November 17, 2016

The Importance of Imagination, Part 1

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Digital Learning
drawing of people on the moon

On the morning after election day, I tweeted:

Shocked, exhausted, and profoundly heartbroken, I knew to meet the day with the universal mandate for good parenting: to serve as my children’s best example. I took similar steps to support and listen to my students. Soon thereafter, I came to realize I was experiencing a form of grief. A sense of loss shared by so many others in the world. The words of American biochemist and writer Isaac Asimov capture my concern: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” In the dawning of this new political reality and regime, what kind of ground will the educator stand on? Still, despite my grief, a sense of urgency has arisen. We must move forward to build visions for better futures. And there is so much work to do.  

I know I have not been alone in my concerns. Many people were shocked at the outcome the morning after election day. How did we get here in the first place? Perhaps the answer lies in our failure to listen and imagine together. Not thinking something is possible is indeed a failure of the imagination. Have Americans chosen to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are? The late great Gwen Ifil was prescient in this regard:

Perhaps this kind of failure to imagine has become a fatal flaw in the American project. America has always been an aspirational endeavor, a rhetorical promise that has yet to be lived up to.  And yet we strive, making slow gains at profound cost. In his beautiful and sorrowful poem, “Let America Be America Again,” the great American poet Langston Hughes yearns to make the dream of America real, complete, workable. But, the dream is so very far from reality. Still, Hughes shares his brave and stubborn resolve not to give up hope. The sentiment remains. So, how do we pick up from here? How do we learn to listen and imagine together?

The developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky has suggested that “the creative activity of the imagination depends directly on the richness and variety of a person’s previous experiences because this experience provides the material from which the products of fantasy are constructed. The richer a person’s experience, the richer the material his (or her) imagination has access to.” Our collective playground in which to imagine has become an increasingly vast and daunting place. The world is indeed at our fingertips. Networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity should be a cornerstone resource for nurturing our growing capacity to imagine together. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we must be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of influences. We must be able to surf in the vast grab-bag of different stories, and we must combine and recombine these pieces to build new castles.  

At this critical juncture in our cultural and political history, we should never underestimate the power of fiction to lead the way in our real lives. Make no mistake, stories are not just child’s play. Stories give us starch up our spine, they point us to how we might do better, they give hope, they help us survive.

Imagination is our own, personal, infinite playground. It is, by its very universality, a shared capacity. What we imagine together becomes the very foundation of the human community. Let us now find new ways to practice our #civicimagination as we find fresh ways to imagine alternatives to current social, political or economic conditions. Before the world can change, people need the ability to imagine what alternatives might look like. What if we imagined what the world could be like, by examining where we are now, and then devising the steps that take us from here to there?

In my next DML post, I will share an invitation to join an open digital storytelling project wherein we can explore the elements of networked narrative while actively exercising our collective #civicimagination. Stay tuned.

Banner image credit: Bob Bello