The Secretary Reports

March 10, 2011
Gordon Thomas
Creativity, Imagination and Freedom

Though my mind is often occupied with practical matters, I sometimes wonder what forces create ideas. Where do ideas come from? What happens to create ideas? What inspires us to take action? I’ve been thinking about this as we move through the final stages in the production of this issue of the ATA Magazine, the theme of which is creativity and critical thinking.

As I write this column at home, our two cats are actively engaged in creativity, critical thinking and action. Rather than two dollops of their favourite mushy cat food (some kind of chopped ocean fish), I served up a new purchase: two dollops of salmon and sweet potato mushy cat food. Though this is a special kind of food for cats with sensitive stomachs (like ours), we are in the midst of concerted industrial action, because it is not the mushy cat food of preference. Rufus, who is a smart cat, has decided that the consequence of my failure to deliver the cat food of choice must be a sit-down campaign across my notes, blocking in almost every way my view of the computer monitor. Removing Rufus from my desk is not a long-term success strategy; he simply jumps back to resume the industrial action, sometimes turning so he can read the monitor. In the background is a thumping noise. Rupert, who is a dumb cat, is pulling open the door to the cupboard where the cat food is stored. Unfortunately for him, every time he pulls open the door, he bounces it off his nose and it closes with a thump. Of course, what Rupert would actually do if the cupboard door were to stay open would be an interesting question; the cat food is tinned, and neither cat has any idea how to use a can opener. There has been much meowing back and forth to make it clear to me that the dollops of salmon and sweet potato mushy cat food are just not going to cut it. And in case I miss the point of the industrial action, I should be able to connect the dots to cat food selection with the thumping of the cupboard door.

My cats would do well to heed the advice of Maxine Greene, a leading educational philosopher, who observed that when you hit an obstacle in life you have to feel your freedom. This is central to creativity and critical thinking. Facts are only data—they are fragmentary and need to be rounded into completed ideas for us to be able to see intellectual possibilities. Greene encourages educational researchers to cast off their intellectual timidity, to slough off a cowardly dependence on partial ideas, and to rely on imagination, which opens up worlds of possibilities. It’s important to look at things as if they could be otherwise; that’s how we get new ideas. Furthermore, though it might seem odd to say, we need to teach uneasiness, because it is in uneasiness that imagination is powerful. You have to move from the possible to the feasible. To be successful you need to engage in conversation with others. You have to be in contact with others—conversation is not an internal ghost in a machine. Conversation develops through being out in the world. Feasibility cannot be explored alone. Building communities in schools requires focus on particular action. Community in schools is critical to be successful, but so is action, and we constantly recreate our communities and commit to action.

While Greene is a passionate advocate for the arts and humanities, she does not reject science.  She notes there is merit in keeping the richness of what science offers but believes that we need to see alternative possibilities. We need to focus on what ought to be, in an active process of discovery and resistance. Greene often observes: “I am what I am not yet.” What would she be if she was? For Greene, an important question is, how can I create my freedom in this world? When Greene talks about freedom, she does not mean simple release from shackles; she sees freedom as getting around the obstacles, resisting the demands. Through the process, we translate culture and consciousness, develop community and take action. Central to all of this is conversation, which Greene sees as the roadmap for creativity, imagination and action. It’s how we open up the possibilities, it’s how we develop our partial ideas, it’s how we round out our idea fragments, it’s how we stir our imagination and it’s how we focus on what might be and what ought to be.

And it’s how we learn to open cans. Just don’t tell Rufus and Rupert.