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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 11, New Delhi February 29, 2020

The Murder of Imagination

Sunday 1 March 2020

vt Arup Maharatna

It is not a random coincidence that the title of an essay, namely, The End of Imagination, published in 1998 by the celebrated author Arundhati Roy is almost the same as that of the present article. There exists a conscious, albeit subtle, difference of connotation between these two otherwise close titles. Although an end of imagination is the final upshot envisaged in both the titles, a wilful active agency role (behind this lamentable outcome) is connoted flamboyantly only in the present title. In fact Roy has referred to ‘the end of imagination’ following the Pokhran nuclear test of 1998, which, as goes her argument, marked an abdication of the well-meaning imaginations/dreams for a better world with lasting peace and fraternity, whereas the present essay aims at flagging a systemic wrecking of the innate faculty of creative imagination itself, a precious mental aptitude possessed in varying degrees by all human beings.

Imagination, as is commonly known, is essentially a part of a broader cognitive endowment of the human mind, and it is indeed often the mainspring of new ideas, new inventions, new insights, which all serve as pillars of overall improvement and progressive refinement of human civilisation. Therefore an unimpeded flow of imaginations is crucial for sustained civilisational progression. Indeed this faculty of imagining can be kindled, cultivated, and nurtured with proper care and sensitivity particularly in children’s impressionable minds. Little wonder, over many preceding centuries school curricula have been guided pervasively by an overarching goal of inspiring and nurturing creative/constructive imaginations in young minds. What else can be the explanation of perennial abundance of stories, fairy tales, and legends in school curricula worldwide? However, much like human intelligence and scientific inventions, there can be both constructive/creative and destructive/negative praxis of imaginations, both being subject to premeditated inspirations and wilful nurturing. For instance, there is a subtle, albeit distinct, difference between imagination and fantasy, the latter being abstract (mental) construction/exercise centred around what is innately unachievable and/or impossible.

Since the end of World War II there has evidently been a systemic and sustained retrogression in the intensity/importance of efforts and attention devoted to nourishing and nurturing the mental faculty of creative imagination all over the world. A rather fundamental blow to children’s imaginativeness comes from a patently economistic—hence somewhat myopic—educational thinking originating in the USA in the 1950s and then spreading across world through active advocacy by satellite-like multilateral agencies such as UNESCO and UNICEF. In this newly dominant perspective, the role/purpose of education is drastically narrowed down to its sheer instrumentality in producing what came to be called ‘human capital’ (that is, a composite of productive skills, know-hows and other materially useful human capabilities acquired mostly through education/training), of which expansion/accumulation is vigorously touted to be crucial for upholding economic growth and material prosperity both at societal and individual levels.

In the wake of this drastic change in the educational paradigm, students began getting soaked with the idea that the ultimate goal of education is to provide them with skills, opportunities and wherewithal for grabbing a lucrative career commensurate with their respective ‘investment’ (expenditure) in learning. This narrow economistic view of education tends to make students/parents so obsessed as to remain constantly alert against ‘wasting’ time/money on pursuing activities/pursuits/skills which are popularly not known to be in demand in the job market. Consequently, the room for constructive imaginations in educational and socio-cultural choices, including those pertaining to subjects/streams, gets severely slashed. And children’s innate inclination for ingenuous/spontaneous imaginations unencumbered by a blueprint for material prosperity began receiving—directly or indirectly—ruthless disdain from parents and schools alike.

In earlier precepts an appropriate career would automatically follow one’s level of educational excellence achieved in pursuance of her spontaneous or self-determined liking and thirst for a specific branch of knowledge. This has now been replaced by a ubiquitous economic mantra that branches/subjects of education should be so cleverly selected as to enable her to procure a money-spinning career. Similarly, earlier educational courses’ content used to be shaped on purely academic/pedagogical considerations, but now educational institutions seem virtually unfree in framing curriculum/pedagogical modalities autonomously without having to undertake a sort of ‘market research’ for ascertaining how many students might choose/like/buy or whether the skills to be imparted would actually turn out to be profit-boosting for edu-businesses/industries. In the process, the scope for free-play of constructive imaginations in the management and policy decisions of educational institutions wilts heavily.

Education, as an important part of social sector, is now consigned almost exclusively to the clutches of hardcore economics, leaving pre-existing educationists/thinkers behaving either like parrots or paid cheerleaders or like a meek marginalised inconsequential entity or sometimes even an outcast amidst dazzling money-oriented educational enterprise/industry. Concerted attempts followed at measuring economic ‘returns’ and ‘cost’ of education at all levels, sometimes with such glitzy spree of economism in which ‘net returns’ to a prospective groom’s decision of, and/or investment in, marrying a particular (prospective) bride could be gallantly thought estimable by ascribing the market price of hiring a prostitute of comparable features! This vivaciously propagated stark economism, its attendant pecuniary preoccupations inducing ruthless exercises in monetary conversions/estimations (often via questionable attributions) of deeply private, socio-cultural or emotional phenomena have been liberally patronised (by giant multinational funding bodies as well as the UN’s widely regarded multilateral agencies) to lavishly seep through all facets of educational system and community across the globe.

A deepening subservience of long-cherished time-tested educational thinking and ideals to the basic tenets of laissez-faire market economics has come to such a pass that instead of the subject and significance of the academic content of an educational programme, its estimated (financial) ‘costs’ and ‘returns’ have now become the overriding considerations both in the students’ choices of courses and in the institutions’ decisions over course offerings, and even also in the shaping of curricula in schools, let alone graduate courses. All this is happening under the high-powered influences of two dominant trends, namely, privatisation and marketisation of educational institutions, in which both students and owners/funders of educational establishments are vigorously hawked as ‘stake-holders’/‘investors’. Apart from a dangerous degeneration of longstanding pervasive perception of education’s public value, these trends have evidently resulted in an unkind blow to the age-old role and free-play of the students’ precious imaginativeness particularly from the standpoint of societal progression and wellbeing. For instance, much of the classical literature and poetry that had perennially occupied centre-stage of primary and secondary school curricula with an overarching goal of nurturing children’s creative imaginations, humanistic sensibilities and universal values, has been chopped off to make room for rapid intrusion of stark neo-liberal economism, its pervasive cost-profit calculations and its matching mindset.

Students now are (relatively) rarely encouraged to devote enough time/aptitude to performing imaginative/creative/original arts (for example, acting, paintings, music) as part of their extra-curricular activities. They are rather expected to keep busy developing an internet-driven information-base relevant to the goal of grabbing a ‘decent’ career with the prospect of a hefty pay-packet, which, in this line of thinking, could take care of everything via an ever-ready market. For example, new generation students seldom appear inspired to imagine enacting a creative or original or classical drama themselves as there is a plenty of ‘downloadable’ ones on internet, to which they get easily and readily allured to imitating or adapting with a minimum of efforts and creative imaginations. This, in turn, gives birth to a spiralling fake creativity or what is sometimes more astutely called ‘second-hand imagination’. Why would they take the ‘trouble’ of staging a genuinely artistic drama in the college annual festival which seemingly has little prospective value from the standpoint of the prime goal of securing a fabulous ‘pay-package’? Accordingly, a young mind’s intrinsic proclivity for imagining with a view to transcending ‘the existing’ often gets run over by an artificially instilled urge for rushing for a coveted career with its promise of overflowing wealth.

Thus it is far from the case that newer generations are losing ‘values’ fast, so that they need to be imparted what is popularly—albeit vaguely—called ‘value education’. The deeper truth is that the earlier humanistic universal values infused through education, which their grandparents (or sometimes parents too) perhaps occasionally happen to bore them with now in casual conversations, have been almost entirely crowded out by the lately imposed bunch of ultra-materialistic/market-preaching values. Accordingly, the imparting of ‘value-education’ should not mistakenly be construed as being just an act of infusing admittedly ‘good’ values. On the contrary it entails a fierce battle between two mutually antagonistic sets of values before the intended one gains the reign.

Once education—starting from the elementary level—is viewed as a commodity or just a matter of learning some marketable skills, it gets immediately converted into a lucrative site for pecuniary pursuits well within the purview of capitalistic ‘animal spirits’. As a result, society happens inevitably to witness mushroom growth of private educational institutions at all levels in tune with the cleverly percolated rhetoric such as ‘education for all’ or ‘no one left behind’. This, indeed, is what seems to have happened throughout the world over in the last several decades. Perhaps for the first time in a long preceding history of human civilisation, an edu-entrepreneur, full of ‘animal spirits’, happens to find herself at the helm of educational institutions and start dictating or directing the principal or other school/college/university administrators how to organise classes, its size, its subject matters and mode of teaching among others. Decisions over what would now be regarded as best practices or norms in the interests of children’s education are no longer to be left exclusively with the learned educationists of a country, but at least partly with the corporate business magnets with substantial stakes in the educational sector, sometimes somewhat cavalierly called the ‘edu-care’ industry. Globally speaking, unlike long historical traditions in educational adminis-tration and organisation, governing bodies of prominent public-funded educational institutions are nowadays getting studded with names of enviously ‘successful’ corporate proprietors whose influences often crowd out those of genuine academicians/scholars.

While philanthropy by owners of big corporate houses towards promotion of talent, higher studies and research is a longstanding tradition in the global history of education, the recent trend of them occupying key positions of management and decision/policy-making or even in routine functioning of long-established public universities/institutions of higher learning/training is, historically speaking, unprecedented—often with starkly unwholesome eventual ramifications for quality, standard and texture of overall society’s culture and civilisation at large. Likewise, many ambitious market-mongers with an undiminished animal spirit tend to undertake a series of innovations, which lead to production of numerous educational products/commodities to be marketed among educational institutions as being ‘useful’, ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’ particularly in delivering lectures and many other academic tasks.

For example, it is unlikely that educators/teachers themselves, because of their own felt necessity, have ever been the key to the genesis and development of Power-Point-Presentation (PPP) software and its visuals-driven mode of lecturing/presentations. Rather, some IT corporate/company most likely innovated the PPP software out of its own independent urge (for example animal spirits and innovativeness) for marketing and profiteering. Of course, the corporates must have managed to convince successfully through several modern marketing techniques (as evolved by management experts) the administrators/principals about the PPP’s alleged (potential) academic benefits in classrooms or seminar halls. However, all this does not exactly conform to Adam Smith’s famous illustration wherein a milkman brings milk at your doorstep for his own personal gain, while serving (unwittingly, thanks to the capitalist market) the interests of society at large. Our present illustration of a giant IT company having innovated PPP software possibly not in response to any distinct requisition from educational institutions/professionals for such a product could well represent an act, even if unwittingly, of trespassing pedagogical/academic domains by those with non-academic pursuits/expertise. This gets unquestioningly legitimised possibly partly by the popular perception that any technological innovations cannot but represent an ‘advancement’ even if it amounts to teaching teachers how to teach best. An essential implication of this is that technical innovations/products pertaining to mode of teaching and learning in educational spheres should not be readily adopted before pondering over the serious educational/pedagogical considerations. It, therefore, seems imperative that such innovations trespassing into educational pedagogy and their marketing are treated as socially delicate and distinct from those happening in the sphere of general consumption, comforts and standard of living.

This is not to deny the tremendous utility that PPP-mode possesses in many specific situations particularly beyond the pedagogical world of education. Indeed it is extremely effective and efficient when it comes to a salesman trying to publicise various features of a product before an audience of potential customers who have agreed to spare a few moments from their busy work schedule. It can also be very effective in a situation wherein a military commander is hurriedly trying to make her fellow Army persons understand the strategy of an imminent military attack or defence. What remains not so clear is whether a PPP-based lecture does really add net benefits to imparting education especially when it comes to a teacher lecturing on an academic subject to the supposedly curious and imaginative minds of students.

This is so because it is not an important goal of ideal academic classes/lectures that maximum information be delivered at a minimum time. Rather, making students understand new ideas, arguments and findings in such a way as to kindle their curiosity and thirst for knowledge is idyllically one prime object of classes/lectures in educational institutions. It seems far from obvious whether the PPP-based lecture is particularly conducive or appropriate on this count. On the contrary, a PPP-driven class lecture is very likely to distract a mind supposedly absorbed in listening and thinking, but at once being forced to look at whatever visuals are depicted on a glaring screen through a projector. Who can deny that careful listening to a talk/lecture has far greater potential to kindle imagination and induce original thinking than a visual image can ever do? The scope for the imagination’s free play is much larger once a teacher says that ‘once upon a time there was a king’ than when she tells the same thing by simultaneously screening an image/portrait of some real king with all his typical robes and crown on. The depiction of a specific image of a king considerably deactivates students’ innate faculty of imagining numerous conceivable images of a king in their respective minds.

However, we are all aware of a rapid proliferation of PPP-led techniques and its underlying mode/pedagogy of teaching not only in classrooms but also in published textbooks devoting a disproportionately large space for visuals and images vis-à-vis written text, thereby severely constricting the innate free-play of imaginativeness in young minds. All this seems to illustrate how product innovations induced, as it is, for profit by ‘animal spirits’ of free enterprise market could kill precious innocent curiosity and imaginativeness of pupils in schools or educational institutions generally. Likewise, it is perfectly pertinent to ask as to how it became a global norm that a session of book-reading by its author or a recitation of poetry or the deliberation of debater in a competition or a TV programme of conversation with a famous film director must be accompanied by some background tunes of musical instruments or sometimes even of vocalists as per the perceived tastes of the TV or radio programmes producers. The reason why it was not so earlier is not the unavailability of musical instruments previously, nor the people of earlier generations were relatively foolish to realise the hidden value of playing a background musical tune during poetry-reading or conversational sessions. This was more plausibly because of the prevalence of a saner taste/wit wherein an indiscriminate/inept use of a background musical tune during poetry recitations or a debate competition was found unthinkable in view of its simultaneously distracting effects on a mind’s efforts and concentration towards deeper appreciation of artistic/creative sensitivities and sensibilities. It is hardly wise to be so careless as to patronise—even though passively—such diverting ingredients and distracting superfluities that effectively lower an academic/intellectual/esoteric/sensitive exercise/event to a level of a fun or a coarser variety of entertainment. Since the faculty of imagination serves as a cognitive cradle for breeding analytical sharpness and insights, the process of stifling the former can have deeply adverse effects on the avowed nurturing of critical and analytical thinking, which is a pillar of refinements/improvements over existing intellectual exercises and their outcomes already achieved.

The moot point, thus, is that it is truly perilous from the society’s standpoint to leave the cognitive and pedagogical aspects of education with animal spirits, market and the media. For example, it should be some market-monger, rather than an erudite educationist, who has possibly been instrumental in the innovation of video games, another staple for current children’s enjoyment and entertainment, which is, however, turning out to be a virtual killer of imaginativeness in young sensitive and curious minds. In this manufactured age of market-preaching and marketing, the innovators with animal spirits happen—directly or indirectly—to take on the role of educators/guides in schools, leaving the formally recruited teachers just as some mute followers. Market and associated animal spirits are bringing incessantly newer and newer commodities into schools under a grand garb of educational quality and progress but without ever pondering—albeit unsurprisingly—whether they may be hurtful to the innate proclivities for imaginations and sensitivities that generally characterise a child’s mind. It has become imperative now to voice a loud scepticism against creating our society as an unfettered playground for ‘animal spirits’ especially in such important spheres as education, arts, culture, music and paintings—the pillars for striving for a higher standard of human civilisation. It is perhaps instructive in this connection that the term ‘innovation’ is being cherished all around so lavishly nowadays that it has pushed away the term ‘invention’ from the present-day vocabulary almost to the point of extinction. Very few even among supposedly well-meaning educated people (globally) appear to care about such momentous trends of dumbing us down, let alone questioning. In fact, such questions often seem to the current populist toxic imaginations worthy only of being dumped into dustbin!

Likewise, popular films and other media entertainments have been doing havoc to the imaginativeness of children’s minds. For example, a few globally hyped and/or acclaimed films such as Jurassic Park or Harry Potter which are meant and produced overwhelmingly for children’s entertainment, have arguably marked a herald of a subtle, albeit extensive, aggression into their minds’ innate imaginativeness. Notwithstanding many technological and other breakthroughs in the film widely applauded across the world, by displaying some computer-generated dinosaurs conceived on the basis of easily and digitally available information, the film might have indirectly (and perhaps unwittingly) nipped innumerable creative imaginations that could be born and flourish in children’s minds if the latter had merely listened to an even vague description about this species which had existed in our planet many million years ago. Newly discovered information about dinosaurs is, no doubt, important for the sake of knowledge, but it cannot be more important than the free flow of natural imaginations in children’s formative minds. Interestingly, if children would have only read the story of the film, without watching it, their imaginativeness would have received much greater boost and nourishment. This is, of course, not to suggest that films are essentially an inappropriate form of entertainment for kids, but at the same time one should not, while running after over-whelming media attention or massive popularity, prove to be lacking in caring for the subtle needs of their minds’ healthy development. In fact, by being profusely impressed in terms of number of viewers or gross revenues from these films, even many school teachers seem to be forgetting that it is they who are entrusted with the task of nurturing children’s minds and their sensitivities, not the film directors who could often be guided by such major considerations as popularity scores, box-office proceeds or film awards. Similarly, the Harry Potter film or the story is often mistakenly construed to provide for a wholesome breeding ground for creative imaginations, while it is admittedly stuffed by a lot of benign, entertaining but utterly banal fantasies and excitement.

Additionally, the present-day youth from their childhood are irresistibly getting exposed to numerous market advertisements and marketing on television or almost all other media that seem to teach them—directly or tacitly but incessantly—what is the best way one could spend her leisure, what is the best time for reading/studies, what is the best mode of travelling, what is the most tasty food on earth, what are the most precious things in life, what is the ideal purpose of schooling and so on. Such things make new generations overinformed and more importantly confused, costing their inherent creative power to imagine. [As for illustration, the recent generations seem to find themselves ‘lost’ if the smart phone or laptop is found missing just for a few hours.]

In all likelihood, it is not the case as if genuine scope for creating transcendentally new/original music or acting or painting has been shrinking fast on reaching a peak or something like a saturation point. Rather, present generations are being miseducated so comprehensively and pervasively that they appear condemned to growing up with intrinsic incapability and unimaginativeness towards creating newer ‘classics’ of epochal value especially in the fields of fine arts, music, acting, dance, drama, poetry and humanities in general. Tragically, they seem to remain bogged down by a circumstantially implanted obsession with the number of viewers/downloads and a few admittedly fake ‘scores’ in terms of popular rankings/ratings, thanks to the magical digital times. They are thus being made to be oblivious to the cardinal truth that it is far more valuable or honourable to be commended by one or two geniuses in respective fields than being ‘liked’ by thousands of ordinary lay folks registered in some popular social digital media sites or Apps. Ignoring or overlooking such pervasive societal/civilisational degeneration stemming from a globally infirm educational universe presided virtually by non-academics and non-educationists driven overwhelmingly by ‘animal spirits’ could legitimately be seen as an act in self-deceit and hence in self-annihilation from the standpoint of human civilization and its progression.

The author is the Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor, University of Prayagraj, Allahabad. He can be contacted at e-mail: arupmaha[at]

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