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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Lament of an educator/parent

My seventeen-year-old son has just completed fifteen examinations in the course of two weeks. They varied in length – some in excess of three hours, with a half hour break before the next exam – and we are still feeling the fallout from this veritable onslaught. These were not ‘the real exams’ – the ones that ‘counted’ – the ones that will help to discriminate between the sheep and the goats, who gets into university (and which ones of course), and who will be left outside the doors. Theoretically, then, the pressure on him should not have been so very great, at least not as pronounced as it will be a few months from now.

Not only as a mother, but as an educator, I cannot help but wonder about this process. Looking at my son, increasingly silent and exhausted, it is hard not to feel that formal education – at least at this particular juncture in his life – is anything but a stimulus to thinking in a deep and creative way about the world around him. As a young child he was nick-named ‘What if’, always posing questions about how the world might be transformed. It will be a miracle if that sense of curiosity and wonder is not beaten out of him by the time he graduates.

Writing nearly 40 years ago, philosopher Mary Warnock summarized the challenge of teaching in the following way:

The belief that there is more in our experience of the world than can possibly meet the unreflecting eye, that our experience is significant for us, and worth the attempt to understand it… this kind of belief may be referred to as the feeling of infinity. It is a sense… that there is always more to experience, and more in what we experience than we can predict. Without some such sense, even at the quite human level of there being something which deeply absorbs our interest, human life becomes perhaps not actually futile or pointless, but experienced as if it were. It becomes, that is to say, boring (1976: 202).

Igniting imagination is, or should be, the purpose of education, as this provides the impetus to explore what lies beyond known experience. The issues which Warnock eloquently identifies here are indeed some of the major challenges which confront those of us who teach. How do we effectively communicate to our students that what they experience in their own worlds is important and even significant, but that the world extends far beyond this? It is challenge enough oftentimes to demonstrate to our students that what we wish to teach them has relevance to their own lives. But we must be able to take them further than that, to show them ‘that there is always more to experience, and more in what we experience than we can predict’. If we can even begin to demonstrate to students that there are important connections between their individual lives and the world of ideas – in other words to make them thirsty for a sense of what lies beyond – then we have done much.

Warnock refers to the aim of ‘imaginative understanding’ (1989:37). This requires us both to make connections between things, to synthesize, as well as to throw that which seems of a whole into chaotic disarray. Warnock identifies different levels at which the imagination is employed:

If…our imagination is at work tidying up the chaos of sense experience, at a different level it may, as it were, untidy it again. It may suggest that there are vast unexplored areas, huge spaces of which we may get only an occasional awe-inspiring glimpse, questions raised by experience about whose answers we can only with hesitation speculate (1976: 207).

It is our imagination which pushes us to see beyond that which already is apparent, either experientially or perceptually. As Warnock indicates, it is this ‘looking beyond’ which has the potential to spark the curiosity of students, to lift them from ‘boredom.’ Paradoxically, through the exercise of our imagination, we can begin to perceive alliances and contradictions that were previously hidden from our view. In this sense, one can see the basis of an argument that a multi- and particularly interdisciplinary approach to teaching (and research) creates an atmosphere which is fertile for the imagination.

Pile of notebooks for Molly Andrew's son. Courtesy of the author.
Pile of notebooks for Molly Andrew’s son. Courtesy of the author.

Of course in order to nourish imagination in students, teachers must have the preparedness to see it. The poet John Moat argues that many teachers are themselves so beaten down by the system, that their own imaginations are being starved of air. When this is so,

…it is unreal to suppose they could find time or energy to foster their own self-expressive imaginative lives. The consequence is predictable enough – teachers come to the view the Imagination not as a reality in their own lives, but as some technical application that can be ear-marked and graded by the system. As a result they are often taken out of their depth by the raw, unruly Imagination of their students, are perhaps intimated, and haven’t the experience to either encourage or discipline it (2012: 212).

We cannot blame the teachers. Not only are they themselves deprived of oxygen for their own creativity, but they operate within a system in which intellectual engagement is measured almost wholly in terms of a student’s ability to reproduce standardized formulas in all areas, creating a certain bland sameness which mitigates against creativity. Samuel Coleridge argued that it is the imagination which brings into balance opposite or discordant qualities (Murphy 2010: 103). Building on this precept, Peter Murphy elaborates:

…creative acts are formed of elements which are borrowed from widely separated domains. That is why disciplinary drudges, even highly published ones, who plough the same field continuously, produce little or nothing of interest. The imagination borrows things from the most unlikely sources and compounds them (Murphy 2010: 103).

But even while imagination inclines us towards synthesis, the same ability to re-conceptualise what holds things together can also serve to break down that which had seemed whole. Imaginative understanding can lead us to question the very foundations on which we have built order in our lives. Thus it is that we use our imagination to detach ourselves from that which is familiar, giving us a new perception of not only that which is there, but also that which is absent. Warnock, elaborating on the views of Sartre, writes about the crucial relationship between presence and absence in the creative functioning of the imagination:

…there is a power in the human mind which is at work in our everyday perception of the world, and is also at work in our thought about what is absent; which enables us to see the world, whether present or absent as significant, and also to present this vision to others, for them to share or reject. And this power, though it gives us ‘thought- imbued’ perception …is not only intellectual. Its impetus comes from the emotion as much as from the reason, from the heart as much as from the head (Warnock 1976: 196).

So what can we do to stimulate this ‘thought-imbued perception’? How can we encourage the next generation to think meaningfully about their experiences, to gain a deeper understanding not only of their individual lives but of their wider social contexts, and further, to move beyond that known world? What can we do as teachers and as parents to help them to experience ‘the feeling of infinity’, the imaginative emotion John Stuart Mill once described as the feeling we get when ‘an idea when vividly conceived excites in us’ (cited in Warnock 1976: 206).

Somehow these days I cannot escape the feeling that the only ‘feeling of infinity’ that my son is experiencing is that of endless examination.

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