There never were going to be any dinosaur bones. Not on that cloudy day, nor on any other. But we went out anyway. With sandwiches and chips, an apple or two. Out to the open space around Boulder, Colorado. Me, my mom, and hope for a brontosaurus.
I’d been an elementary school amateur paleontologist for years already. Studying everything I could about dinosaurs, about the science of finding them and digging them up. I knew enough about geology to be dangerous. I could recite the periods of the eons when dinosaurs ruled the earth by heart: not just the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, but the early, late, and middle, and the beasts that roamed, and how long they stomped across the plains.
Colorado had been underwater in those prehistoric days. So, I told my mom, if we find anything, it will be amphibious or water-dwelling. A sauropod, maybe. Or a plesiosaur.
She’d kept me home from school so we could go dino hunting. We parked the car along a country road, crossed over a fence, and found our way to a high creek bed where, I was certain, I could make out the strata of sediment that marked the ages gone past. Not the one or two hundred years they actually marked, but the billions I thought they could.
It didn’t matter that there weren’t going to be any dinosaur bones. My mother knew that. Because learning doesn’t require accuracy.
Several years later, at Boulder High School, I had an American Studies Honors teacher who sometimes threw chalk at students. On good days, she threw erasers. I was a senior, happily in love for the first time, enjoying my burgeoning sense of adulthood, and I thought this teacher—we’ll call her Ms. G.—both riotously laughable and uniquely intelligent. I respected her precise criticality. I recognized the difference between her capacity and my own on the first day of class, when she assigned an article from The Atlantic Monthly. An article that, while not above my reading level, certainly was beyond my ken.
On the second day of class, when she asked again and again, “What was this article really about?” and answers like “homelessness” and “poverty” weren’t enough, I realized I had a long way to go. (That was also the same semester I was introduced to the five-paragraph essay, a form so elegant in its monotony, and yet so revelatory in its logic, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been taught it earlier.) The thing that really got me about Ms. G. was her insistence that we push ourselves beyond our assumptions about our adolescent intellectual capability. She wanted us to be smart. As smart as she was. As critical, as temperamental about insight. She didn’t want us throwing erasers in class, of course, but she would’ve loved it if we were throwing them in our imaginations.
What Ms. G. never suspected, I suspect, is that she was growing in me an academic courage unwanted in a high school senior. And for my final project that term, I undertook a research paper about the Civil War, focusing my attention on Robert E. Lee. Egged on by her encouragement, I read his diaries, I read second hand accounts about him, and I drew maps of his military strategies. In the process, I came upon what I thought was a tremendous discovery, a thesis so unshakable and so awe-inspiring that Ms. G. would be proud enough to hand me an eraser or piece of chalk herself.
I claimed that Lee lost the Civil War on purpose, in order to preserve what was left of the South.
I was thrown out of class. I was told I should not try to be a scholar, and I was moved to a different, remedial section of American Studies. I spent the rest of the year in a room where boys and girls kissed in the back row while the teacher tried to lecture from the text.
Why is imagination important to the project of critical pedagogy? By which, I’m also asking why is imagination important to the project of social justice? Critical pedagogy doesn’t reside solely in classrooms; in fact, it cannot, because its project is the work of vision and change within all sectors of society. Held captive in the classroom, critical pedagogy will never reach those for whom school is not a central location for learning. If learning is done in the home, or at work, or in the survival of poverty, violence, or depression, school can feel arbitrary, unnecessary, a hindrance, or a site of a false hope of escaping hardship. Critical pedagogy’s project is to sharpen and concentrate learning where it happens, privileging no location over another as that place where critical consciousness (conscientização) can rise up.
Imagination is important to the project of critical pedagogy precisely because of the responsive nature of its practice. We must be able to think on our toes if education (of all kinds) is meant to be liberative. Liberation depends upon a thought—a thought that things as they are can be different than they are. That there is a reality beyond that which Paulo Freire calls “objective reality, one purely realized and around which nothing could be discussed.”
It is imagination that enables us to believe that things can be changed.
Teaching with this in mind is as necessary as it is concerning. To sport imagination in the classroom is to call into question the axes upon which the institution of education turns—credentialing, seat time, standardization, testing, grades, academic integrity. The bearing of imagination looks fragile. It can look like whimsy, unprofessionalism, uncertainty. It is not the power suit or patched elbows that academia expects. It betrays a vulnerability, an important vulnerability, to which not all teachers are prepared to confess, especially in front of a classroom of students. And yet, if Maxine Greene is correct and “it is a primary purpose of education to deny people the opportunity for feeling bored,” then filling our teaching lungs with imagination is unavoidable.
The idea of bringing imagination to bear on subjects as critical as math and science may give us pause. But the imagination is as accurate as the intellect. It has its own rigor. The results simply aren’t the same. The intellect, and its hound of empirical practice, produces results that can be cataloged and categorized. Written in a paper. Abstracted. Tested. Posted for tenure. The intellect goes hunting and brings home a duck for dinner.
The imagination, led by an entirely wilder mutt, produces results that are intangible, and that are usually questions rather than answers. “The role of the imagination,” Greene tells us, “is not to resolve, not to point the way, not to improve. It is to awaken, to disclose the ordinary unseen, unheard, and unexpected.” The imagination goes hunting and brings back a whangdoodle.
But the imagination also brings back hope. (This is where it is rigorous.) Just as the imagination enables us to believe things can be changed, so it is hope that drives us to change them. “Without a minimum of hope,” Freire writes, “we cannot so much as start the struggle.” Change is predicated on hope; hope is predicated on imagination. Criticality is not enough. “A more critical understanding of the situation of oppression does not yet liberate the oppressed.” Freire again. “But the revelation is a step in the right direction.” What follows upon that revelation is imagination.
Simply put: critical understanding + imagination + hope is the only recipe for meaningful change. If we don’t make imagination available in our classrooms, neither do we make hope available.
And is there education without hope? What would be its purpose? What is the purpose of hopelessness? These are not rhetorical questions, either. There are answers to them. Answers from which has risen educational technology—in large part an attempt to homogenize learning, to produce people who are archives of information but never change agents, who are qualified. Qualified for what matters less than that qualification has been achieved. The process of education, without imagination or hope, resembles a chore board, upon which boxes are checked, from which we derive our sense of direction for the day, week, or our tenure, and which gives us a that sense of accomplishment, however fleeting, that we have done what needs to be done.
Just doing what needs to be done, though, is a far cry from believing that things can be different, and then struggling to make them so. It is a far cry from denying people the opportunity for feeling bored.
Without imagination, education shrivels to training, which is an occupation without hope, and one which doesn’t even long for hope. Training seeks to maintain the status quo, and assumes that the systems already in place are not only satisfactory, but beyond question. Systems that are, as Freire laments, “ as obvious as that Saturdays precede Sundays.”
Education that doesn’t withhold or resist imagination inquires, assumes questionability—and does so benevolently, with the hope that inquiry leads to deeper understanding, to improvement, to equity, and to mending the flaws of systemic bias, discrimination, and disparity.
I would never have proved that Robert E. Lee surreptitiously surrendered the Civil War in order to save Southern lives, because he didn’t. To seek to uphold the humanity of a man who supported a bloody war in order to defend slavery is beyond problematic. My concern, however, is not my thesis, but rather the teaching I received in response. Freire writes:
“Never does an event, a fact, a deed, a gesture of rage or love, a poem, a painting, a song, a book, have only one reason behind it. In fact, a deed, a gesture of rage or love, a poem, a painting, a song, a book are always wrapped in thick wrappers. They have been touched by manifold whys.” (10)
Where my teacher failed me, where teachers fail, where educational technology fails, where the LMS and the gradebook and standardized assessment all fail, is in not recognizing the manifold whys behind all learning. Behind every wrong answer, every right answer, every creative answer, every question, every fear of asking questions. The whys of learning cannot be assessed or quantified, they cannot be listed somewhere on a spreadsheet, nor recorded in the findings of an evidence-based educational research project.
School dismisses the imagination, the strange unlikely path of manifold whys. This is its grandest, profoundest failing. You see, I had all my facts mixed up, and my insights into Lee’s brain incorrect, my assumptions about military strategy reaching for amateur; but the process of my insights, the serendipity that led me to the facts, the cognitive, imaginative leaps that I made, even the presumption that I could understand the complexities of military strategy as a high school senior—these last were the real stuff of my learning. It was my imagination at play in that paper, in that research; it was my gleeful sense of discovery. And that, that is what Ms. G. should have responded to.
Difficult, yes. Impossible? The impossible is what the imagination is for. “The difficult task for the teacher is to devise situations in which the young will move from the habitual and ordinary” (the five-paragraph essay, the litany of all that has already been said about the Civil War) “and consciously undertake a search.” Yes, Maxine Greene, yes.
I hold up my 16-year-old self’s research project as an example—with its troubling, gross thesis—precisely because it is troubling and gross. The imagination doesn’t always lead us to correct answers; instead, imagination can lead us astray precisely so we can learn. But that is the process of a progressive education. An “adventure in unveiling,” Freire calls it in Pedagogy of Hope. Education shouldn’t be a matter of simple solutions, memorization, passing objective reality from one older mind to dozens of younger minds. Education is an operation of imagination, discovery, and unveiling. When the imagination leads us astray, when it takes us down paths our teachers would not advise we walk, it “poses the issues of decision, of option, of ethics,” even, says Freire, “of education and its limits.”
Teachers tend to, are taught to—either through received teaching or an education in teaching—read the world to their students, rather than giving them room to read it themselves. And more, through the mechanism of their syllabi, their lesson plans, their assignments and assessments, teachers expect students to navigate by the charts provided them in the form of lectures, textbooks, handouts. The misunderstanding here is not one of the night sky and stars, or the charting of navigable routes, but a misunderstanding of the sea. For it is the student’s mind, not the teacher’s, that’s meant to be navigated. This is pivotal to an understanding of critical pedagogy: it is the student’s mind, not the teacher’s, that’s meant to be navigated. And for that, the student’s mind must be unveiled—their whys must be heard and listened to.
A teacher who says “these have been my whys; these have been the questions that formed the academy; these have been the questions of the field, and its answers, and my answers” is teaching history, not the present. That teacher does not teach possibility, but rather conformity. “If teaching can be thought of as an address to others’ consciousness,” Greene writes, “it may be a summons on the part of one incomplete person to other incomplete persons to reach for wholeness.” It is an illusion of the profession that the teacher holds the answers, that the institution does, or the field does. If this were the case, academia would be unnecessary, for its primary mission is to explore. And exploration, not the geography of the known, is the heart of education.
There might have been dinosaur bones. There were definitely sandwiches. And climbing fences we should not have. And childlike explanations of the sediment under our fingers. Excitement and apples and hope.
There didn’t need to be dinosaur bones. In taking me out to the creek bed to fish for fossils, my mother not only stoked my imagination, she also meant to “combat life’s anaesthetics,” as Greene encourages of all teachers, and to move me to reach out toward a horizon that only my imagination and hope could see.