Imagination Should Not Be an Elective Subject

As a teacher of Creative Writing, I often feel like I’m not contributing much. Though it is part of the English department, Creative Writing is an elective course. There is no graduation exam for electives; we are “none of the above” subjects, whose only purpose at times seems to be supporting the “real” subjects – math, science, social studies, English. We are kept around to fill holes in students’ schedules and give them something fun to do when they’re not cramming their brains with math and science.

That’s about the way I saw it too, when I began. But in the three semesters that I’ve taught this class, I have come to believe that Creative Writing could be the most important class that students take. They have been so well ‘schooled’ that they are badly educated. Since the age of five, they’ve been learning not to write down an answer unless they’re sure it’s correct, to follow directions, and do things the right way. Socially, they’ve learned that the goal of school is to fit in, not be different. Certainly not to be creative. Except for a few rebels, they don’t know how to have ideas.

And yet, without new ideas there is no progress – or even survival.

Can people be taught to have ideas? Can creativity be learned? If it can, it won’t be from fill-in-the-bubble tests. The notion that there is a right answer and a wrong answer for every question is what our children are learning right now.

But there isn’t a right way or a wrong way to write a poem or a story. There are better ways and worse ways, and there are conventions, but creating involves divergent thinking, not narrowing down to one possibility.

If you listen to what’s being said about our schools (mostly by politicians up for reelection), you will hear that the big problem is standards. Results are what matter, and those who fall short must be held accountable. “Outcome-based instruction” used to be the catch phrase; now it’s “value-added.” Unless “value” is “added” to our children — the way nutrients are added back into processed food — we’re not getting what we’ve paid for. The way we add educational “value” is by pushing the bar higher, cramming more wholesome ingredients (like math and science) into our children’s minds.

But making adding fiber and vitamins to junkfood doesn’t change the fact that it’s still junk.

We see our students slipping in math, science, technology, so we put more resources into those courses, burning the ‘dead wood’ in our schools — anything that takes time away from this focus.

Art and music have been feeling the heat of that pyre for a long time now. They are seen as ‘fun’ classes that give students a break from the ‘real’ classes, or core curriculum (math, science, social studies, English). Though many studies have connected these subjects with improved ability to read, communicate, and reason, they are still the first area pruned when cuts must be made.

Even such useful classes as home economics and industrial tech have been dropped in my school system, so that students can take an extra year of math and science. Foreign languages are barely tolerated, and that only because we must give lip service to educating our students for the New Global Society.

Those who lived before the Industrial Revolution would barely recognize our mechanized world. Many have pointed out that we are at the beginning of a Technological Revolution that will transform the world in ways we can’t imagine. How can we plan for it, if we can’t imagine it?

As I look ahead, I realize that I am not just teaching kids to write stories. Writing can give them tools to imagine different outcomes, to see many solutions to a problem. Learning about point of view can help them understand how other people think and feel. Creating characters and plot gives them insight into motivation. Writing a poem teaches them about choosing the right words to express an idea.

It’s a huge challenge. As I listen to math teachers complaining that kids don’t get the logic behind solving problems, and science teachers wondering why they don’t understand how facts support conclusions, I realize that it’s not that kids haven’t learned enough things, but that they’ve learned the wrong things.

We can’t really complain though, since this is the educational engine we’ve all built. If we want to get to the future, we’ll need to look at what we’ve discarded along the way – the arts.

Education may have become a science, but teaching is still an art.

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