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Philosophical Meanderings

Is society incompatible with imagination?

It’s been a while since I last blogged here — part of the reason is that I didn’t feel I can contribute as much in the efforts to change education as the rest of my Coop friends, but part was my feeling I need to focus on my family and my own health after the crazy hours put in the making of TEDxKids@BC back in September. The time I had for myself have been burdened with lots of questions about life, my own parenting skills, the value I hope to bring up my two daughters with, the mentorship support I want to provide to the youth I am working with as part of the TEDxKids@BC team, etc. With this post I hope to ask some of those questions to my Coop friends and readers as I feel a dire need to start answering some of them before going crazy!

Last summer, I met Sir Ken Robinson in Vancouver and I asked him if he can answer a question that has been bothering me for a while: How can you learn to be free, if you’ve been brought up to be compliant  throughout childhood? I was struggling with the notion that freedom (in its true idealistic form) is incompatible with any form of society we have tried to create through human history as one underlying expectation for all of them is that the people should conform to certain standards by complying to the established norms and obeying the accepted laws. Sir Ken paused thoughtfully and commented that it is an interesting question that he will need to think about and maybe write his thoughts on his website. Unfortunately I am not aware of him writing anything to answer my question yet — which may simply mean he forgot or maybe was not able to come up with an answer — but my thoughts have since evolved and now I am starting to question some core beliefs about life (at least one in which people are part of a society).

At first I thought that the incompatibility is in the core meaning of the words like established norms and accepted laws. I thought that if something is established and accepted by the older generations, then the new generations must be mould to fit the societal expectations by learning the rules and sticking to them without too much questions. I thought that our schools are a great example of one such system that has been working well to maintain the society that was shaped by the industrialization over 200 years ago.

Looking at my own daughters, I was able to make many observations about how they use imagination during play — by creating their own little worlds they actively engage in them by choosing different roles for them that let them have different experiences and learn new perspectives. I ran few experiments to see how quickly they learn when given control over a situation — when making my honest trust in their abilities visible they’ve been able to rapidly acquire new skills and their confidence levels skyrocketed beyond my imagination. I also had a chance to observe the role of emotions on building a trusting relationship between us — when acknowledging their emotions and listening or gently inquiring instead of rationalizing why they should stop crying even the worst tantrum or screaming episode would quickly dissolve and let us reflect on what upset them in the first place.

Let me pause and acknowledge that I’ve been influenced a lot by authors like Alfie Kohn and his Unconditional Parenting, Chris Mercogliano and his In Defense of Childhood, A.S. Neill and his autobiography and A Dominie’s Log. They had a profound impact on my perspective as a parent and in what I am looking for in the youth around me to understand their drives, emotions, values and expectations.

All these thoughts have brought deeper questions behind the original I asked Sir Ken about:

  • Can imaginative and creative kids be free in a society built on norms and laws they didn’t participate in creating?
  • Can we teach freedom? Or the only way to learn it is to live it?
  • Can we honestly claim that we treat kids as equals if we rob them of their inner wildness and control everything in their developing years, including when, how and with whom to play?
  • Are imaginative kids always going to be seen as attempting to stay outside the lines defined by the system?
  • Aren’t we ultimately killing the wholeness of the kids when we put them into institutions to deal with their head and ignore emotions?
  • Is freedom an emotion? If yes, by focusing solely on the head, are Western societies by definition non-free?
  • Can modern human life be seen as existing outside society? If no then can there be room for internal spirituality and reflection?
  • Can we imagine a society embracing engaged, creative, emotional citizens that are allowed to participate in shaping and reshaping the very basis of the society they are involved in without the consequence of isolation or rejection?
  • Is society paradoxically incompatible at its core with the basic values of free life?
  • Is morality the very essence behind this potential paradox as illustrated by Phineas and Ferb in the video below?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions — can any of you help me to get anything close to an answer for some?

About kima

Organizer: Father. Agent of change. I learn for a living. Curiosity is my passion. Writing is my dream. I believe in the value of social media as a way to meet new people and love double espresso as a way to feel warm with old friends ;-)


6 thoughts on “Is society incompatible with imagination?

  1. You packed a lot into this post! I am glad you were unable to find traces of Sir Ken’s response to your inquiry, for his answer might have satisfied your curiosity and prevented you from asking subsequent questions.

    I have a plausible response to one of your questions:

    •Are imaginative kids always going to be seen as attempting to stay outside the lines defined by the system?

    Absolutely! We should be thankful their imagination, and for whatever courage they demonstrate by acting to defy the system. At the intersection of paradox, where an aporia seems to exist, is where their imaginative and defiant efforts may trigger change.

    Best wishes in your quest to answer these philosophical questions,


    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 29, 2011, 8:57 am
  2. Hi Kima,

    Nice to connect with you again here!

    One response to some very thought-provoking questions. Unfortunately, it is also in the form of a question.

    Is it possible that the very existence of definitions, boundaries and systemic lines serve to enhance imagination? I’m thinking that the structures that we impose on our children actually give them the boundaries that they need in order to think outside of them.

    That’s not to say that all boundaries and definitions should be accepted. I believe that innovators will always push the form, but is there not a sense in which the form needs to exist in order to be pushed?

    Posted by stephen hurley | December 29, 2011, 9:03 am
  3. One of the best posts I have seen on here in awhile. Lots of thought provoking questions. I am thinking about the basis of your questions. Is freedom the highest aim? Is compliance necessarily negative? Are they opposites? Can one be compliant and free?

    We always study that freedom has its limits in social studies such as freedom of speech does not permit one to falsely yell “fire” in a movie theater (which by the way is a strange example… 5 minute rabbit trail looking up the origins of it in Wikipedia…fascinating and may require a blog post to fully respond to yours).

    In America democracy and freedom are usually held as the highest good in a society, but are they really? Some societies value stability over personal freedom. I am not saying they are not just questioning our most basic assumptions.

    I guess I see a healthy tension between freedom and compliance. I want my own children to be compliant to what I ask them to do, but I also want them to question the world around them and be creative. Does it need to be either or? I think there is a kind of freedom in having healthy structures around oneself to build upon.

    Have developed thoughts… Thanks for the philosophical push!

    Posted by Mike Kaechele | December 29, 2011, 10:33 am
  4. We live in a society where we tell children its okay to play but as long as you don’t go past the 3rd street light and then we punish them when their curiosity gets the best of them. That’s how everything functions in our society, from schools to parents and to laws and once a child starts thinking outside the paradigm he is automatically “troubled.” In my opinion society (as it is) is incompatible with imagination and freedom as we ourselves don’t see the latter two coexisting. We punish ingenuity and curiosity because it challenges authority and gives children to outsmart their controllers because the system we have been told to comply with doesn’t complement the value of freedom, curiosity, and imagination all working together to produce that one emotion that literally terrifies those who put themselves in higher authority.

    Posted by Jabreel Chisley | December 29, 2011, 4:10 pm
  5. Thank you, Kima! These are great questions to ask in our combined effort to create the local changes we want for our kids – the changes we hope for and share here. What each of us does matters most where we are.

    So, I think at some point a society stops being about its own moral, philosophical, and scientific growth – it starts being abut preserving the status quo. I believe that principles of government and constitutions and amendments and laws are all intended to protect people as we move into the future. Things get bad when we take such laws and amend in them in ways that prevent spiritual and intellectual growth for the many in favor of preserving current advantages for the few. Could we create a society that promotes freedom? Sure. Could it be hijacked. You bet.

    And so we have #edreform vs. educational transformation. Schooling vs. learning. gate-keeping vs. education. It’s a time-honored tradition to co-opt the other team’s language in order to confuse and recruit the undecided and the defectors.

    I guess what I have left to say is this:

    Can we create spaces in which kids experience freedom? Yes, but that involves personal cost on our parts, as well as personal cost to kids who have to go to other places where they are not afforded the same freedoms we extend. So, if we create spaces of freedom, is part of that work teaching kids to code-switch elsewhere, or to fight? To comply or to resist? To give in or walk out?

    In the short term, it seems horrible to tell a kid to resist schooling because for many kids complying with schooling is what offers them income parity with other compliant citizens later in life. In the long term, it seems horrible to tell another generation to do what it’s told so that some of its members can be middle class, so that a few of its members can enjoy the freedoms of wealth and influence, and so that most of its members can occupy the vacuum underneath our unequal society and keep our country from collapsing by the strength of their suffering.

    I struggle all the time with Sergiovanni’s “virtuous collegiality” – our obligation to speak truth not only to power, but to those with whom we work. And so I don’t often locally ask the questions you ask, but they are the ones that matter more than the emails asking us what to put on our next faculty meeting agenda.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 30, 2011, 3:18 pm

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