Monday, October 20, 2014
The end of imagination. . .
One of the things that does trouble me is the impact of education and, perhaps even greater, the consequences of a video/tech culture on the imagination of youth. Few would seriously challenge the idea that colleges today tend to have the most rigid boundaries of thought policed by teachers, administrators, and students alike. But I cannot blame this all on the college.
Michael J. Lewis writing for First Things has put my concerns very clearly within the framework of education and play and the results of the choices we have made for ourselves. He writes: Students in my history of architecture course are amused to discover that the final exam offers a choice of questions. Some are bone dry (“discuss the development of the monumental staircase from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, citing examples”) and others deliberately open-ended (“General Meade overslept at Gettysburg and the South has won the Civil War; you are commissioner for the new national capital and must tell us which architects you will choose and what instructions you will give them.”) In offering this whimsical range of options, I do nothing original; my own professors at Haverford College did much the same in their day.
But a peculiar thing has happened. When I began teaching twenty-five years ago, almost all students would answer the imaginative question but year in, year out, their numbers dwindled, until almost all now take the dry and dutiful one. Baffled, I tried varying the questions but still the pattern held: Given the choice, each successive cohort preferred to recite tangible facts rather than to arrange them in a speculative and potentially risky structure. In other respects, today’s students are stronger than their predecessors; they are conspicuously more socialized, more personally obliging, and considerably more self-disciplined. To teach them is a joy, but they will risk nothing, not even for one facetious question on a minor exam.
Free play is not free when it happens under the control the choices and direction of others. Our preoccupation with video games and technology means that we may be learning to follow more than we are learning to think, to risk, and to joy in our own imaginations. This is a troubling thought. I am not simply speaking theologically here but of the impact upon this directed play upon the imagination of the artist, the musician, the sculptor -- all the creative arts and vocations!
We seem to believe that play is too important to be left to the imagination of children and so we have directed and supervised this play. Our attempts to create a egalitarian playing field, devoid of competition, bullying, intimidation, and victories have noble intentions but serious consequences upon the imagination of youth and adulthood.
...the process of producing the well-socialized, well-tempered contemporary child has inadvertently blunted some of those qualities that can only be acquired, as it were, when no one is looking. Chief of these is initiative—the capacity to size up a situation and take quick decisive action. Only those children who play under minimal supervision—“free range kids” in the happy phrase of Lenore Skenazy—get the chance to develop this sense of dash or pluck. They do this in the process of deciding what to play, establishing the rules, choosing sides, and resolving the inevitable dispute. In short, by acting as miniature citizens with autonomy rather than as passive subjects to be directed.
For adults to have imagination, they must have learned to play, to risk, to create, to inspire, etc... I worry about what our well meaning attempts to insulate our kids from hurt, loss, defeat, and disappointment have won us. Our kids may become not only couch potatoes who depend upon their technological toys to entertain them but end up with brittle imaginations fearful of the risk of creative thought. That is not a good thing.
I well recall a line from an older movie in which Uncle Buck goes to school to meet with the principal who has charged his 6 year old niece with failing to take seriously her academic career. I don't think I want to know a six-year-old who isn't a dreamer, or a sillyheart. And I sure don't want to know one who takes their student career seriously. I don't have a college degree. I don't even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they're ALL good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they're no good. Maybe we don't need to convince them they are no good. All we have to do is convince them that the only way to play is to follow somebody else's imagination and that dreams are for others. We have done more than abuse our children by taking away their play and insisting they act like smaller sized adults -- we may have also lost out on the giants of the creative arts who could endow us with some beauty, wonder, and joy in a world too full of sorrow, fear, and despair.