Friday, July 31, 2020

Collective Imagination

There is no civilization beyond the one that we collectively imagine. It's this ability to collectively imagine that truly makes Homo sapiens unique among the species on this planet. Growing up, people insisted that it was the accident of opposable thumbs that was our special adaptive advantage, but it's more likely that our ability to think counterfactually, to consider things that don't exist, is what really makes us, for better or worse, such a dominant species. I'm not the only one who argues that this, along with our unsurpassed ability to cooperate with one another across space and time, is what puts us, again for better or worse, where we are today. Most of what we consider society, most of what we consider human order, is nothing more than a product of our collective imagination communicated across space and time.

The idea of money is a classic example of our collective imagination at work. At one time or another, we've all held paper currency in our fingers and wondered how it could possibly have value. Objectively, it's just a useless piece of paper, yet we've all agreed upon its worth. Increasingly, we don't even use that piece of paper, but rather simply the pure idea of money, making our transactions electronically, moving numbers around inside of computers and then simply agreeing that a fair transaction has been made. Consciously and unconsciously, our parents, and then the wider world of humans, taught us about money, not as a product of collective imagination, but as a hard fact about the world. We labor, we fret, we beg, borrow, and steal for this imaginary thing called money.

Before money, according to the stories we tell from within our civilization of collective imagination, we bartered with one another for the things we wanted. But that's a distortion of what came before, a perspective that only makes sense from within the context of a world in which money exists. Anthropologist tell us that prior to money, "commerce" was a complex system that was not measured in the tit for tat way required by money. For instance, debt, a curse of a system of money, was once viewed as a blessing. When someone did you a kindness or lent a helping hand, they weren't placing you under their thumb, they were rather tying you more closely to the community. Interdependence was one of the foundations of these earlier collectively imagined societies. The more debt you had, the more closely connected you were, and you, in turn sought to grant others the blessing of interdependence by doing and giving for and to others. If you tried to show off, if you tried to stand out, if you tried to leverage people's debts, you risked ridicule, ostracism, and even, in extreme cases, banishment. The invention of money was, once more for better or worse, a kind of declaration of human independence, a separation of the individual from the collective, yet it was all, and is all, a product of our capacity to collectively imagine.

There is no way out of imagined order, of course. Even if we are capable of revolution, of breaking down the walls, we emerge to find ourselves within another imagined order and another and another. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to create something new and better: all it takes is collective imagination. 

I've been thinking about our collective imagination since last week's Play First Summit. I'm thinking of speakers like Ijumaa Jordan who spoke of the system of white supremacy that we've collectively imagined into existence. I'm thinking of Chazz Lewis who urges us to teach our youngest citizens the art of protest. I'm thinking of Sonya Philip who told us she feels like a lone voice advocating for play-based education in India. I'm thinking of Maggie Dent who envisions growing altruism in the next generation of Australians. I'm thinking of Elena Maschwitz and her hope that Argentina is primed to create new "mental models" for their society. I'm thinking of Chris Bennett who seeks to create an entirely new method for organizing the care for and education of young children. I'm thinking of Cheng Xueqin who is in the process of transforming the lives of young children in China. And I'm thinking of Wendy Lee who told us of how the nation of New Zealand has undertaken an intentional process to create Te Whariki, a woven mat curriculum underpinned by the radical notion of young children as competent, confident learners, and to "measure" their success not with tick boxes, grades, and tests, but rather by the unique stories of each individual and interdependent child. Each of them, each of us, is working to break down the walls of the collectively imagined world in which we find ourselves.

The metaphor of the woven mat keeps returning to me: a place for us all to stand, made from many strands. There were nearly 75,000 of us at the summit: 75,000 strands brought together in space and time. I hope that we've all returned to our corners of this imagined reality both dissatisfied and inspired. The weaving together of these strands has already begun, we are collectively imagining something new, which is the most human thing of all. Seventy-five thousands strands is not enough, of course, but it's a start. 


Although the summit is over, you can still join the dialog. Go to The Play First Summit page, register for free, then choose the all-access pass that is right for you. You will then have unlimited lifetime access to our conversations with twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. 

Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

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