Imagination as a Precision Tool for Change

The project of critical pedagogy is not simply the project of improving education, or of learning, but rather the project of becoming more fully human.

Imagination as a Precision Tool for Change

On June 21, 2018, I was invited to give a public talk at University of Warwick. Here is the transcript from that talk.

In July 2003, a monster washed ashore on Pinuno Beach in Los Muermos, Chile. Weighing 14 tons and measuring 39 feet across, the creature made headlines around the world even as it baffled scientists who undertook investigative pilgrimages to visit it.

At the time, I was working as an instructional designer for a small education and design firm in Colorado. My work, which consisted largely of writing interactive training materials for clients in the banking and workplace safety industries, was repetitive and menial. I was responsible for aligning content with assessment with learning outcomes, and for moving would-be users of these courses up the ladder of Bloom’s taxonomy, from knowledge-level learning to application.

It was education at its most mathematic, learning delivered in a robotic fashion with an eye trained most vigilantly on consistency and replicability of results.

I was working from home the day the Chilean monster got my attention. I immediately messaged my friend at work the news. And across our distance from screen to screen we both awed and wondered at the creature. She in her silence and me in mine, until one of us—I don’t recall which—offered that we should get in a car and make a road trip to Chile to see the thing. A plane flight would be too direct. A trip across the many borders between Colorado and the beast, across the plains and mountains of Mexico, the rainforests of Costa Rica, the high Incan plateaus of Peru… this seemed the only reasonable way to go to see a monster.

We wanted to go because the blob of fat and tissue lying on the sands of Pinuno Beach represented something we could not explain. Simply put, the world of our lives had run out of imagination, collected up and boxed as it was by Bloom’s taxonomy, by quality assurance, by the small and often spiteful politics of that little instructional design firm, by the limits placed not only upon our work, but, by extension, upon those learner-trainees who would take the courses we grumbled through building. The Chilean monster seemed like an intervention by a reckless world. The ocean’s way of reminding us that some things could not be reasoned.

In Pedagogy of Indignation, Paulo Freire writes:

“I would not like to be a man or a woman if the impossibility of changing the world were something as obvious as that Saturdays precede Sundays. I would not like to be a woman or a man if the impossibility of changing the world were objective reality, one purely realized and around which nothing could be discussed.” (14)

At the heart of Freire’s critical pedagogy is both an insistence that the world is changeable and that it needs to change. His seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed argues that oppression is persistent throughout human history, while at the same time unnatural to human life. Freire offers the view that oppression, as a force in human society and human behavior, is in fact a distortion of what it means to be human. In the opening paragraphs, Freire writes:

“Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. This distortion occurs within history; but it is not an historical vocation. Indeed, to admit of dehumanization as an historical vocation would lead either to cynicism or total despair.” (44)

The project of critical pedagogy, then, is not simply the project of improving education, or of learning, but rather the project of becoming more fully human—both on behalf of those who are dehumanized, and those who dehumanize others (and thus necessarily dehumanize themselves).

Too often, critical pedagogy is perceived as an attempt to overturn power structures, to liberate students’ agency, or, even more banal, to change from a lecture-based classroom to one that is “flipped,” to do away with certain kinds of our more traditional and paternal assignments, to hand over to students processes inherent in higher education—the syllabus, the learning objective, the form of assessment—in order to give them more control of their learning, to invest them in an ownership over their education.

But you see, this is like offering a child a car for their 18th birthday. It is a symbol of freedom without being freedom. In offering that car, a parent also offers with it an indoctrination into the world of car insurance and car payments, into the world of traffic violations. Cars are not themselves free from policing, and therefore neither will the teenager driving one be.

And if driving their own car doesn’t seem like a kind of oppression rather than liberation, consider that “Functionally, oppression is domesticating” (51). Oppression does not have to take the form of slavery, illegal or unfair labor practices, jailing, microaggressions, civil injustice, or any form of captivity. Instead, when we decide to inculcate agreement, docility, and an uncritical response to “the way the world is”—to what we might see as objective reality, the rules of the road, the existence of rubrics, the necessity of grading—that is oppression.

The illusion of the student-generated learning objective, for example, is that control has been handed over—or they have at least been included now in a kind of collaboration with the instructor. But in doing this, they rarely, if ever, will be entering into a collaboration with the university; and indeed, no power has truly shifted. The instructor, beholden for their job to the institution, must nonetheless guarantee that a student-created learning objective will also meet the curricular criteria for which the teacher is responsible.

Freire quick and early reminds us that: “The oppressors, who virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” (44). And so it is better to educate students about their world, about the beholdenness of teachers, and then perhaps to ask them to formulate their own way to collaborate with the instructor to free them both from institutional constraints. Asking a student to replicate a process designed to control, oppress, or otherwise domesticate doesn’t liberate them, it only hands them the tools by which that control and oppression are fashioned, without the power to transform anything at all.

For Freire, the first step in the awakening hearkened by critical pedagogy—the humanizing project—begins with a deep understanding of the world. “To no longer be prey to [oppression’s] force,” he writes, “one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (44). He speaks about this praxis as dependent upon the student’s ability to read their world, to develop an epistemological relationship to reality.

This is a primary critical literacy: to have the tools, the confidence, and the acumen to recognize power structures, relationships, and the assumptions, acceptances, and adaptations that surround any agreement that “the impossibility of changing the world [is] something as obvious as that Saturdays precede Sundays.” And then to question those assumptions, to refuse those acceptances, to not simply adapt, but to change. To say no. To resist.

But rebelliousness is not enough. Freire reasons in Pedagogy of Indignation that resistance must be a critical project, one borne from restlessness and ire, perhaps, but informed by “a more radical and critical position, a revolutionary one, one that fundamentally announces” (62).

A resistance that fundamentally announces.

I’m caught here by this idea of annunciation—of announcing, and of being announced. The literacy that Freire describes, the ability of a human being to read their world, brings upon its heels necessarily a vocalization. A speaking. Out. Up. To. With. Against. And I think this announcing can take many forms, both internal and external. This critical announcement can come in the form of a march, a protest, a Bartleby-esque preferring not to. Or it can be quieter, an announcement to one’s self. A decision not to believe. A decision to question. A decision to look beyond. To come out. To hold your head high in the face of opposition.

This announcement could be seen as the first small (or giant) peeking out of agency, a word often aligned to Freire’s critical pedagogy. Freire himself speaks of agency in many ways, and the word has been interpreted multivalently in the work and praxis of many educators since. Agency has been called “choice,” and has been reduced conveniently in educational settings to mean giving students multiple different paths for completing a project. Agency is also often considered along the lines of free will, and agential action as following your spirit, doing as you feel is best for yourself, and the like. At its most problematic, agency has been conflated with making choices despite power, with the notion that “bucking the system” results in greater freedom.

But agency is best understood as our human capacity to intervene as historical subjects.

Agency allows us to see ourselves as both objects of history and subjects outside of its tow. But it does not change history, rather it calls us to front that which has happened, those lists of events and tragedies and remarkable, problematic victories which we cannot undo. Our response cannot be to alter what has happened, or to try to, but rather to recognize that the machine of history is not not dismantle-able, that the course of history not unmoveable. We can intervene, agency tells us; and more, agency says that it is the very principle of human life to intervene.

What does this intervention look like? I’ve spent the last many years working with groups of teachers and administrators at institutions across the United States, Canada, and the UK who hope for answers to that very question. As a body, they are dissatisfied with the nature, practice, and affect of online learning, and they are looking for doors they might open to make things different, to imagine things otherwise.

And here is where agency becomes profoundly challenging. For if agency is our human capacity to intervene as historical subjects, agential action brings with it binding and irresistible results. Intervention is a frightening business, and it requires, as I’ve just said, a critical literacy. In many cases, the instructors struggling to free themselves from the alienation of teaching online, from the sallow and unsatisfying experience of instruction at a distance—especially through the interface of the LMS—will ask for alternatives to the practices they already know, rather than interventions into the deeper practices they take as objective realities, “purely realized and around which nothing can be discussed.”

An example: For whatever reason (and there are many), let's say a teacher hopes to resist using Turnitin, a popular, nearly ubiquitous plagiarism detection tool. But their question will be framed as “I need an alternative way to detect plagiarism, one I can feel good about employing.” This is what Freire might call an adaptation, a shift in behavior designed not to alter the status quo, but to maintain it, even within a slightly altered framework.

The question that intervention would ask might be more along the lines of, “Why am I worried about plagiarism? What is behind my concern? To what preconceived notion does my use of Turnitin offer a reinforcement?”

Instead of looking for another tool besides Turnitin for plagiarism, agency asks us to intervene upon the assumptions, acceptances, and adaptations that surround the agreement we generally hold that plagiarism is both unquestionably a problem and inevitable in every student population. Also, that we are helpless to its cresting wave.

And to look that deeply at our assumptions requires a willingness to believe in monsters washed up on the Chilean shore. We must not only want to see the world as it could be, to be intrigued by its possibilities, but we must be able to see it as it could be otherwise.

Once upon a time, a rather strange but wise friend told me that the imagination is as accurate as the intellect. Not in the dreamings up of nightmares or elves or unicorns and dragons, flights of fancy, or paranoia. The imagination is a source of information about who we are, how the world might be, what futures are possible. Maxine Greene writes in “Imagination, Breakthroughs, and the Unexpected,” that “Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves” (31). Of creating slight enough or significant enough disruption to recognize our own adaptations to the world around us—especially adaptations through which we have entered into agreements of oppression, domestication.

Throughout Freire’s writing, the arc of his sense of justice bends always toward the recovery of agency in order to create the environment and means for intervention upon history, for transformation of self, other, and our historical context. But where Freire seems often to draw short, or where he leaps a gap, is in the movement between the recovery of agency and the moment of resistance. The invention of our interventions.

And here is where I turn to Greene, for it is in her work on imagination that we find a precision tool for change. Greene was an educational philosopher who committed herself to the exploration of social imagination and its use and impact on education and pedagogy. Early in her key work, Releasing the Imagination, she clearly echoes Freire’s resistance to the notion of an objective reality when she writes that “treating the world as predefined and given, as simply there, is quite separate and different from applying an initiating, constructing mind or consciousness to the world” (23).

And for Greene, that initiating, constructing mind is the human being operating in their agency, vocalizing, announcing. The imagination is as critical a literacy, in fact, as the ability to read one’s world. “Imagination,” she writes, “will always come into play when becoming literate suggests an opening of spaces, an end to submergence, a consciousness of the right to ask why” (25). The imagination, therefore, is not frivolous, not uncritical. In fact, it prompts us to ask very important questions about the world, about why it is one way and not another; and the imagination does not assume an objective reality, but prefers instead subjective possibility.

Within Greene’s critical pedagogy of the imagination, she often frames the movement from oppressed to liberated, from settled to restless, from accepting to revolutionary, in terms of a quest. We are in search of something that is ours but which we don’t yet know or recognize. We are on a road trip across Mexican landscape and over the Andes to find that which might change our minds about the world, which might give us some unshakeable assurance of the indefinite nature of reality.

For Freire, this is the “fundamental knowing that changing is difficult, but it is possible,” as he writes in Pedagogy of Indignation. “Changing the world implies a dialectical dynamic between denunciation of the dehumanizing situation and the announcing of its being overcome, indeed, of our dream” (62). One can almost see Freire’s subject escaping imprisonment, and riding out upon a horse back to their home to declare their victory, their return.

But where Freire’s life and writing centered on political struggle, the struggle of laborers, and theories of education which vehemently pushed against institutions, Greene’s work centers on the human and the artistic, on a quest of her own, as she says in “Imagination and Aesthetic Literacy,” “to enable diverse persons to break through the cotton wool of daily life and to live more consciously.” (185)

It’s unsurprising that this quest of Greene’s often brought her face to face with the same mechanisms and technicist approaches to education that Freire found so problematic. Not just the “banking model” of education, but also

“the growing tendency of schools to define their objectives in technical or in quantitative terms. It is increasingly disturbing to … spend so little time on what it means for individuals to become—to create themselves among beings who are different, to choose themselves as thoughtful human beings, decent and engaged, wide-awake to the world.” (“Countering Indifference: The Role of the Arts” 1)

Again and again throughout her work, Greene troubles over the move not just away from the arts in school, but away from the work of growing human beings, fully capable of imagining possibilities not just for themselves but for the society to which they will eventually belong.

If we take a moment to consider it, belonging to a society without a sense of our own possibility within that framework can give rise to an existential alarm.

And it is against that existential alarm that school can raise a offensive, that education can raise an offensive, in the form of an imagination literacy. A curriculum, an approach, a posture toward learning and teaching that encourages and cultivates an imaginative capacity within students exactly in order to help them address the demands of agency, and in turn exactly in order to encourage inspired and meaningful transformations in society, justice, culture, and our shared historical context.

It’s at this point that I want to go off-script, because to conceptualize of a curriculum of imagination literacy is not only so vast a project, institutionally speaking, but also one so contrary to the current endeavors of the academic program, that it gives one pause. Right at the start we must ask questions such as:

  • Is critical pedagogy aligned with the interests of the academy? In an ivory tower increasingly interested in credentialing as currency, competitive completion rates, models of efficiency that have given rise to online program management companies, the outsourcing of pedagogy to Pearson and Turnitin, are we confronting a reality where “Dreams are caught in the meshes of the saleable; possession of consumer goods is the alternative to gloom or feelings of pointlessness. Ideas of possibilities are trapped in predictability”? (“Art and Imagination” 124)
  • What could an approach to imagination literacy look like? Greene insists again and again that moments of shock and experiences of direct encounter are necessary in all cases where the imagination is to be inspired. “To know how to attend [to reality] is to open oneself to altogether new visions, to unsuspected experiential possibilities. It is to become more engaged in looking, from an altered standpoint, on the materials of one’s own lived life, and in imaginatively transmuting (from the fresh standpoint) the fragments of the presented world.” What does a course in altered standpoint look like? What learning outcomes could possibly be assigned to assure an imaginative transmutation?
  • What limitations do we automatically place upon imagination by calling it a literacy? “As a set of techniques, literacy has often silenced persons and disempowered them. Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling the young to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity” (Greene, “Teaching for Openings” 120). How do we resist the urge, even the habituated tendency toward ordering, containing, and describing a literacy of the imagination?
  • Is there futility in this project? Are we tilting at windmills?

I am, of course, being coy. Most of us would rather be comfortable with the titillation of change than faced with the work of change itself, or even with its honest appeal.

But the truth is, if we are tilting at windmills, shouldn’t we be? Shouldn’t some piece of our ambition to reshape the world, that ambition which may have ignited not only our first intellectual spark, but our more primordial imaginative spark before that, be given some rein? “What is important is the effort to define a vision and to work on giving it expression,” Greene urges us. “An understanding of the struggle, a sense of having been inside it even for a moment.”

Imagination is the opposite of ennui. The imagination is about the possible, the possible-to-know, not the certain, not the known, the unchangeable, that sore upon our heel to which we have grown accustomed but about which we still occasionally grumble. There is no use in grumble. There is use in intervention. Heal the sore. Wake from the knowable toward the unknowable. We must educate away from ennui, away from the despair that the technicist world is an objective reality into which we must enter as cogs, as laborers, and toward imagination, toward the hope that things can be otherwise.

Melvin Rader offers a metaphor for the moment before change occurs. “The systole of contemplation,” he writes in “The Imaginative Mode of Awareness”, “precedes the diastole of full-bodied aesthetic enrichment.” We must breathe out, empty that which is in our heart, in order to gather what might be there, what might take the place of our presumptions, our foregone conclusions, our contented ennui.

In my work as an instructional designer in Colorado all those years ago, I contented myself within an acceptable ennui. I did not go after sea monsters on beaches. My friend didn’t either. It was not, in fact, until I encountered my first room full of students that I realized the importance of the work of teaching and education. That I realized I had an obligation to my imagination for their sake, if not for my own. I recognized that this was work that I must do intentionally; if I was to provide students with a sense of their own possibility, I must take stock of my own. Like Maxine Greene, I hoped to remove the cotton wool from these students’ lives; but I could not do that without first inspecting where I had overlooked it in mine.

Before I sat down to write this talk, I would not have thought that my best pedagogical advice might be to go seeking after monsters. But I think it’s good advice, and advice I want to take. To front the reckless world. To be reminded that some things cannot be reasoned.

unsplash-logoPhoto by Joel Filipe