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The Power of Imagination

The festive season, for children of all ages, is a time when imagination is more important than knowledge, which are the exact words that Albert Einstein used when he tried to explain how he was able to solve so many problems – or maybe he was just thinking about Christmas.  I do enjoy a good Einstein quotation, though he is one of those people who gets credit for things he probably never said.  His definition of madness as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome is a regular of mine, but I also like: ‘The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.’

The philosopher Bertrand Russell, not unsurprisingly, said a lot of thoughtful things during his long life.  His take on stupidity was that the fools are always certain while the intelligent are full of doubt.  He said that a stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate because he   unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.  He thought that the ability to fill leisure time intelligently was the last product of civilisation, which is perhaps why we seem so preoccupied with working harder than ever to avoid having too much on our hands.  The ability to imagine for him was expressed as follows: ‘Man needs, for his happiness, not only the enjoyment of this and that, but hope and enterprise and change…It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.’

The novelist Joanne Harris spent time teaching at Leeds Grammar School before she became a full-time writer.  In a recent article of hers that I read, she gave her take on the importance of imagination, highlighting quite correctly in my opinion that there is more to education than passing exams and more to life than employment.  Education, she went on, should be about opening up horizons, not setting limits.  If a child asks how studying French poetry helps pass exams, she used to reply, ‘Why does a boxer need a skipping rope?’  The answer, of course, is that skipping teaches transferable skills – flexibility, agility, balance and speed.  But when children play with skipping ropes in the playground, they are not usually training to be boxers.

It is hard to disagree when she says that we never know how what we learn will serve us.  Education is a road that widens as we follow it, and which delivers all kind of surprises on the way.  And on that road, the arts are no less relevant than the sciences.  Unsurprisingly, given the success she has found as a writer, she argues that creativity expands our world and feeds the imagination.  And imagination is the mother of all ideas, all science, all discovery.  All subject areas benefit from a capacity to imagine better, to look from a different angle.

She points out that if we are talking about jobs, the candidate who can address a problem creatively is infinitely more desirable than the plodder who simply does as they are told.  But even without the likelihood of better employment and prospects, the arts are a means of building a better, more rewarding life.  Our children are not simply units, to be deployed in service to the economy.  They also need to be autonomous, to have the resources and imagination to use and enjoy their leisure time; to communicate ideas to others; to function as part of a healthy, compassionate society.

To conclude her piece, she says that although the creative arts, when times are better than they are now, are among our country’s most lucrative industries, creativity is not just about making money.  It is about the quest for meaning, the individual’s pursuit of joy.  Joy cannot be quantified in terms of exams or a syllabus.  Joy is an end in itself.  And art – be that music, or stories, or dance – is its greatest expression; the ultimate proof of our connection to the world and to each other.   Limit your creativity, she argues with passion, and everything else will follow.  Limit your opportunities, and your world will grow smaller.  Like the boxer with his skipping rope, we need the arts to help us fight against our limitations – to help us dream a better world.  

Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton, the authors of ‘Educating Ruby’, among many other books about the need to create better outcomes for pupils in schools, make a series of similar points.  They argue that to cope well with tricky times, you need more than a bag of knowledge and a clutch of certificates; you need a strong and supple mind.  The grades will open doors, but it’s what happens when you get to the doors that matters.  Teachers have a significant role to play in developing good habits and qualities of mind.  You can teach the Tudors in a way that develops the habits of independence, imagination, empathy and debate; or you can teach them in a way that develops passivity, compliance, credulity and memorisation.

They point out that the employers at Google don’t want to hire people who know what their IQ score is – you might be a nerd who treasures badges of past accomplishments rather than the kind of ‘intelligent flounderer’ they are looking for.  At Google, intelligence does not mean being able to solve abstract logic puzzles under pressure.  It means being able to think and question and learn in the face of unprecedented problems for which there are as yet no right answers.  Likewise, it is better to say your track record of success is patchy than to create an image of perfection.  Crowing about the past doesn’t cut it at Google; grappling with the future does.

Their conclusion is that education is the vision of what it is that our children will need if they are going to flourish in the world as we predict it will be: that is to say, in their world, not ours.  What knowledge and skills, what attitudes and values will stand them in good stead as they embark on life in a globalised and digitised future?  To decide on the core aims of education, therefore, we need imagination and philosophy.  Education has to be meaningful and relevant to the software designers, hairdressers, financial advisers, plumbers, nurses, neurosurgeons and farmers of the future.  I have never yet disagreed with much, if anything, they have written.

You will probably recognise this take on the power of imagination, but familiarity and comfort in an uncertain time seem like a good way to bring the school term to a close: ‘Imagine there's no heaven – it's easy if you try – no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Imagine there's no countries – it isn't hard to do – nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.  Imagine all the people living life in peace.  You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.  Imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can – no need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.  Imagine all the people sharing all the world.  You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.'

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, dear reader, and may your imagination thrive, both during the holidays and beyond.

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