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The Death and Dearth of Imagination

I’m noticing that more and more United Statists exhibit a complete lack of imagination on a more and more subjects. Not just a weak imagination, not a stifled barely functioning imagination, but no trace of imagination at all.

To experience this first-hand try discussing atheism with a hard core fundamentalist. They’ll insist atheists don’t actually exist. They are too wrapped up in their belief to even imagine the possibility anyone could think differently. This results in logic contortions that would be fun to watch if they weren’t so pathetic. They’ll insist that atheists are their own gods, that there are no atheists in foxholes, that atheists really believe in god and are pretending they don’t so they can do nasty things, and/or that they have other gods like sex, money, or drugs or (shudder) science. They have no more ability to imagine atheism than a dachshund has to imagine long division.

The dearth of imagination shouldn’t surprise us. Public education isn’t about instilling a love of learning and fostering imagination – it’s about squishing every child into identical boxes. “Hurry up and get into your box, Johnny, we don’t want any child left behind!” The minority of teachers who encourage imagination can’t counter the forced conformity kids experience in every other class.

Much of corporate America continues this process. A few years ago I worked at a store that used the horribly tiresome phrase “think outside the box” endlessly, especially in the goofy training videos new hires were forced to watch. We were then handed a very thick manual of store policies that had to be adhered to religiously. “Do anything even slightly out of line with anything in this book and we’ll write you up, but don’t forget to think outside the box!”

We see this in political discussions too. People are so invested in the right/left false dichotomy they can’t imagine anything else. They’ll never vote anything other than Democrat or Republican because they can’t imagine anyone else winning, and can’t imagine voting for a dark horse just because they want to. And they’ve been so carefuly coddled and groomed by Big Brother they can’t fathom life without him.

Here are a few examples I’ve experienced recently.

When I suggested the EEOC was one of many government agencies we could eliminate completely, a woman insisted that if it weren’t for them she would never, never ever, be able to get a job. The idea that she could cultivate skills or abilities that would make her valuable to an employer was beyond her imagination. And with that kind of attitude she was probably right. Her lack of imagination would make her a pretty useless employee except for drone-style jobs that could be done by a less bitchy robot.

I posted the question “What would happen if all public schools were suddenly closed?” I wasn’t saying we should do this, but rather wondering what ideas people would come up with if we did it. Would guilds and apprenticeships become popular? Perhaps old folks would create impromptu classrooms in their homes for neighborhood kids.  Maybe neighborhoods would get together and open their own local school, staffing it with volunteers and charging just enough tuition to pay a few good teachers. I was sure I was just scratching the surface and people would come up with lots of other great ideas.

Silly me.  Instead of ideas or speculation I got lectures on how public education was important to our democracy. (It seemed impolite to point out we are actually a republic, not a democracy.) I was informed I didn’t care about children, and told I was an idiot and/or evil for even suggesting such a thing. Some people used it as an excuse to bash libertarians. I explained, again, that I wasn’t saying we should do away with public schools, but proposing a thought experiment about how people would deal with things if we did. It didn’t matter. The responses continued to be imagination free.  They contained no ideas, only invective.

I like to offer solutions to problems, even if they’re long-shots that have no hope of ever being implemented, but I have no idea how to counter this. People with no imagination tend to stand in one spot, unable to imagine going forward or back, and they elect officials just like themselves.  Trying to force someone to grow an imagination is as pointless as trying to get them to grow a brain, and I’m wondering if I should just treat them the way I treat stupid people.

Because I’m having a hard time distinguishing between the two.  Both “qualities” seem to be as intertwined as a caduceus. Both have the same symptoms. I suspect they may be the same thing but it’s possible I’m just imagining that.

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3 Comment(s)

  1. A friend of mine got a dog, a rescue. The dog had spent most of her life in a kennel. On their first walk through the path in the woods they came across a smallish branch across the path. My friend stepped over it, but the dog was paralyzed. Poor thing just paced back and forth and whined at her…so far away, on the other side of the impassable branch. The dog had no experience with branches, or any obstacle (I’ll tell you the ‘stairs are for climbing’ story another time). No going around, or jumping over, or digging under, or pushing aside…

    That is what I thought of when reading this article: a bunch of people who only know this small part of the world, and cannot begin to comprehend a larger world past that. Which makes me think of the J. K. Rowling speech on imagination being the source of empathy, because we can imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

    And I so much is explained!

    As an a aside: I homeschool. I’ve had people tilt their heads and ask if I’m in a religious cult (nope) or a hippie (nope) or if it’s even legal (sure is) or how I can stand to be with my kid for so much time (…). But the majority ask how I do it, and if maybe I could help them do it, too. So there is your public school answer :)

    Darlene | Jul 20, 2011 | Reply

  2. When America was young, there were no government schools. But there were schools, mainly the north. The effect is still visible today.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_education_in_the_United_States

    Eur van Andel | Jul 20, 2011 | Reply

  3. If every public school was closed today, I think things would be disastrous at first, and then almost return to the way things were before public schools existed.

    I don’t think we’d see a huge drop in literacy, most jobs require it nowadays. The reason people who lived in medieval times could barely read is because they didn’t need to. There were no office assistants, web programmers, machine operators, welders, or CAD Designers. Industrialization is what made illiteracy unacceptable in society, so provide we remain industrialized, we won’t degrade to an ignorant, agrarian society without public schools.

    That said, I think there will be a significant drop in literacy as well as other areas, and we’ll see a much bigger gap between the educational quality of the rich and the poor. Homeschooling might be an excellent option for one person, but I cringe at the thought of America’s parents as a whole being responsible for their child’s education. Public schools provide a kind of real-world buffer against a parent’s bullshit. For six hours a day, most kids are in an environment where they’re not having religion or young-earth creationism beat into their skulls (and backsides), and even though most high school science courses are utterly gutless when it comes to teaching evolution to begin with, they are at least not teaching creationism. An avoidance of the subject is better than a distortion of it.

    To put it succinctly, instead of being put into a mental box at public school, a lot of kids would be put into a mental box at home–taught poorly or not at all by parents who are completely incompetent educators–and some kids would have a better education than what public school offered.

    Getting rid of public schools would mean the woman you decried for believing she couldn’t possibly get a job without the EEOC, the idiots who work at drive-thru windows who have a complete meltdown if your order is more complicated than “number 1 with a coke,” and the single mom with five kids living in a shitty ghetto apartment working 3 jobs would now be in charge of educating their children. Unsettling, isn’t it?

    Brian | Aug 12, 2011 | Reply

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