Advocating for Imagination

Greene020A note to my fellow advocates of imagination: The good news is that some of the sectors we are reaching out to—business, government; the shakers and makers, you might say—have come to full alert and perceive imagination as a primary asset of leadership. They actively seek those who are capable of bringing imagination, creativity, and innovative viewpoints to the table.

Unfortunately, in the minds of many, we’re promoting something that they still view as nebulous, indefinable, even mystical. Among the naysayers, sadly, are numerous institutions of education, a field that is perhaps closest to our hearts.

The man in the street cannot be blamed. We’re in the midst of the severest international financial crisis in decades, a period when people just want to get back on their feet before they even begin to think about abstractions, such as the arts or the imagination—which they do not think of as the tool that might help them improve their affairs. It simply isn’t a part of our cultural traditions. The catchphrase has always been “hard work,” not “imagination,” and, ironically, no one has taught us just how much one depends on the other.

So we’ve got our work cut out for us if we want to convince our communities that the imagination is important and must be cultivated. “But how,” you ask, “do I begin?”

Your first responsibility as an advocate is personal. Know what imagination means to you and why you care about it. Commonsensical as this seems, it will be the foundation for everything you say and do on behalf of the cause. My own core beliefs have been nurtured by the work of such thinkers as Maxine Greene and John Dewey. They are best expressed by the statement that the imagination is the capacity to conceive of what is not. It’s the human faculty that enables us to envision different realities. Eric Liu and I elaborate quite a bit on this theme, in our book Imagination First, where we underscore the practical applications of the imagination. We also want to emphasize that, contrary to popular belief, the imagination is not the province solely of O’Keeffe at her canvas or Einstein at his chalkboard; we all have it—but it needs space to develop.

Families, schools, businesses, and governments can take deliberate steps to create environments that nurture rather than stifle imagination. At the start of a new century fraught with sociopolitical conflict, in a fast-paced global economy in which international deals are sealed with the touch of an iPhone, this needs to happen if we as a nation are to keep pace, find fresh solutions to challenges, and dream up groundbreaking products and means of making them.

It’s because large segments of our society have yet to be informed and convinced of this that, in our book, Eric and I focused on the pragmatism that can be drawn from productive imagination (much as this may sound as a philosophical paradox). The point is that when you, as an advocate, speak about the benefits of the skill to imagine, communicate on your audience’s terms—that is, talk policy with government agents, discuss curricula with educators, zero in on efficiency and profit maximization with businesspeople, and so forth. You will not galvanize others about imagination until you demonstrate vividly to them how it impacts their particular domains. A terrific example of this (although I may be biased) is Lincoln Center Institute’s Imagination Conversation project, an ongoing series of public panel discussions.

Take, for instance, a Conversation held in New York City last summer. The panelists—high school principal Sarah Blos; video game designer and entrepreneur Nicholas Fortugno; storyteller David Gonzalez; physics professor Luke Keller; and corporate lawyer Stanley Pierre-Louis—all spoke in colorful detail about how imagination fuels their working lives. A diverse audience (which must have contained some skeptics) learned firsthand that imagination plays a central role in law, science, the arts, business, and education. Several elements of the Conversation make it a paradigmatic success story: the public forum; the unabashed focus on imagination; the primary human evidence of imagination’s power.

Some suggestions for those of you who are passionate about imagination but have limited time and means to bring it to your community: Talk about it at home and on the job. Think of feasible ways to get your family, neighbors, and professional colleagues to think imaginatively. That could mean playing a new game with your children, proposing a community project, or giving out an assignment differently at work. Stay informed by keeping up with this blog and other related Web sites. Introduce your book club to Imagination First or Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit (2006). And, by all means, organize your own Imagination Conversation. A forum for an exchange of ideas need not be an overwhelming affair: bring together a few friends who are concerned citizens looking for answers to today’s questions, and ask them what they think imagination is, and how it has influenced their private lives or their careers. If you are an educator, see how many parents might be willing to start a discussion—and, especially, coax those who are convinced that they have never used imagination in their work to participate; they might be in for a surprise once they begin to reflect on it. These are simple practices, the kind all of us can fit into our twenty-first-century schedules, but they’re just as crucial as Advocacy with a capital A.

Remember, finally, to advocate for imagination in a way that is flexible and open rather than rote. Although the centerpiece of our book is a list of twenty-eight-and-a-half “practices” to foster imaginative thinking, Eric and I advise readers early on that our list is just grist—that “it inspires you to append, amend, revise, and create…. That’s why we’ve created a Web site … where you can describe your own practices and where you can add or revise ideas in an open-source spirit.” This spirit is essential. Don’t let your enthusiasm for imagination and your certainty of the soundness of your arguments clog your receptivity. Listen to the objections of doubters and opponents, address these, and incorporate them into your strategic thinking. A give-and-take dynamic will lead others to take you more seriously and will enable them to discover the richness of imagination on their own, not merely at your prodding.

Keep these principles in mind as you march off to the front lines of the battle to weave imagination into the fabric of American society. It may be a battle, but it’s a joyful one.

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