Musings on the Social Imagination, or How I Became an Imaginary Friend

To begin with, thank you so much for stopping by! Please sit down and help yourself to a cup of tea or, if you prefer, a glass of wine. There is so much to say about the importance of the arts in a well-rounded education. I thought I’d begin by exploring the notion of what Maxine Greene calls the “social imagination” and its relationship to public schooling.

Maxine Greene has applied a philosophical lens to the daily concerns of teachers in ordinary classrooms. This stirred quite a bit of controversy in the philosophical community who believed that philosophers should remain above the fray of daily life. But teachers are concerned with fundamental questions about the nature of knowledge and learning. What kinds of knowledge do we value? How is it that people learn? What does it mean to learn? These questions take on a particular importance in light of the Common Core Standards, the centerpiece of the most recent effort at school reform. More on the Common Core another time, but suffice it to say that this endeavor by its very nature reflects choices about what is and what is not to be valued as knowledge in our schools. The Common Core Standards focus on “college and career readiness” and therefore take a mostly analytical approach to reading. It is fair to say that these standards privilege what Louise Rosenblatt would call an efferent (reading for information) approach to reading, rather than an aesthetic (reading to be immersed in the experience) approach. Reading for information is certainly a critically important skill, as is the ability to convey that information with a degree of clarity and precision. But what about the aesthetic?

According to Greene, it is through these aesthetic encounters that young people become fully engaged in learning. They learn through active experiences. Aesthetic encounters are the opposite of passivity. It is through aesthetic encounters that students learn to ask their own questions, to place themselves in another’s shoes, to explore what motivates artists and what techniques artists use to elicit emotional and intellectual responses. Such experiences ignite the social imagination by teaching students to consider the world beyond their immediate experiences and daily realities.

I was once in a seventh grade classroom in The Bronx in which the students had been asked to read and comment on an article about air pollution. I sat with a group of students and noticed that one girl in particular seemed completely disengaged with the activity. I turned to her and asked something like “What do you think?” Her response is indelibly etched in my memory: “Why should I care about air pollution? I never go outside.” She seemed quite satisfied with this state of affairs. To consider a human being going through life with such a profound, crushing lack of social imagination was utterly devastating to me. I could not help but leap to the conclusion that if the world were populated with people who think this way, the human race would probably not last beyond the next generation. Granted, she was a twelve-year-old child, and twelve-year-old children can often be self-centered and short-sighted. Still, as I looked into the chasm of her pronouncement, I was deeply chilled. How could a kid think it was okay to never go outside? Even if that was her choice, how could anyone think that no one’s experience but her own mattered? (Never mind that even if she never left her apartment, she was still breathing the same air that was in that mysterious place called “outside.” Clearly the science teacher would have his work cut out for him). To hell with the planet! American Idol is on TV! More than the student who struggles but just can’t get it, more than disruptive students, or large class sizes, or poor curricula, it is encounters like the one with that girl that make me feel that teaching can sometimes be a truly Sisyphean task. So what do you do? If there is one absolutely futile gesture in the universe, it is telling someone that they should care about something that they clearly do not care about.

I have no idea what happened to that girl. I wish I could tell you that I devised a brilliant series of lessons that so profoundly affected this child that she has gone on to earn a Masters degree in environmental science. I can’t make such a claim. It was not my classroom, but I was more than just a visitor. I was there in a professional development capacity to work with the teacher on the pedagogy of aesthetic education. The lesson: read an article, write an essay that reflects your factual understanding of the article, was hardly inspiring. The teacher had given the assignment to help students prepare for their upcoming standardized test in English Language Arts. Test prep is seldom inspiring, and it does not even pretend to be about asking children to consider new ideas, new questions, new approaches. It is about developing a certain set of narrowly proscribed skills in order to pass a test that will allow the test takers to progress on to the next step in their schooling. Never was it more apparent that the goal of middle school is to get out of middle school.

Not all learning takes place in school, of course. I doubt that anyone in school had knowingly shaped this child’s attitude that a life that consisted of moving back and forth between the confines of an apartment and a school building was a perfectly fine life to lead. It was her experiences, or perhaps her lack of certain kinds of experiences, that had led her to this conclusion. What happens when children have a broader range of experiences? What can happen when they have experiences that allow them, as Maxine Greene says, to “imagine the world as if it could be otherwise?” Let me tell you another story.

Last week I got married. At 54 years old, I was hardly a typical bride. Neither was my wife Ann, who is a youthful 53. We live in New York State, which, as anyone who has not been unconscious for the past year knows, legalized same-sex marriage in June of 2011. Clearly, since most of the state legislators who voted for this measure were not gay themselves, it took many acts of social imagination both small and large to make this dream of so many people into a legal reality. Most of these acts originated in the stories of the lives of real people like us, who simply want to express the joy of loving another human being, and commit to that love in a way that is both public and permanent.

We had a big, celebratory wedding in the Catskill mountains, which were resplendent with fall colors. Family and friends were present, there was dancing, wine, cake, and while neither of us wore bridal gowns, we did clean up rather nicely. Among those present were our friends Julia and John, who have a beautiful three-year-old girl named Maya. Maya was fairly quiet, and seemed to prefer sitting in her mother’s lap to interacting with anyone else, but some aspect of the whole experience had clearly stayed with her. A few days after the wedding, Julia emailed Ann and me to tell us that Maya had a new imaginary friend that was sometimes called “Amanda” and sometimes “Annamanda” and that Maya and her new friend were always getting married or going to weddings. For a three-year-old girl to be fascinated by brides and weddings is not at all unusual. Brides are right up there with princesses and fairies in a little girl’s imagination; but for a middle-aged lesbian couple to be the inspiration for that small child’s imaginative play was to me, breathtaking. Presumably, as Maya grows up she will have other experiences to indicate that not all brides are middle-aged lesbians. She might well know this already, but what I love about this story is that when Maya thinks of brides or weddings, she will be able to imagine a range of possibilities that would not have existed until recently. The other thing I love about this story is that I think that being the imaginary friend of a small child is just about the coolest thing one can aspire to.

So here we have two stories: one of a child with a sadly limited imagination, the other of a child whose imagination is opening up to new possibilities. I can’t tell you whether this whole experience will have an impact on Maya’s future standardized test scores, or whether it will make her more “career and college ready,” but I can say that her imaginative play is reflective of an authentic engagement with the experience of that wedding. She was not only there, but in some meaningful way, she was fully present.

Granted, school is not a wedding, it is not a party, but it certainly could incorporate more experiences that we think of as “play.” When children play, they are often not just pretending, they are becoming. It is important to provide experiences that will not just dutifully drill them with skills and facts, but that will penetrate their consciousness with possibilities and inspire them to act independently. If school could be more like this, imagine the possibilities…

For more on Maxine Greene and the social imagination, read this: Journal of Educational Controversy: Art, Social Imagination and Democratic Education: Maxine Greene and the Unfinished Conversation Lorraine Kasprisin, Editor.                     http://www.wce.wwu.edu/Resources/CEP/eJournal/v005n001/Editorial.shtml

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2 Comments

  1. Sandy

     /  October 16, 2012

    Great first article to your blog! And I love the story about Maya. What beautiful writing.

    Reply
  1. Musings on the Social Imagination, or How I Became an Imaginary Friend « bronx arts education network

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