The Power of Imagination | May 11, 2012

The Power of Imagination

This is my final Bench Talk of the year, and it is an opportunity for me to reflect on what you might do this summer. I have a specific charge for you: I want you to work on your ability to imagine.

Why is imagination important?

Imagination is important because your ability to come up with creative alternatives will help you in all contexts throughout your life. Imaginative thinking is not simply whimsical thought. It is logical thinking combined with creative thinking. For this reason, imaginative thought is actually a higher order cognitive process than logical thought.

During the school year, most students work on logical thinking. Studying for and taking standardized tests might enhance the ability to think analytically, but imaginations get short shrift when you think there is only one answer. In many traditional academic settings, you are asked to engage in convergent thinking. That is, you are problem solving to find the "right" answer, and you generally are not rewarded for your creative or unconventional response. This is why the summer is a key time to develop your imaginative thinking, not because I assume you will be lolling in the grass all summer, but because your routine will be different from what it is during the school year, and I hope you can carve time to develop your imaginative capability.

In 1967 an English researcher named Liam Hudson developed a test to measure creative intelligence called the Uses of Objects Test. Interestingly, his research revealed that some students who are deemed "average" by traditional I.Q. tests sometimes score significantly higher than students who are thought to be brilliant on these same tests. On Hudson's creative intelligence test, students who can offer diverse and unique answers earn high scores. Hudson's test measures what he calls "divergent thinking." This is different from "convergent thinking," where there is only one right answer. With divergent thinking, the more different answers you can give, the better.

An item from Liam Hudson's test might look something like this: "Write down as many uses as you can for each of the following objects:

  1. a tin of boot polish
  2. a barrel

I bet we have some divergent thinkers here who could do quite well on this test. If you would like to see a great response to Hudson's test, come to my office, and I will show you a transcript of student responses to one of the items.

Regarding testing and teacher assessment, the American school system has received some criticism lately, and some of this criticism might be well founded. But perhaps amid the controversy about American education, we can think about what some American schools do well.

In his book Catching Up or Leading the Way, Yong Zhao examines a recent phenomenon where American schools have begun trying to emulate the Chinese in teaching to the test and producing good test takers. Meanwhile, the Chinese schools have begun to emulate American schools in an attempt to produce more creative, innovative thinkers.

Having been educated in China, Yong Zhao, who is now a professor at Michigan State University, warns against losing what many American school systems do best. Zhao says: "Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students who excel at regurgitating dictated, spoon‐fed knowledge." Zhao celebrates that we are a country with the most Nobel laureates, the most original patents, and the most scientific discoveries in the 20th century. This kind of creative and innovative thinking comes from an educational system that respects individual talent and supports divergent thinking.

At Morristown Beard we value your ability to think creatively. By the time you graduate, we hope you can deploy your imaginations alongside your ability to think logically.

So, how do you develop your imagination?

As I said earlier in the year, the summer after my tenth grade year, I was riveted by a world I had never before imagined. I was obsessed by the worlds created by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Although I was on a different continent and in a different generation, the text and language ofBrothers Karamozov and Anna Karenina completely absorbed me. I was actively connecting with the words of these Russian writers who lived one hundred years before I did in a place I had never seen before.

The process of reading mandates action because we must create thoughts and images in our minds. No technological medium can duplicate what reading does for our imaginations. We are forced to create visual representations from the print we see on the page.

When we watch a movie, we are passive. We don't have to create. I am a great advocate of movies, and I hope some of you go on to become movie makers, but I do not think watching movies helps develop our imaginations the way reading does. Reading forces us to make daring leaps in thought.

Because of these daring leaps in thought, some people think books are dangerous. Books are banned because they have the power to inspire people to imagine a life beyond what they know. Books have the power to transcend boundaries and to defy barriers created by time, place, nationality, religion, race, gender, and stereotype.

I will give you two specific examples of the power of books.

In 1988 a novelist wrote a book that included several different tales and episodes, but it focused mainly on the adventures of two characters. In response to the book, the leader of one country asked a group of people to kill the writer, who was from another country. Because of the death threat to the writer, Canada barred the importation of the book. Some booksellers in the United States were afraid to sell the book and took it off their shelves. People killed the Japanese translator of the book; they gravely wounded the Italian translator, and in an attempt to kill the Turkish translator, they burned down a hotel, killing 37 people. This book of magical realism, which thematically explores religion and immigration, filled some people with so much fear and anger that in the end more than fifty people died in the aftermath of the publication of this novel, printed just a few years before you were born.

Books can be deemed dangerous because they make us think and imagine. But the power of books to inspire and to create positive social change is undeniable.

In 1875 William Ernest Henley wrote a poem from his bed in England. One foot had just been amputated due to repercussions from tuberculosis, and he was hoping to avoid the amputation of his other leg. From his bed, as he worked on defying the doctors and the prognosis, he wrote the poem called "Invictus." Maybe you have heard of it. In this 20‐line poem, he is thankful for his unconquerable soul. He ends the poem with the ever‐inspiring lines: "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

Sixty years later in 1940 on a different continent, a young Native American growing up on an Indian reservation in South Dakota discovered this poem, "Invictus." This Native American's name is Tim Giago, and he later became a journalist and a columnist for Huffington Post. About "Invictus," Tim Giago writes:

"When I first read "Invictus," I was in middle school, and there was one verse that stuck in my mind and I memorized it. It always came back to me when I needed it, most especially when I was far away from home in the Korean War."

In 1965, ninety years after Henley wrote "Invictus," and twenty‐five years after Tim Giago read the poem in South Dakota, the great leader of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years, read this same poem aloud to fellow prisoners as a way for them to feel empowered.

Thus, you can see that this poem has the power to transcend time and space, moving beyond national, generational, and racial barriers as it moved from Europe to North America to South Africa in a ninety‐year span.

As we started the school year, I asked you to seize your education, and now I ask you to do that again during your time away from Morristown‐Beard. In asking you to read this summer, I ask you to embrace the power of imagination.


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