Teachers College, Columbia University
I began writing this essay the day after waves of euphoria swept over what appeared to be a profoundly altered public space. We had seen the most diverse gathering of people coming freely together to affirm a common purpose no one could quite yet define. No one had instructed them to come out in the cold of that inauguration morning; there was neither prize nor penalty involved. And yet, for their own reasons and moved by their own private hopes, they chose themselves as newcomers to a community-in-the-making, working to find what they had in common and what brought them to that shared space. Was it Barack Obama’s charisma, his way of speaking, his choice of words? Was it the appeal of his family, the propriety of those little girls, the obvious bond he shared with Michelle? Or was it the sense that a time of apathy and felt powerlessness was over? Was there a promise in that iteration of change
—a promise of direction, of hopes to be fulfilled at last?
Obama indeed expresses and embodies a concern for education—and an underlying hope. Such an interest by a federal leader makes it easy to forget that public education was long considered a responsibility of the states and localities. This meant that the inequities perpetuated by some state laws could only be overcome by federal action sparked in part by a growing sense of injustice among the people. In relatively recent history, a growing recognition of our schools’ deficiencies and failures led to federal actions such as the Johnson administration’s passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—in large part a response to a new sense of injustice informing the “war on poverty” and the civil rights movement. Similarly, as difficult as it was to begin to overcome years of prejudice and discrimination, the 1954 decision outlawing segregation in public schools led to new hopes and collective activities among African Americans in the South. Little by little, the public became acquainted with images of youthful heroism and instances of breaking down the walls of inequity. It seemed a moment of triumph for people of color and those similarly excluded. But the victories were incomplete. It would take time before those who believed in equality and justice—and still believe—would begin to see these values carry the force of natural law.
The necessity of natural law can justify a strong hand on the part of the federal government. However, the president can neither make certain promises nor answer all questions—and neither can we. Few of us are skilled enough to muster telling arguments or make sure predictions about how best to prioritize the work that must be done to repair infrastructures, reduce joblessness, expand health care, or strengthen and enrich the education of young people. What is necessary is to remind ourselves that education has much to do with power and with the opening of public spaces—spaces where people come together in their freedom to bring a democratic community into being. There can be, and must be, spaces of dialogue, spaces of diversity and mutuality and concern. There must be spaces of convergence.
Though we can make no sure predictions, we can weigh probabilities in a very uncertain time. I am interested in possibility—in what might be, in what should be, if things were otherwise. In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson wrote that, “the possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination” (1960). To commit to imagining is to commit to looking beyond the given, beyond what appears to be unchangeable. It is a way of warding off the apathy and the feelings of futility that are the greatest obstacles to any sort of learning and, surely, to education for freedom.
There seemed to be clues in the euphoria, efforts to light that slow fuse of possibility. The presence of veterans of the struggle for civil rights at Obama’s inauguration lit many fuses of memory. Images returned—of fire hoses; of beatings; of the little girls in Birmingham; of the Selma march and the other long, hot marches; of the Mississippi murders; of the killing of Dr. King. Perhaps it requires an act of imagination to make meaningful the suffering, the sacrifices. In classrooms, the question of what can be done now that we have a president who says we
and who speaks of our
responsibility may become central. How can we make it worthwhile, each of us feeling herself to be a participant in our schools and our colleges, just as we participated in that remarkable campaign? Can we imagine ourselves moving beyond simply being there?
There was the suggestion that the inauguration may have been a coming true of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream—one of the most potent imaginative constructions in our history. And there was the evocation of Dr. King’s prophecy that he might not be with his people when they attained their goal. Surely, for more than a few, his prophecy suggested that new young women and men would emerge to carry on, that we needed to imagine such a possibility. In our imagining, we might think of Barack Obama after his success at Harvard and at a turning point in his life, faced with the choice of what next. Able to secure any position of his choosing, he chose remarkably to become a community organizer. We might hope—and we might imagine—that those experiences in Chicago can even now help him note the savage nature of the inequalities he found (Kozol, 1992) and must continue to find as he moves across our land. We might imagine him bringing community members together with teachers and learners to show that it is unendurable for a child to be expected to climb a meritocratic ladder when she lacks sneakers or lunch money—and, most importantly, has no notion of things being otherwise.
We need imagination.
We need visions of the possible and of the unexpected. We need to act on the promises of that cold morning, stimulus or no, obstacles or no. To educate, to change, we need to converge.
Dickinson, E. (1960). The gleam of an heroic act. In Johnson, T. H. (Ed.). The complete poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities. New York: Harper Perennial.
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teaches a course in the Arts and Humanities Department at Teachers College. As philosopher-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, she conducts workshops on aesthetic education to teachers and teacher educators. She has a central interest in the power and significance of imagination in thought and action.