Monday, November 28, 2022

Lack Of Imagination Is The Real Crisis In Our Democracy

"The imagination," writes George Orwell, "like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity."

When I look around all all our problems, our disagreements, our complaints and concerns, what I see is a lack of imagination. We're born with it, so where did it go? NASA's scientists find that 98 percent of five-year-olds test as creative geniuses. But somewhere along the line, we lose it. NASA's same test finds that only 2 percent of adults have this trait. We know that when monkeys are kept in cages, their brains stop producing new cells, while when they are allowed the freedom of their natural habitat, their brains continue to grow. This is likely true of humans as well.

Standard schools, for many children, serve as cages and as Orwell points out, imagination does not breed in captivity. Even when we set aside the aspects of schooling that mirror the lack of freedoms found in prisons (e.g., restrictions on movement and choice), we find that even the freest of schools tend to offer an ever narrowing view of education, one that increasingly focuses on literacy and mathematics at the expense of everything else. The curricula that school districts purchase from for-profit education companies are intentionally designed to limit what children are to think about so that they can later "test" them to prove, not what the children have learned, but the dubious effectiveness of their curricula so that school districts will continue paying them. This results, in my view, in a gross infringement on the most fundamental freedom of all: the freedom to think for ourselves.

This is specifically what Orwell is writing about, when he uses the word "captivity." When those in authority can control what we think about, there is no need for locks and bars in order for us to live as if we are imprisoned. The first thing that dies in this kind of environment is curiosity, which I think explains the difference between the results of young children and adults in NASA's tests. When we spend the better part of two decades, during our formative years, learning that curiosity will only get us into trouble, we stop using it. Curiosity, not learning to read at four or scoring well on an arbitrary math test, is what drives imagination.

Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few's music, use the gifted few's inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.

This is the natural consequence of a society kept in captivity where creativity does not breed. Instead, we raise our children to rely upon "the gifted few": the teachers, the curriculum-makers, and then, when they are done, their employers. It's a kind of learned dependency that fills the void left when curiosity and imagination are systematically removed from our experience. When one is a captive, there is no choice but to rely upon our jailers.

This lack of curiosity and imagination is the real crisis in our democracy. As we face such immense challenges as climate change, war, poverty, pandemic, and bigotry, we're going to need all the curiosity and imagination we can get and it's simply not going to breed in captivity. The solutions may, if we're lucky, come from one of the gifted few, but I like our prospects much better if we can set ourselves free to become the gifted many.

And that will only happen when we set children, the actual gifted many, free to grow and learn in their natural habitat, which is a place where they are free to play and direct their own learning within the context of a community. This is where curiosity and imagination breed.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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