By Tom O'Malley
Mention the word education these days and eyebrows are raised, jaws tighten and sweat begins to drip. And those are just the teachers!
It seems that as a nation, we are filled with self-doubt and loathing when educational issues are broached in a public forum. Classrooms are often seen as dangerous places, curriculum is watered down and values can go out the window in the name of political expediency. Newspapers are publishing test scores, high schools are ranked by AP exams and colleges are chosen on the basis of job placement.
Somewhere, underneath all of this, there are some educators who wonder what happened.
The idea of a good education has been transformed and reformed many times throughout history. If we go back to Athens in the golden age of the 5th Century BC, we will find young scholars attaching themselves to teachers who would work independently from any formal institution.
There was no set curriculum. All the teachers were concerned with is that their students would learn how to think for themselves. Quite a radical idea back then. Still quite a radical idea, even today.
Imagine being a student attached to Socrates. You ask him a question, he answers with a question. Now you have two questions to deal with. There were no standardized tests and no report cards. Teachers operated on the faith that each student had an innate desire to learn and for each individual, that learning could take many forms. Students in Athens were seekers of truth and often spent their lives chasing after the elusive Dame Wisdom.
In the Middle Ages, education served another purpose. Some young men apprenticed to learn a trade, be it metal working or knighthood. Their training relied on practical hands-on experience. Those who went to universities went to study for the church or for the law.
Of course today we live in a different world, a world of computers and high technology. And yet, our world is not so different from the ancient societies. A student in seventh grade today may end up working in an industry that doesn’t even exist right now. What we call a global economy may soon include locations on the nearby planets. How do we prepare our students for such a future, a future that is as unpredictable as the weather in Buffalo?
The answer lies in the imagination. As a teacher, I have the opportunity to help fuel the students’ creativity by exposing them to the work of the greatest imaginations of all time.
There are those who contend that the imagination is only given to a few people at birth. The refrain, “I don’t have an imagination,” is one of the saddest ones I’ve heard. Nearer to the truth might be that many students never get the opportunity to use their imaginations.
There is nothing magic about this. It is a path to thinking and connecting ideas. Because we are all individuals, we all do this in different ways. A sonnet by Shakespeare or an essay by Emerson are both examples of what happens when individuals are in touch with their imaginations. The philosopher Maxine Greene points out that “imaginative literature disclosed alternate ways of being in the world.” The results are always surprising … and quite pragmatic.
Tom O’Malley of Buffalo, is an English teacher at St. Francis High School and Canisius College, and a creative writing specialist.