Education and imagination

One of the most sublime and most subtle challenges in rebuilding the tradition of Catholic education is restoring the place of the imagination in the curriculum. Many good-willed Catholic educators, concerned with the modern malaise, pursue intellectual development through the concentrated study of mathematics and science, an indoctrination of religious rules, and a strict approach to historical perspectives.

While largely laudable in motivation, such efforts often fall into the errors of the Gradgrind School of Dickens’ Hard Times, where facts are divorced from fancy: “‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether.’”

But man does not live on facts alone. Without fancy, without an imagination that wonders over the facts of the world, the desired end of education, will be hindered. If education is to be effective (and enjoyable), due attention must be given to the role of the imagination forming and informing the minds of students.

The intellectual life is perfected in truth—the conforming of the mind to reality—and this conformity begins with the mind’s intimate contact with things in their concrete existence, experienced through the senses. The sensible presence of external reality awakens man’s cognitive power, and experience is the root and foundation of all subsequent conceptual understanding. This is one of the primary Aristotelian truths of learning, that nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses. It suggests an order of learning, beginning with the direct experience of reality that leads one to an orderly intellectual awakening.

This entails not only the direct experience of things through the senses but also the development of the imagination, the play or exercise of the mind with the truth of things, facilitated largely by the study of poetry, music, literature, and history—subjects which can provide a real though indirect experience of reality, both natural and supernatural. These arts of the muses, forged in facts, in reality, best provide cultivation for the imagination if presented free from an overly analytic or systematic method which inordinately isolates parts from the whole before the whole can even be enjoyed. Specialized and scientific study has its place, but there should be no reflective analysis until students are in firm possession of some real thing upon which to reflect. As Gandalf cautioned Saruman, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

The intellect of man is thus grounded in the senses and lifted by the imagination, which latter faculty preserves, correlates, and orders the impressions of the external world received through sensation. Without this grounding and this elevation, the higher rational faculties will be grievously impaired, for they require both the hard facts and a healthy fancy to master the virtuosity of a robust intellectual life. Man may learn the languages of philosophy or science; he may learn to manipulate their words with dexterity and grammatical correctness; but it will be with little true insight into the reality that those terms express. As a healthy imagination must be rooted in reality, emphasis must in turn be placed on direct contact with the reality of things towards the cultivation of experience and the imaginative expression that flows from the inclinations of the mind and heart.

This focus has been profoundly undermined by a technology, lifestyle, and agenda that removes and restricts people in large measure from direct contact with the elemental things of creation that fire the imagination and give a spiritual meaning to things. The distorting authority of television, video games, social media, and popular music retards and deforms the imagination, inclined as they are to the bizarre randomness of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles named after Renaissance artists than to a miraculous world of real and innumerable wonders.

Though inundated with powerful and often perverse images, today’s educational programs give little attention to the importance of images or the imagination, concentrating rather on competitive career paths in the global marketplace and the commercial possibilities of manipulative marketing.

Catholics believe, on the other hand, that men are made in the image and likeness of Him who is the image of the one invisible God. Catholics cannot deny the importance of the imagination. Again, the imagination is ordered not to fantasy but to reality, and the only way to correct widespread deformation is by placing the young in an environment that is open and exposed to reality and where the influences on the imagination are such that they become receptive to reality in all its goodness, truth, and beauty.

A fundamental goal of Catholic education is to strive for the knowledge of the highest, even the holiest, truths through the cultivation of the imagination. A healthy imagination, once cultivated, will be able to see those metaphysical truths inherent in the physical facts to which Gradgrind and his ilk are blind. This lived contact with the Real is indispensable in the process of education since no amount of advanced reading, or AP courses, or specialized studies, can substitute for the vision of the facts that a healthy imagination bestows.

Meanwhile, educators must educate; they must draw their students onwards, calling to them in the words of Wordsworth, to “come forth into the light of things.” It is through the participation in the imaginative arts of poetry, music, and literature that all become sensitized to that light. And it is in that light that the imagination is raised to a state whereby people become receptive to the hidden mystery of being and are thereby led to wonder, the beginning and sustaining principle of wisdom.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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