I’ve been struck lately that the topic of imagination is everywhere if you look for it. Just open up today’s paper. It’s in the question of how we define success in Afghanistan. It’s in the question of why America’s green jobs sector is still not taking off. It’s in the paradigm shift that is creeping up on the NFL, in which players begin to imagine a sport less dependent on using an over-helmeted head as a weapon. And of course, it’s in the work of people every day in every profession. I spoke this week at a statewide conference of school counselors in Louisiana. These are people who are passionate about creating possibility in the lives of their students, and yet our society and our education system utterly shortchange counselors. The typical ratio, anywhere in America, is more than 500 students per counselor. How can that possibly work? A counselor, properly understood, can have as much to do with the sparking of a middle- or high-school student’s imagination—her sense of what she can do and be in the world—as any teacher or parent. But we are not set up to make those relationships between counselors and students work in any sustained and meaningful way.
This makes me look around and wonder where else in our web of relationships and institutions we are neglecting key nodes in the potential transmission of imagination. In business, having a visionary CEO is great. But the spread of imaginative thinking throughout the organization— the organism— depends critically on certain superconductors who are rarely as visible as a CEO. Do you know who those people are in your institution? And do they have the tools and the time to unlock the imaginative capacities of those around them? Imagination is certainly, as Scott Noppe-Brandon and I have written, a personal practice. It is also, however, a function of inherited structures of social organization. So let’s ask ourselves more often, of our schools and our governments and our charities and our businesses: are we optimizing for imagination?
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