More about imagination

In 2013, Professor Roger Carpenter, the Cambridge neurophysiologist, wrote a letter to The Guardian, in which he said:

We have recently had a spate of letters from Guardian readers asserting that, though school-leavers may be ignorant, they’re tremendously good at thinking and expressing themselves. This, with respect, is nonsense. The tick-box mentality underpinning GCSE and A-level rewards reactive rather than proactive responses. Here at university it now takes two years to get even our best students to approach a problem analytically and imaginatively, rather than expecting us to supply the correct answer to memorise. The problem is partly an attitude encouraged by regimented teaching methods designed for the tick-boxes, and partly because in order to think, one needs something to think about.

Two words here invite attention: analytically and imaginatively. Professor Carpenter was presenting once again a view of education set out in 1932 by A.N.Whitehead.

Whitehead was another Cambridge luminary—famous as the mathematician and philosopher who with Bertrand Russell wrote Principia Mathematica, perhaps the most influential exposition of mathematical logic in the twentieth century.

In a collection of essays called The Aims of Education, Whitehead, who said that he owed much to his study of Classics at Sherborne, defines education as the imaginative acquisition of knowledge. It becomes clear that in the concept of imagination—the word occurs again and again—he includes the whole process of infusing knowledge with vitality: something he contrasts with learning ‘inert ideas.’ Imagination, he insists, transforms knowledge:

 ‘A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes. Imagination is not to be divorced from the facts: it is a way of illuminating the facts.’

The process he requires seems to involve:

  • observation, and the mindset of being observant;
  • the habit of making connections;
  • questioning;
  • discussion;
  • hypothesising;
  • analysis;
  • making deductions;
  • communication.

These perhaps are what people are searching for when they talk about transferable skills. They all involve memory, which has a double place: memory initiates them, and they in turn animate the memory. It is a virtuous circle.

See also the earlier post:  Imagination