An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas on ‘Is imagination more important than knowldge?’

In Education on January 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Yes, the imagination is so important, and is so undervalued in our current schooling systems.

Let me add something to get us to consider what we mean when we use words like ‘imagination’ and ‘knowledge’.

Firstly, there is evidence form work on creativity that suggests we should be careful about setting up a dichotomy between knowledge and the creative imagination, as if they are in some way mutually exclusive.

“Creative Imagination” in its highest sense (and in the sense understood by Ibn ‘Arabi, the Shaykh Al-Akbar) is the capacity for symbolic understanding, the spiritual perception which unveils the hidden realities behind and beyond observable signs and ‘similitudes’ (Arabic amthal). It needs to be distinguished from the lower levels of ‘creative imagination’ associated with those forms of subjective ‘imaginative’ artistic exploration which may not be connected with any awareness of the objective significance of universal symbols. The ultimate contrast here might be between a great work of sacred art and a ‘conceptual art’ installation such as a random display of bricks on the floor of a gallery (I once tripped over such a display in the Tate Gallery many years ago, not realizing that it was the latest piece of ‘modern art’) or a more recent exhibition in Paris of a whole room full of completely blank canvases (which drew a crowd of art-lovers earnestly discussing their ‘significance’).

Jean Houston puts it well when she speaks of “the importance of teaching-learning communities in stimulating, supporting and evoking each other’s highest sensory, physical, psychological, mythic, symbolic and spiritual capacities.” In such a community, she says, “education is an adventure of the soul in which our personal themes become joined with those of universal reality.” The transcendent function of creativity is also beautifully expressed by Joseph Conrad: “All creative art…is evocation of the unseen in forms expressive, enlightening, familiar, and surprising.” (The Qur’an is, of course, “a Book for those who believe in the Unseen, Al-Ghayb). As such, the highest level of creativity is the discovery of the “due measure and proportion” in the divine imprint of the Creator (Al-Khaliq), the unveiling of the unseen, for “God is forever making hidden things manifest”.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the nature of creativity. The most common one is that there is a necessary tension between existing knowledge and creativity, that creativity is necessarily iconoclastic and based in originality or novelty, a reaction to the past. This is part of the individualistic tendency, derived from misconceptions too about the nature of genius, which seeks to divide humanity into creative or noncreative individuals, geniuses or ordinary folk, musical and unmusical people, and so on.

Some research in the field of cognitive psychology suggests that the ability to do creative and innovative work depends on deep knowledge and mastery of a chosen field, often involving an initial phase of imitation of existing models. There is an excellent section on the value of memorisation in Jean Houston’s Jump Time, which shows clearly how the genius of Shakespeare was grounded in the memorisation culture of Elizabethan England. Imitation, too, was another formative practice in that era. “One studies a great piece of writing by one of the acknowledged giants of the past, enters into a process of internalisation – an alchemising through one’s own life and experience – and then creates a poem of other work that is unique to the writer yet has similarities to the original. This practice enriches one’s ways of thinking, depends one’s ability to allude to other forms, thickens the soup of one’s mind.” The best schools will use imitation of great models this way, and not only in literature, but also in art and music. It is important to realise that this is not unthinking imitation, mere reproduction or mechanical copying. It is using a model to catalyse the creative process.

Mapping the early development of Mozart, improvisation skills in jazz musicians, and the Beatles has shown the absolute importance of rigorous practice as a prerequisite for the development of true creativity, as opposed to what I would call the “bogus creativity” based on the self-delusion that mastery can be bypassed.

Thus, one view of creative thinking is that it is the result of direct application of a body of knowledge which has been mastered and internalised. This “application” may occur after a long subconscious process has digested the material. Many are the examples of scientists who have had the experience of a new and revolutionary insight bursting into consciousness after such a period of deep internalisation. But the point is that they have done a lot of work in amassing a body of knowledge which acts as the ground of such inspiration (personal revelation).

Unsubstantiated opinions are not the same as valid inner perceptions. True knowledge is based on two sources, as the Qur’an reminds us: divine revelation (which can also be authentic inspiration) and the evidence of our own faculties. The latter serves also to validate the truth of Revelation, and strengthen our faith, which has nothing to do with ‘blind belief’.

It is only when we examine the situation from outside that we feel the necessity to postulate basic differences between creative and noncreative individuals. It may not be necessary to assume that creative individuals differ from the noncreative in any significant way, except for the knowledge they possess. The Qur’an advises us: ‘Can they who know and those who not know be deemed equal?’ At the same time, the verse continues that ‘only those who are endowed with insight keep this in mind.’ The Arabic word here translated as ‘insight’ is albab, that inner faculty of knowing centred in the heart (lubb). So the Qur’anic vision of ‘knowledge’ is of course multi-layered, and its deepest locus is indeed in the Heart.

But once again, we should not set up a dichotomy between heart and mind, as has happened in Western culture. The Arabic words fu’ad and ‘aql refer to a composite faculty of mind-heart, and also encompass an ethical and spiritual dimension. As always, Islamic spirituality is centred on Divine Unity (tawhid), on holistic capacities. That said, it may be necessary at some point in one’s life to apply a strong corrective and throw some baggage down the well, including most (or all) of one’s books! But in the case of Mevlana, it’s worth remembering that he was a great scholar when he did so. In the same way, as Saqib reminds us, Al-Ghazali had a similar crisis, realizing that direct perception (tasting, dhawq) was the only way to spiritual certitude (yaqin), but he too was a man who had gained a degree of knowledge from conventional sources.

As in all such questions, the key is to follow the guiding principle of balance (mizan). One should not give pre-eminence to either the creative imagination or knowledge, but seek always to provide a corrective when disproportionate emphasis is given to one over another. That is what I understand also by the Qur’anic statement that “we are a community of the Middle Way”. This does not mean unchallenging mediocrity or an arid compromise, but refers to the Golden Mean, that sacred point of balance.

I once had a recurring dream as a small child. I was driving a chariot through the skies, drawn by two horses, one black and one white. It was a hard job to balance the two horses, and the chariot would veer off to the left or right depending on the way I pulled on the reins. Even minute adjustments in pressure seemed to have major consequences in driving the horses off course. I persevered during many of these recurring dreams, and there came a moment when the perfect balance was achieved. The result was momentous. Suddenly a cosmic energy seemed to take over from me as ‘driver’ and the chariot swept upwards and forwards through the heavens with boundless grace and energy. I no longer needed to operate the reins.

Balancing black and white can mean many things, but perhaps for the purpose of this post, it might mean not seeing in terms of ‘black’ or ‘white’, or ‘either/or’, that polarizing and dichotomizing tendency in the human brain.

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