Lincoln Center Institute Is on Twitter

A quick announcement for readers of Imagination Now: Lincoln Center Institute (LCI) is now on Twitter as LCInstitute. This is another highly useful way to interact with LCI online. Follow us to keep up with our efforts to promote imagination, creativity, and innovation in education and society, and to stay informed about relevant news from around the world. We look forward to meeting you, and conversing with you (in 140 characters or less), on Twitter!

Poe’s “Chemistry of the Intellect”

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I’m a master’s student in the department of English at New York University, currently enrolled in a course called American Romance and Realism, in which we read fiction from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A few weeks ago, we looked at the work of Edgar Allan Poe, plunging ourselves into his dark, sensuous, neurotic literary universe. But Poe was a critic and commentator as well as our country’s foremost documenter of psychic torment, and while doing my assigned reading for the week, I stumbled across a bit of his “Marginalia” that my Penguin anthology calls “On Imagination.” (It was originally published in the Southern Literary Messenger in May 1849.) What does Poe have to say about Lincoln Center Institute’s core concept? Continue reading

Uncle Sam Wants You…To Imagine

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Image by Aaron Domini*

Image by Aaron Domini*

Americans without health insurance, parts of New Orleans still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, deficient public schools—these are only some of the shameful, nagging social ills that Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon deem “failures of imagination” in their book, Imagination First. One thing these “persistent problems” have in common is that they’re all national issues, not merely the concerns of individuals or organizations. A natural question, then, is: what role, if any, should the federal government play in spurring citizens to find imaginative solutions to such challenges? President Obama prompted my thinking on this when he drew attention to social innovation earlier this summer. Let’s look to him as we try to find an answer. Continue reading

Man with a Kite

 Franklin Graduating at Wharton by SolYoung*

Franklin Graduating at Wharton by SolYoung*

Bifocals, the catheter, the lightning rod, the odometer, the mechanical armonica, swim fins: all of these sprang from the mind of Benjamin Franklin. So did the United States’s first academy, hospital, and library, respectively. When he wasn’t occupied with the founding of our country, Franklin was a prolific scientific and social innovator, an embodiment of the productive power of imagination. After all, where do new devices, techniques, and ways of living originate if not in our heads, our imaginations?

Author and illustrator Maira Kalman celebrates Franklin’s life as an inventor in “Can Do,” a recent installment in her monthly graphic Op-Extra blog column for the New York Times. With bright, colorful, elegantly cartoonish illustrations and deadpan New York humor, Kalman provides a hit-and-run history of Franklin’s career and, ultimately, links his imaginative ethos to the American spirit (“Don’t mope in your room. Go invent something”). Of particular interest to me is the great man’s daily goal chart; what does his rigidly structured day suggest about setting aside time for imaginative thinking?

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

The Labor of Imagination

Assembly Line by Jim Crocker*

Assembly Line by Jim Crocker*

When we think of assembly lines, many of us envision men and women in identical uniforms standing side by side before a conveyor belt, tools in hand, against a dense backdrop of plastic and metal, performing the same basic tasks ad infinitum. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Chaplin’s Modern Timesthese films are timeless in their representation of the popular conception of the assembly line as industrialism’s great homogenizer, soul-crusher, inducer of unspeakable boredom. What we don’t think of in relation to assembly lines is imagination. Why would we? What room is there for imaginative thinking in the Dickensian toil of the line worker?

New Yorker staff writer Peter J. Boyer’s reportage challenges these assumptions. In his April 27, 2009, article, “The Road Ahead,” he discusses the opening of a Nissan automobile plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, in the early 1980s. It was a bold step—the largest Japanese investment in the United States to date, to be run according to the Japanese method of manufacturing and workmanship. So how did this anomalous experiment become the most productive auto plant in the U.S. by the end of the decade? Continue reading

Seeing What No One Else Sees

Reading an Eye Chart by MousyBoyWithGlasses 1462*

Reading an Eye Chart by MousyBoyWithGlasses 1462*

An imaginative career can be variously exhilarating, rewarding, and arduous, but you don’t have to tell that to Dr. Stephen Kurtin, the subject of an August 3, 2009, New York Times profile by John Markoff. “As a promising Caltech graduate student in applied physics,” the article begins, “Stephen Kurtin could have taken a job offer from Intel at the dawn of the microelectronics era 40 years ago.” Instead, Kurtin took the path of most resistance, that of the solo inventor. His imagination—his capacity to conceive of what is not—has been essential to his shining success (he holds more than 30 patents in areas as diverse as word processing and surround sound), but it has also driven him to toil for the last 20 years on a question most others haven’t dared to touch: how can we do better than bifocals, trifocals, and progressive lenses in treating presbyopia? (Presbyopia diminishes the ability to focus on close objects and affects a third of the world’s population, mainly people over 40.)

Kurtin’s odyssey of trial and error reminds us that in science and commerce, imagination is only the beginning of a lengthy process. But if you’re confident about your initial conception, you hang in there. Kurtin figured out at long last how to construct commercially viable glasses with a mechanically adjustable focus. TruFocals, as they’re called, go on sale in the U.S. this month. Read the article for technical details. Kurtin’s story is instructive because it offers us a panoramic view of imagination—the boldness it requires (adjustable focus has been an unattainable goal for 140 years) and the hardship it sometimes brings (Kurtin has invested millions of his own dollars in the product), as well as its potential to lead to the improvement of countless human lives.

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.