A Cambridge tutor said recently that it was becoming harder to find students good enough for the Natural Sciences course: imagination, he added, was a necessary quality.

First paragraph of the OED entry for imagination:
‘The power or capacity to form internal images or ideas of objects and situations not actually present to the senses, including remembered objects and situations, and those constructed by mentally combining or projecting images of previously experienced qualities, objects, and situations. Also (esp. in modern philosophy): the power or capacity by which the mind integrates sensory data in the process of perception.’

Mary Warnock explains that in Immanuel Kant’s system, the imagination lies half way between the intellectual part of our knowledge and the sensory part:
‘Without imagination, we could never apply concepts to sense experience. Whereas a wholly sensory life would be without any regularity or organisation, a purely intellectual life would be without any real content… the two elements are not automatically joined to each other in their functions. They need a further element to join them. The joining element is the imagination… ’  Mary Warnock, Imagination, University of California Press, p.30

It seems that imagination in the usage defined here, and as used by the Cambridge don, is about associating, reflecting and connecting.

The student in the earlier post* who felt lucky to have escaped the boredom and embarrassment of ‘outstanding lessons’ at his previous school, said that doing History had been especially discouraging. It was like being hustled down a long corridor, at the end of which was a door marked GCSE. On either side were doors leading out to enticing landscapes, which he was not allowed to open. He had the impression that the teacher was working to a rigid scheme.

It is by discursive teaching especially that the imagination is cultivated: lessons where content (and dialogue) takes precedence over presentation. But such teaching is hardly possible with rigid ‘schemes of work’.

Not many classicists are unwise enough to be in thrall to over-prescriptive schemes; but there are stories about heads of department who have become obsessed by them, with dire results.



Surprising interview questions

When our students go to university interviews, they are warned about ‘the doorknob question’— the one that is asked when they think most of the interview is over.  Here is a selection of such questions from recent years:

  • How would you define the word sleep?
  • Did the Vikings go into the Black Sea?
  • What was the agenda of Lars Porsenna?
  • Did Shakespeare use soap?
  • What is a parsec?
  • Please define the word fire.
  • What prompted the peasants to revolt?
  • How would you distinguish power from authority?
  • Please point out Byzantium on this map.
  • Did Jane Austen wear a bra?
  • What does the word planet originally mean?
  • What was the capital city of England before London?
  • How does a historian differ from a journalist?
  • Was Jean-Jacques Rousseau an atheist?
  • Who gave the star Aldebaran its name?
  • What does the name Australia mean?
  • Please multiply thirteen by seventeen.
  • ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Do you agree?

The last one was at the very end of an interview: the candidate was applying to read medicine.