“Some men see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were, and ask why not?" Bobby Kennedy, 1968
This May in the Core Virtues program we feature (for the first time) the virtue of “imagination” – the flight of fancy required to step outside the world we inhabit and form a new or different “image” of what the world could be. Imagination can be used for good or evil but is a virtue when in service of a higher good (truth, goodness, or beauty). It remains the trait that unites great writers, scientists, filmmakers, musicians, engineers, artists, and just about anyone who asks bold, wildly speculative questions and comes up with answers.
Could human beings fly? Might computers be made small enough to become personal devices? Could we produce enough food to feed 8 billion people? Might we speak timeless truths of good and evil through a family of rabbits in the English countryside? Or find them “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”? Or could we bring eighteenth-century triumphs to light using modern rap? All of those questions, answered now in the affirmative, were daring dreams of the imagination just decades ago. The Wright brothers, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Norman Borlaug, Beatrix Potter, George Lucas, and Lin Manuel Miranda all share a root excellence: imagination.
In each case, their imaginative work was grounded in a strong knowledge base. Albert Einstein once famously said “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Poet Derek Walcott observed that Einstein earned the right to say that, because he had spent much of his life accumulating a vast storehouse of knowledge upon which to apply his imagination. As had the Wright Brothers before him. As did Steve Jobs and Lin Manuel Miranda after him. But we should still take Einstein’s point: imagination creates steppingstones to new knowledge.
So how do we encourage children to use and enjoy their imaginations? First, continue to delight them with a strong knowledge base. Wonder and imagination feast upon genuine understanding: of the physical world, of the human past, of world literature, of mathematical truths, of the fine arts. Children long to encounter real wonders and see the connections from different realms.
Second, in this busy world, parents should not forget that children need time for imaginative play. Kids need unstructured time, outdoor time, and on-their-own time. Free time to make up their games, to create their characters, and plan their projects – whether they are building a fort or exploring a stream or making a town of their own or going to a galaxy far, far away. We need to resist the temptation to schedule every minute of a child’s day.
A third answer (and one that will not surprise readers of this site) is a steady diet of quality literature. We can inspire at Morning Gathering by reading stories of those whose flights of fancy made them titans of imagination: Da Vinci and Franklin, the Bronte sisters and the Wright Brothers, the inventor of crayons and the inventor of silk, Emily Dickinson and Charles Darwin, Beatrix Potter and Wilson Bentley and so many more…. But more important still, let’s nurture children’s creativity and curiosity with literary works that transport them where we personally cannot escort them. Children who have, for example, enjoyed The Tales of Peter Rabbit,Winnie the Pooh,The Trumpet of the Swan, A Wrinkle in Time, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are imbibing a heady draft of imaginative possibilities that nonetheless shed light on our world. One of our favorite children’s authors, Madeleine L’Engle has written: "A child who has been denied imaginative literature is likely to have far more difficulty in understanding cellular biology or post-Newtonian physics than the child whose imagination has already been stretched by reading fantasy and science fiction." So take heart, all you parents and teachers whose students are lovers of science fiction and fantasy. Let them “dream things that never were and ask why not”? Mary Beth Klee