A Pedagogy of Imagination

I design my Introduction to Literature course as an introduction to the history of imagination as a craft and mental ability that can be improved with dedicated, rigorous study and mental focus. This is a version of my concluding remarks, which change slightly every time because I talk from the top of my head and try to cover topics of concern to the students in my class.

Before I let you go, I want to try and put a period on what we have been trying to accomplish this semester. I want to impart to you some of the purpose behind what we have been doing. I do this, teaching Literature, because I really do think it is important. I assure you it is not because of all of the money I make as an adjunct professor. It is because I think taking the time to develop our ability to imagine is a legitimately and inherently good thing for everyone to do. There is no one who cannot benefit from having a richer imagination.

Think of it in the most obvious, practical terms. When have you ever said, “I have decided I am going to do this thing I have never imagined”? When have you established a goal, for a day, a year, or your life, without an act of imagination? It simply isn’t possible – goals cannot happen without the imagination. So if your ability to imagine is dimmed and left undeveloped, your ability to envision your future is not given the same opportunity. Reading, viewing, or otherwise engaging artistic literature literally makes it possible for you to have a wider imagination; it strengthens the mental muscle by which you strive for the future or look for satisfaction in the present.

In your every day life, acts of imagination will be a necessity. You have to imagine the new concepts your teachers present before you; you have to imagine ways to solve problems your employer puts in your hands; getting the job in the first place will require you to help your employer imagine you as a valuable employee, and to do that, you will have to have imagined yourself in a clear and positive way.

People’s imaginations shape our lives in so many different ways, we often take it for granted. We are just barely still aware that laptops, smart phones, Google Maps, and Siri are products of human imagination engaged with the physical world; even more basic niceties, like refrigerators, dish washers, sewer systems, and plastic cups are possible because of an act of imagination. When innovators like Steve Jobs or original thinkers like Einstein are praised, it isn’t for their practical knowledge or dogmatic assertion of the apparently given nature of reality, but of their ability to engage with that exciting world imaginatively.

But it goes beyond finding useful things to do with the imagination, as important as that is. Our ability to be satisfied with good things and comforted in hard times depends and will depend on our ability to imagine. Appreciation for the stars in the sky cannot be sustained without the realization that things didn’t have to be this way. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that if the stars only appeared once every 1,000 years, history would never forget it because of the incredible impression they would make on the human imagination. The particularity of the natural world, and the peculiarity of it, requires a reflective imagination aware that things could be otherwise, but they are this way – the butterflies, birds, and babies, and their coccoons, nests, and cribs, the trees and flowers and creepig and flying things and the cosmic balls of fire and mud on which they depend – are quite the surprise, and a cynical lack of appreciation for this surprising world is the result of the failure of our imaginations when we suppose ourselves now to be sophisticated, informed adults.

In your personal life, too, imagination will be essential. The emotion of love and its matrix of complicated emotions cannot be directly seen – they can only be inferred by the imagination’s ability to see patterns in words, actions, and facial expressions. Love between family members, romantic love, and the love of friendship all require sustained, focused imagination if those relationships are to be truly engaged with real intimacy. Just think of the romantic comedies you have seen – they all depict drama arising out of a failure of one or both of the love interests failing to imagine each other, and from that failure arises great pain. Successful love is in many ways always the result of successful imagination.

I hope for this reason that, even if you have not enjoyed all or even most of the literature we have read this semester (though I hope you have), you have begun to see how your imagination has greater potential and greater purpose in your life. I hope you can see the value of taking literature a little more seriously. Whether it’s a novel read on vacation, a movie seen on the weekend, a Netflix binge or a song on the radio you sing to in the car, I hope you will invest a little more energy in contemplating how this human creation of something beautiful stirs you and awakens your mind to greater thoughts than just “I have to be here at 7” or “I need to make this money and spend it on this car.” Not that those thoughts are by any means bad, but they will not be the memorable thoughts that satisfy the longing you will have for real meaning as you progress through this life. For these reasons, I encourage you to strive for real, lasting, quality experiences of imagination – at the very least, you will never regret having had a beautiful and moving literary experience, of that I am certain.

“If the whole power of pedantry should rise against her, the imagination will yet work; and if not for good, then for evil; if not for truth, then for falsehood; if not for life, then for death; the evil alternative becoming the more likely from the unnatural treatment she has experienced from those who ought to have fostered her.” – George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture”

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