Recently, I was reading a book of art criticism when I encountered a dramatic phrase applied to the work of Leibnitz (1646-1716). The phrase is “possible worlds,” and it is, of course, an exciting phrase. It may be at the core of all creative thinking – imagining beyond what is to what is possible. It is certainly what ignites the flames of every serious educator, artist, and reformer in any field.
Sadly, there seem to be few possibility-ists in education or politics. Instead, we find over and over advocates of so-called “realism” which generally translates into “not rocking the boat,” tinkering with legislation that at its basis changes nothing anyhow. Politics, it is said, is the art of compromise or the art of the possible – but not the art of imagining possibilities.
In education, the imagination has been victimized by the current American (and Asian) mania with testing, high stakes tests, accountability, standards and other buzz words that denote a bourgeois devotion to convergent thinking and that which is measurable. There is nothing wrong with standards and with testing. What is wrong is the almost total devotion to this brand of educational materialism which leaves no room for the arts, for creative play, for the nourishment of the imagination. The imagination is both an intuitive gift of exceptional people and a potentiality in all people, but it needs encouragement, it needs space and time and leisure to flower, and it needs opportunities to express itself. Our schools today allow almost none of these. Rather, they almost seem to be conspiring to crush any opportunity for creative explorations or self-expressions. It is tragic and the loss to our country is immeasurable. But then, who cares? If you can’t measure it, then it must be unimportant.
Wrong. If imagining “possible worlds” is unimportant then we are all ultimately doomed. For example, if we can’t imagine a world completely rid of nuclear weapons, then surely someday they will be used and we, our children, or our children’s children will suffer unimaginable suffering and pain. Poems, plays, paintings about Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Dresden are critical to each generation to be able to imagine what will happen to us if we fail to heed history and the darker inclinations of human nature.
“Facing reality” is a powerful phrase when properly applied to looking deeply at historical trends and warning signs. But too often, the phrase means merely accepting the status quo. This status quo reality dictates that poverty is inevitable – “the poor have always been with us.” But imaginative people, like, for example, Jeffrey Sachs, argue that we could eliminate poverty all over the globe in our time. Sachs’ book, The End of Poverty, exemplifies the imagination creatively at work seeking “possible worlds.”
Where can we find such people in politics? I don’t really know, but I do know that diluting the arts for generations of young people reduces even further the possibility (there’s that word again) that imaginative politicians will emerge from these generations. How can we expect to create a nuclear-free, poverty-less, peaceful and productive, and environmentally sane world if we relegate the imagination to the side-roads and ash heaps of our declining educational systems.
“Possible worlds” are still possible, but only to those who can imagine them.