September 17, 2021

To those interested in my theme of imagination as the home of human life I have recommended the accessible and delightful little book The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye, arguably the greatest literary critic of the twentieth century.  But it is reasonable to ask whether I have any ideas of my own about the relationship of education to the imagination.  When you go on the job market in academic, you have to supply a “philosophy of teaching” as part of your application.  I always hated this.  I think it pressures candidates into babbling abstractions and platitudes that have little to do with the reality of teaching.  When we hired, I paid little attention to candidates’ teaching statements:  what I watched was what actually went on in the classroom during a teaching observation.

I had never been a teaching assistant during graduate school and so entered my first classroom totally untrained.  I came upon my method of teaching, such as it is, intuitively, from a combination of the strengths and weaknesses of my personality (I think all teachers do this) and a process of trial and error in the classroom, discovering, sometimes the hard way, what worked and what didn’t.  Occasionally I have joked to my students: “Does this look like a philosophy of teaching to you?” Especially since so much of classroom discussion is improv:  you take what the students give you, think fast, and fly by the seat of your pants.  As with all improvisatory arts, some days are better than others.  

But although I may lack a philosophy, I have been driven by a vision of the potential purpose and value of what I have been doing for 37 years.   To articulate that vision, I need to sketch briefly how the teaching of literature, and the other arts, fits into the larger context of education.  As I see it, education in our society takes place on three levels, which I will call the practical, the ideological, and the imaginative.  Let me examine these one at a time, especially in relation to the teaching of English and the educating of the imagination. 

1. Practical Education:  Facts, Ideas, Skills.  Few people dispute that a society as complex as ours requires education in basic literacy and math.  Education is mandatory until age 16 because we cannot afford to have large numbers of people who are basically unemployable.  This first level of education can be called practical in two ways.  First, it is the knowledge and skill-set that will get you a job.  Second, it imparts what has been called “cultural literacy,” the kind of things that citizens need to know even to read the news, familiarity with the kinds of references and allusions that even popular journalism presupposes.  What was the Titanic; what is Toronto.  Yes, there are all too many students to whom we fail to impart much cultural literacy, the kind of students to whom Titanic is only a movie, and Toronto, as one student is alleged to have guessed, a city in Italy.  That is partly because we pick up some cultural literacy through schooling but a good deal more of it through habitual reading, and large numbers of students do not read.  But I warn students that the higher they rise in their professional career level, the more they will move in an educated context in which cultural literacy is presupposed, so it still qualifies as practical.

Mind you, it can and should be enjoyable as well. I enjoy teaching on the purely informative level, being what I sometimes joke of as the Village Explainer, imparting clarity and hoping my intellectual curiosity is contagious.  But such enthusiasm is not just the province of a few nerds.  The insatiable curiosity of children, and their love of “lore,” show that Aristotle had a point when he said, in the famous opening sentence of the Metaphysics, that all people desire by nature to know.  I once listened in amazement to a ten year-old spouting a non-stop epic catalogue of Pokémon lore, and such children may grow up to be the adults who win at Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy.   Less trivially, this enthusiasm for the myriad particulars of the world is, I believe, the deepest motive for science on its empirical side.  

But science is not merely empirical.  It is not content with merely gathering information:  it strives to find how all the discrete facts and phenomena are connected, are manifestations of scientific laws that link all phenomena into an “order of nature,” which is a mental construct.  The process of simplification is dramatic:  at present, it is believed that the entire complex universe is a product of four different forces.  There is an ongoing search for a Theory of Everything that will unify those four forces.  At this point, it becomes clear that science is a product of the imagination, and the theoretical scientists who discover the deep, unifying laws and patterns are in fact visionaries.  However, this synthesizing activity is in tension with an opposite tendency.  Scientific method begins in methodical doubt.  All theories are relentlessly tested for rigorous logic and empirical proof.  This tension between synthesizing vision and skeptical critique will meet us on the other two levels of education as well. 

2. Ideological Education:  Beliefs, Values, Traditions, Laws.  Normally I avoid academic jargon, but sometimes we need a term.  An ideology is the set of beliefs and values that bind a society together, typically embodied in customs, traditions, laws, and institutions.  An ideology is a structure of power:  it achieves unity by a combination of social conditioning towards conformity, backed up by coercion if deemed necessary.  Public education in modern society does not just teach facts and job skills:  reinforcing what students have been taught by family and religion, the schools teach morality, lessons about good and bad behavior, and thus build “character.”  They work towards “socializing” young people—and not-so-young people as well.  University-age students are still learning social virtues such as responsibility and reliability (you have to show up for class and turn in your work on time), pride in your work (spell the author’s name right), honesty (thou shalt not cheat), and civilized social participation (neither an attention-hog nor a back-row zombie shouldst thou be). 

Like science, ideology has two aspects in tension with each other, one of visionary synthesis and one of skeptical critique and argument.  On its visionary side, ideology expands into a vision of cosmic order, of which the social order is, at least allegedly, a manifestation.  In Hindu and Buddhist tradition this cosmic order is called dharma; in Jewish tradition it is the Torah.  When Judaism speaks of the loving study of the Law, it implies more than merely poring over a set of social statutes.  Such study is a means to the end of contemplating a cosmic order that is a manifestation of God himself.   Thus, ideology is, like science, a creation of the imagination.  Humanity may not have created the Law, as secularists believe, but the Law, usually embodied in Scripture, must be interpreted, and interpretation is a creative act.  And as we interpret, such do we believe. 

Many of the principles of literary interpretation have been derived from the tradition of scriptural interpretation, and by teaching students the discipline of literary interpretation we are showing students that, on the one hand, just as in science, there are criteria of logic and evidence, and not everything goes, but that, on the other hand, every interpretation is itself an imaginative construct.  There is no “right” interpretation.  Some interpretations command a wide consensus and some don’t, and not all are equal, but there is no such thing as a definitive, final interpretation of any text.  Some people very much do not want to hear that the same is true of scriptural interpretation as well.  When such people maintain that the Bible contains one clear message that is not subject to liberal relativism, you may assume that the clear message is the interpretation they accept, the others being “clearly” wrong. 

But, also like science, ideological education has another aspect of doubt, critique, and skeptical challenge.  By itself, ideology gives the appearance of wanting conformity and collective thinking, the more unconscious the better.  The usual tendency of social conditioning is towards the mindless collectivity of the beehive.  Indeed, ideology may seem to be a cultural replacement for the hard-wired instinct that governs the animal kingdom, at least on its lower orders.  But I think the impulse that challenges ideological conformism actually comes from within ideology itself, even when it gives the appearance of attacking from the outside.  That appearance is because the critical impulse is usually resisted and, if possible, repressed by the powers that be.  Those invested in the power structure do not want criticism and change.  But they get it anyway.  The Old Testament prophets were a thorn in the flesh to the Israelite kings and their hired priests.  Christ did not attack Caesar—he attacked the scribes and Pharisees and Jewish elders.  Socrates was put to death for corrupting the young, which meant causing them to doubt social orthodoxy and the gods.  But the prophets and Jesus opposed the powers that be only in the name of a better understanding of the Law:  they came not to destroy but to fulfill, as Jesus said explicitly. That did not keep them from being persecuted, and in some cases killed, by those upholding the status quo.  But it is an example of what I mean when I say that the impulse to criticize and refine ideology originates within ideology itself.  They used to say, “America—love it or leave it,” but the capacity for self-criticism and change from within is one thing that distinguishes democracies from authoritarian governments. 

Reactionaries not only resent any education that teaches students to question received pieties—they expect the schools to reinforce those pieties and are outraged when instead the schools teach “critical thinking,” the testing of all assertions and opinions according to the criteria of fact and logic.   Hence the uproar over “critical race theory.”  Critical race theory is not taught in the schools:  that is simply a lie.  But the real uproar is over what the schools do teach, which is an honest, searching critique of the history of racism in the history of the United States.  Conservatives usually complain that higher education has a liberal bias:  that colleges and universities indoctrinate students with liberal ideas.  What the schools actually try to teach—in English, it comes to sharpest focus in freshman writing classes—is that we should wake up, and not accept any idea or value blindly and automatically.  We should rather examine it critically and then decide for ourselves what we believe.  But of course it goes around in a circle, because critical thinking is a liberal value. 

3. Imaginative Education.  We have seen that science and ideology are ultimately mental constructs, dependent upon the synthesizing power of the imagination.  I think that some scientists prefer to minimize that dependency, giving the impression that science is purely empirical, a matter of gathering and testing facts.  The creative side of science is to them artsy-fartsy mysticism.  Likewise ideologues stress the brute, given fact of social power structures as inevitable, denying that they were summoned into being by an interpretive act.  

But that is not true of all scientists or ideological thinkers.  To Einstein, the extraordinary intricate patterns of the order of nature, as reflected in mathematical relations, were beautiful and somehow numinous, or sacred.  And to some thinkers and worshippers, the study of the Law, as we have said, leads toward the epiphany of a total pattern that is at once beautiful, good, and true, a pattern that is the image of God imprinted upon both the universe and human life.  In the Middle Ages, the ideal of theology was the summa, the encyclopedic treatise unifying all knowledge into one total pattern; its incarnation in the arts was the encyclopedic symbolism of the great cathedrals, and, in literature, the architectonic, all-encompassing symbolism of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Occasionally, we may have what Abraham Maslow would call a peak experience hinting at another kind of reality that either underlies the ordinary world or is the ordinary world seen at a much greater than normal intensity. It is a world of connections, interrelations, and associative identifications, a world of form and pattern.  My symbol for it in The Productions of Time is the ancient emblem of the mandala, originally a Tibetan Buddhist image of both cosmological and psychological unity and integration.  In literature, a common name for the rapture of such an epiphany is “wonder.”  Welcome to the humanities, with the arts at their center. 

Such a notion may sound abstract and intellectualized—but, no, that is not true at all.  The education of the imagination begins long before formal schooling with the bedtime story, and other forms of children’s literature.  The linguist Shirley Brice Heath has an essay titled “What No Bedtime Story Means.”  From her practical standpoint, bedtime stories are pre-school education, preparing children for later academic success by teaching them how to answer “what” and “why” questions—that is, factual and logical questions—and also conditioning them to obey the social rituals of school, such as not interrupting.  But then she speaks of a two and a half year old child, Lem, standing on a porch in an African-American community.  He hears a bell in the distance and spontaneously erupts with the following poem:




                              It a churchbell


                              Dey singin’


                              You hear it?

                              I hear it



You read correctly:  two and a half years old.  It gives me chills, for it is better than the first poems some of my creative writing / poetry students used to write.  Lem had no bedtime stories, but he grew up within the verbal energy of a vibrant oral culture.  What does this poem do?  It captures an event in the commonplace world within a network of intricate verbal pattern—rhyme, assonance, onomatopoeia, even a full return like a musical cadence, a verbal mandala—and by doing so turns it into magic.  A world in which such an event can happen is a place of wonder. 

There are bedtime stories that provide narrative equivalents of such enchantment:  myths and fairy tales, for instance.  From the latter derive the later genre known as romance, the story of marvels, of mysterious lands and strange transformations.  In the worlds of myth, fairy tale, and romance, there is a hidden connection between consciousness and the environment, between subject and object, so that consciousness animates and humanizes the non-human world. Animals talk, including in the cartoons that we fittingly call animation; swords are alive and sometimes have a will of their own; natural phenomena are gods and spirits: a dryad is a tree but also a girl.  Romance (as literary genre, not the commercial category of love story) with its magic and metamorphoses is the world of the Odyssey, especially the part called the Wanderings that I have been discussing in the Expanding Eyes podcast.  It is the world of the Arthurian tales in the Middle Ages, of the early poems of Milton and the late plays of Shakespeare in the Renaissance, of fantasy and science fiction in our own time, along with superhero comics and movies, and online games of the Dungeons & Dragons variety.  It is also the world of that great romance, the Bible, and the world of our dreams.  

What kind of education can be provided by such tales of the imagination?

Many romances have an ideological surface level.  Fairy tales are often didactic, teaching lessons about good and evil, and about social roles and behavior.  For that reason, they require critical thinking to locate and revise ideological blind spots, such as the sexism of many fairy tales.  More sophisticated romances have an ideological superstructure of political, social, and religious allegory, also subject to critical revaluation.  But even relatively simple romances, because they are rooted deep in the irrational level of the human mind where our primary motivations originate, may be more intuitively insightful than much academic psychology, which, like academic economics, assumes a socialized human nature that is rational, utilitarian, and reality-oriented.  I have been thinking lately how the superhero comics I grew up on more accurately capture the psychology of contemporary evil than most psych books and realistic novels.  Donald Trump is the epitome of a Marvel or DC supervillain, the narcissistic maniac spouting grandiloquent bombast, always attempting a comeback after being defeated, lacking, thank God, only the super powers.  The henchmen of Voldemort in Harry Potter, craven bullies and suck-ups lusting for domination, capture the Republican Congress and many Republican governors with deadly accuracy. 

But the educated imagination has a positive side as well, the side that imagines a better community than the one we live in, one bound into a unity by the ultimate power of connection, love, along with its protective counterpart, justice.  Jesus taught the Kingdom of Heaven, not as pie in the sky but as reality here and now; the Middle Ages gave us Camelot and the Round Table, and, in Beowulf,  Heorot, the shining guest-hall of King Hrothgar, giver of rings that signified the loving loyalty between the king and his thanes; Martin Luther King preached of his dream, and John Lennon asked us to “Imagine.”  The powers that be fear this kind of dreaming.  They will mock and debunk it, call it naïve.  Human nature is corrupt, and will not allow for anything better:  Jesus was crucified, MLK and Lennon assassinated; Camelot brought down more by human weakness than by Morgan Le Fay.  Beowulf protected two societies from three monsters, but in the long run his heroism will not save either Hrothgar’s people or his own from destruction wrought by insane feuding. 

The establishment will also do its best to eclipse this genuine dreaming by popularizing the more brutal forms of escapist commercial entertainment.  Some intellectuals will “demystify” such dreams, saying they are only the will to power in disguise, the violent imposition of a social unity that is really to the advantage of the privileged.  All do well to fear, for if people actually began to believe those dreams, they might awaken from their docile and conformist slumbers and begin to change the world. 

Like the other forms of education, imaginative education has two poles, which in my book The Productions of Time I call the recreative and the decreative.  The recreative is the power of projecting ideal models—the individual model of the hero, and the social model of the utopia or arcadia.  The decreative power of the imagination educates us by cleansing the doors of perception, as William Blake put it.  It shows us that what we call reality is really an illusion, even though we are trapped in it and cannot simply will ourselves free.  That is the function of the modes of realism, tragedy, satire, and irony, which show us people trapped and defeated by both circumstance and personality.  But such literature educates us in a kind of detachment that may be the first step out of the prison of our lives.  The protagonist of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych is dying of cancer.  He cannot will, wish, or imagine himself out of that.  Yet his illness forces him into a self-confrontation in which he realizes that all his life he has been, really, a pretty selfish bastard.  He changes his ways, and in his dying moments experiences a transcendent joy and feeling of release.  A sentimental feel-good ending?  Ah, but that is the point of imaginative education.  There is no “right answer.”  You have to create one for yourself.  And then make it real through living by it, which also includes dying by it. 

[Note: “What No Bedtime Story Means” by Shirley Brice Heath appears in Language: Introductory Readings, 7th edition, Virginia Clark, Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Beth Lee Simon, editors (Boston & New York:  Bedford / St. Martins, 2008), 798-826].