Learning and Imagination

Alzar School | 06.05.20

As members of an educational community, learning and imagination are two titans endlessly dancing in our minds. Perhaps on the periphery, perhaps at the center, but ever-present. So, what are they? Where do they intersect? What lies between them? We can’t hope to answer those questions in a few paragraphs, but we can do a little exploring…

Let’s start where most of us do when teasing apart related terms: Merriam-Webster. Learning is defined as “knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study.” Imagination–“the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” 

Spring 2020 Geometry students learn imaginatively with a life-size x- and y-axis.

In his book Mastery, George Leonard expresses the perspective that the human capacity for learning is what sets us apart from other forms of life. “[Hu]man is a learning animal, and the essence of the species is encoded in that simple term,” he writes. If we identify as educators, perhaps this sentiment gallantly frames our stately pursuit–an exploration of consciousness through the study of human learning. As students, a similarly noble sentiment might drive our hunt for knowledge. What could be more fundamental, more important?

And then there’s the sparkly, effervescent term imagination. If we look beyond the somewhat sterile definition of Merriam-Webster, we can find, dare I say, imaginative interpretations from folks like Geneen Marie Haugen. A writer, guide, and self-proclaimed “wildish kid,” Haugen proffers: “In the imaginal world, anything and everything is – or could be – vividly alive, suffused in intelligence and agency.” Too far towards the other side of the spectrum? Bear with me.

The idea of the imaginal world (mundus imaginalis) was first articulated by the scholar of Sufism Henri Corbin. Haugen suggests that the human imagination is an “organ of perception” through which we can access this world, and that although the images or experiences encountered there might make no sense to the everyday mind, they can still (and often do) serve as a sort of guiding light in our typical waking lives. 

The 1945 issue of Wireless World in which Arthur C. Clarke made his famous satellite prediction

 For an example of how such imaginal insights can influence advancement, look no further than Arthur C. Clarke’s prediction in Wireless World magazine in 1945. Clarke imagined that radio signals could bounce off satellites for long-distance communication over a decade before the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into Earth’s orbit. The realm of science fiction alone is riddled with such examples, not to mention other disciplines. 

What may be more interesting to you, learner (yes, you), is that the imagination can perhaps be strengthened through intentional use, thus increasing the likelihood of achieving such insights. And what better arena than your very own “education?” 

At the end of the day, it is hard to say what exactly lies between learning and imagination. Like ripples in a river, it is not entirely clear where one ends and the other begins. What does seem clear, however, is that they are wholly complimentary processes. By some unseen law, they seem to reliably synergize in a way that augments them both. It is with that in mind that I ask you (yes, you), have you been learning imaginatively…?