on Education and Imagination

I believe that every child deserves a champion. We all need someone in our corner reminding us that we have unlimited potential. Yet to me, the current education system is broken, not fostering creativity, leaving children behind, and neglecting to realise the importance of educators and teachers in bringing society forward. Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe, and we must rebuild education to build a bridge to the future. I will never forget the two teachers who shaped my life, who ignited in me a spark and love of learning, encouraging me to become my best self, and I owe them much of what I am today. Ysenda Maxtone Graham said, ‘It does seem that it is often in those years between 8 and 13 that a tiny spark is lit by a teacher telling you or showing you something, and that if you’re lucky, that spark keeps alight and gradually becomes the glowing fire of your lifelong passion and career.’ This is the importance of educators – to light that spark. John Steinbeck similarly commented, ‘I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.’ Yet, if we teach today as we taught yesterday, will inevitably rob our youth of tomorrow. Education must involve disruption, innovation, play, passion and purpose, cutting through fear, participation in creation, embarking on the hero’s journey, and every child knowing they deserve someone who is crazy about them. Education is not about standardised testing, conformity, compliance, and linearity. Life is not linear, it does not follow a narrative course – it is obtuse and creative. We should not teach on the premise that other people know better than you do about what’s best for you. The seat of empathy is imagination, and creativity is the next step in building that capacity to imagine and implement. It is the process of having ordinal ideas that have value, of making the future and transforming the world around us simply by gaining a deeper sense of the world already within us. Are children taught the art of self-inquiry, of self-acceptance, of mindfulness and love? Or are they taught to read a book because they must, to complete their homework within the lines, and to colour the sky blue because someone told them it is? Human communities flourish with individuality, with our youth learning that they are unique, not part of a flock, and that imagination, creativity and possibility will enrich their futures.

 

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The classroom should not be an arid wasteland of standardised learning with no impulse to grow and develop. It is about climate control, not command control, about change and adaptability, to create a culture where children learn to voice their ideas rather than fearing failure or rejection. Sir Ken Robinson, arguably one of the greatest advocates of education reform alive, mentions a historical event which I find relevant to this discussion. In Death Valley, nothing ever grew. But in the Winter of 2004, it rained. Come Spring 2005, the floor was carpeted with flowers. Death Valley was not dead after all, but dormant. There are seeds of opportunity and possibility just waiting for the right conditions. It is up to us as educators to encourage our children to blossom, to erase those seeds of doubt and latency, and allow them to bloom from the tight bud we have enclosed them in. We can be intellectual entertainers, a plethora of knowledge to share with children, to become the pulse of the class. It reaches far beyond one classroom, or one school. A passion for education, a commitment to make the world a better place, a desire to help solve these challenges, a dedication to learning, a pledge to lead fearlessly and love hard. Is it idealism? I think not. This is how we change the world. All young people out there – you were never part of the flock, and you were never meant to be. By being different, you have the ability to influence profound change, evolution, and transformation in this world. Your journey of discovery commences the day you are born, but it is up to you – and us as your supporters – to allow you to take steps forward toward your true nature, to risk how far you are willing to go. Are you the black sheep? That’s okay, too. The black sheep may be lonely and frightened at times, but it embodies the concept of expanding mindsets, creative inspiration, courage, choice, new perspectives, evolution, freedom, and difference. What is your cause, dear black sheep? Students are not data, they are humans in constant evolution, spiritual embryos and seeds of potential. Teachers are not data either, and one day when we are not in the classroom, we will remember the students who thanked us for nurturing them, and we will trust that we helped those who did not say it aloud. For some children, we are their only light.

 

There is an inspirational story of a woman who posed as a teacher in North Korea. Suki Kim risked her life to penetrate the constraints of the North Korean education system in a futile attempt to open the eyes of naïve male students in the process of army training. All classes where monitored, all texts prescribed, no social interaction beyond their own classmates, and no personal connections to be formed with teachers. Her quest was to teach truth and critical thinking, yet their closed-frame mindset, indoctrinated from an early age by the suffocating jaws of the government and community, prevented her from achieving her goal. The students were incapable of writing their own opinions, of thinking creativity, or acting collaboratively. Yet, one task she set weekly did reveal some dormant part of their souls, of the quashed student imagination – a personal weekly letter to a family member, which would never be sent or read, but revealed a true part of their identity, their dreams, passions and hopes for the future. Lying in wait, in those repressed youth, were seeds of magnificent potential. How heartbreaking that they will never be planted in the correct climate to foster growth. From the wasteland of oppression, these young men would live out their dreams in their imaginations only, in the secondary world, entirely independent from reality and the planet in which they could have made a difference. H. G. Wells said, ‘we all have our time machines, don’t we. Those that take us back are memories, and those that carry us forward, are dreams.’ I wish these students could have access to books that name their hearts, to knowledge which could unleash their potential and transform society. I wish I could show them that poetry is about being surprised, that they can love and live the soul of it in its wonderful abstractions. I wish I could teach Sylvia Plath, and writers who look and sound nothing like them, to be their activist, to inspire with Thomas Pynchon, Mary Shelley, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, Susan Sontag, Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien and everyone in between. I would tell them that maths is language. Physics is language. Language is maths. Language is physics. I would tell them the classroom is a safe space for confusion and the unknown, for being wrong, for expressing creativity, and learning to try again. I wish I could share this quote I adore, by Astrid Lindgren: ‘a childhood without books – that would be no childhood. That would be like being shut out from the enchanted place where you can go and find the rarest kind of joy.’ Then I would ensure no child is ever locked out of this enchanted imaginary realm.

 

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There is spirituality in education and look – I am still teaching myself to live. No, you cannot attend this class of mine. These pages are my definition, not my confessions. I transform myself into a city of books, a cemetery of libraries, and I become a collective casualty of the love of learning. Like the wind will extinguish a candle flame yet excite a raging fire, reading and learning and sharing this bliss with the world is my constant education. I won the right to exist, and through my insomnia my memory becomes a map of this fight for positive difference. The scars I bear are the psyche of calligraphy, painted in my mind. Teach me more, again, I ask. I am invisible still, and only as I drum the distance between lightness of being and knowledge to share, do I return to myself. I arrive just outside my reach, but it leads me to strive for more. Emerson spectacularly said, ‘character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary.’ Education’s greatest task is to cultivate incredible souls, to allow them to be radical, and to use their intellect to the point of absurdity. Parker Palmer said that education fosters a ‘pain of disconnection,’ where teachers teach through a passion to connect, not for fame or fortune. He further said, ‘We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us.’ Yet, tragically we now have education alienating the life of the mind, removing the heart of learning, creating a command control rather than community. Spirituality in education does not obstruct learning, but encourages inquiry. The goal is not to shape students to templates by the end of their formal education, but to allow authentic connection and spirituality to open them to the truth, to any truth, and follow the path less travelled. Any path walked with integrity will lead to knowledge; there is no right or wrong, only diversity, confusion, collaboration, and paradox. Education is not about dictating the ends. Palmer says that education should truly be about, ‘examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds… An authentic spirituality of education will address the fear that so often permeates and destroys teaching and learning. It will understand that fear, not ignorance, is the enemy of learning, and that fear is what gives ignorance its power.’ We must cultivate this creativity, spirituality, and love for learning and teaching – empowering both our educators and our students, as this is how we come to know reality. Audrey Hepburn insightfully commented, ‘A quality education has the power to transform societies in a single generation, provide children with the protection they need from the hazards of poverty, labour exploitation, and disease, and give them knowledge, skills, and confidence to reach their full potential.’ To all the children and youth out there – to anyone feeling as though they have been robbed of an education: know that it is never too late. You can still be great. Live out your potential.

 

I am certain that teaching the liberal arts, literature and language is one of the greatest careers I could pursue, and above all it fulfils my desire to live out my purpose and contribute to society myself. I can demonstrate what is possible, what is useful, what is growing, developing, ever-changing in the world of the arts so often perceived as static and backward. Literature, to me, is the intersection of fantasy and creativity, a way to understand myself, humanity, and this world. I emotionally invest in my learning, my creative writing, and my ideas – they are parts of me, and I could never imagine any child evolving in a world without books, reading, and writing. Through it, we engage with ourselves, even through play and childhood activities, our exposure to childhood fantasy traces our earliest imaginative endeavours. Freud insightfully suggests, ‘Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.’ Yet while the opposite of this play may be outside the secondary realm created by this fantasy, it can equally be applied to reality. By assimilating the narrative and character development into their own lives, children can learn to become autonomous beings, to experience a range of emotions, and implement both personal and social change simply through literature.

 

While the rise of technology certainly plays an increasingly integral role in the classroom, there are abundant opportunities to engage with literature, even online or through audio learning. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the days of paper, but I prefer reading from books. ‘Tsundoku’ is the Japanese word for the act of constantly buying books yet never reading them – my library is awash with books I collect, not with the intention of leaving them untouched of course, but because the enormity of the literature available for me to consume often overwhelms me. I crave a world in which this love for learning can spread like wildflower amongst our youth. They say Umberto Eco’s library separates its visitors into those who exclaim how large it is, over thirty thousand books in fact, and question how many he has read; and the second group who understand it is a constant learning and research tool, rather than an ego-boosting appendage. Essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his classic, The Black Swan, second I believe only to his final text, Antifragile, comments on the importance of knowing our limited knowledge. He says, ‘the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.’ Eco similarly wrote an encyclopaedia of imaginary lands, and perhaps even this act of writing illustrates humanity’s compulsion to fill knowledge gaps with concrete objects, even if they are produced entirely by our imagination. To me, the library is a collection of treasures, yet not as physical possessions, but a chest of ideas, interpretations, new realities which I have yet to uncover. This is the beauty of literature.

 

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It is not only the beauty, however, but the enduring ability of literature to extend through generations, traverse boundaries, exhibit progressive potential, and be the greatest tool in education for today’s youth. To quote Franklin D. Roosevelt, ‘Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons.’ Of course, this was spoken during World War Two in the context of exposing truth ‘frankly and boldly,’ and his belief that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ However, Roosevelt recognised the importance of education – indeed, even commenting that, ‘freedom to learn is the first necessity of guaranteeing that man himself shall be self-reliant enough to be free… Such things did not need as much emphasis a generation ago, but when the clock of civilization can be turned back by burning libraries, by exiling scientists, artists, musicians, writers and teachers; by disbursing universities, and by censoring news and literature and art; an added burden, an added burden is placed on those countries where the courts of free thought and free learning still burn bright.’ This was Roosevelt in his element, speaking at an address to the National Education Association on the 30th of June 1938, a fiery advocate of learning, reading, and entirely opposed to the escalating list of banned books, censoring of literature, and repression of ‘eternal truths of the past’ by preventing educational opportunities for the free people. Even today, many countries harbour lists of banned books, yet it is this writing which should be most accessible for our younger generations. I will at least acknowledge that institutions which ban books must recognise the importance of literature in shaping worldviews, and its potential to reimagine a reformed future.

 

There remain those select few who champion the irrelevance of books, pushing for a post-book world, the integration of technology into all aspects of living, and an education for children without the beauty of literature. Can you imagine a world without books? An iPhone changes each year, but a book is eternal – we need these wondrous lands of fiction, or non-fiction, captured on paper to refresh our ability to learn, grow, and go forth into an unknown world. With this, we can transcend the tyranny of time and humanity itself. Our youth need stories just as they require an education – human beings need mythologies of creation, not a society which segregates science from the humanities, or forget that creating a visual representation of water on a screen is not the same as touching, experiencing, feeling real water. Might I even question whether democratic education can survive without a democratic imagination? If we are not exposed to cultures, taken to worlds we have never experienced, and permitted to engage with the power of curiosity, how can we be truly uncovering our unlimited imagination? The danger is in complacency in education, although conformity can be particularly loud in its unquestioning silence. Through education, our youth can begin to conspire towards a better future, both at a personal and societal level. They can learn to ask questions which adults cannot, that monsters may not appear in monstrous shapes, that commercialising the imagination is backwards not futuristic, and that the power of imagination is challenge authority. At a more personal level, I have learned, as Honoré de Balzac said, ‘reading brings us unknown friends.’ Whether this be affiliation with characters in a novel, or connection with other readers who share our passion, the unknown friends I have uncovered are invaluable. Literature is education, but it is so much more than that. It is the timeless medium through which we can learn about ourselves and the world.

 

Importantly, children must learn to enjoy their education, to not fear failure, and to discover their passions through exposure to a variety of subjects, teaching methods, educators, and literature itself. One of my favourite writers, David Foster Wallace, wrote the beautiful book Infinite Jest, which I have seen described as: ‘Impractical ramblingness + audiovisual media + drugs + characters full of trepidatious braggadocio created by a confidently unsure author + competitive sports + dystopian LOLs + addictiveness in and of itself + maths = U. S. of A.’ If a collection of words on paper can be described in such a way, I believe there is no limit to the enduring educational potential of literature. Anais Nin, in a diary entry from 1949, comments that ‘educators do all in their power to prepare you to enjoy reading after college,’ and that ‘it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar, unwilling to explore the unfamiliar.’ I believe that educators should combat this insecurity, or safety in the known, by encouraging minority literature to be read, to refute absurd comments such as ‘the death of the novel,’ and to highlight that trends in literature evolve and change over time. Artistic experimentation with learning, writing, and creativity should not be answered with hostility and suppression, but rather a salvation from death, a faceless robotic life, from boredom, from stagnation, and from self doubt. Anais Nin also notes, ‘Under the most rigid conventionality there is often an individual, a human being with original thoughts or inventive fantasy, which he does not dare expose for fear of ridicule, and this is what the writer and artist are willing to do for us.’ Is it not tragic that even our youth believe the conventional structure must be adhered to, that children cannot appreciate the joy of learning due to the expectation of conformity, and that their indispensable imaginations are held back for fear of failure and the unknown? Who knows what repercussions there might be if we repress education. Nin said, ‘If we suppress the adventure of the spirit, we will have the anarchist and the rebel, who will burst out from too narrow confines in the form of violence and crime.’ Freedom of imagination and the spirit is the only answer, and oppression will only breed eventual violent revolution, rather than a movement of creativity and wonder. Children should not learn to fear failure, and understand that feeling like a ‘failure,’ does not correlate with actually failing. Adopting a narrative of failure is a construct of society, and most people have failed thousands of times yet continue to innovate – it is the only way forward. The feeling of failure is a story, a story we tell ourselves because it is one the world tells you. Success is not the antidote, but creativity. Engagement with the learning process, with our imagination, to speak out and never be afraid to voice our authentic self – that is the cure to the fear of failure. Each person is a clean slate of potential. It is the role of education to engage with literature, with children, with a diverse range of learning opportunities, to uncover the seed within us all and allow it to grow. Teach them how to create magic, but let them wave their own wands.

 

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