“Let’s dust off our imaginations”: In Conversation with Bill Ayers

Call & Response had a conversation with Will Ayers about imagination, Zoom, individualism, and much more.

William Ayers, formerly Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has written extensively about social justice and democracy, education and the cultural contexts of schooling, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. His books include A Kind and Just Parent; Teaching toward Freedom; Fugitive Days: A Memoir; Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident; On the Side of the Child; To Teach: The Journey, in Comics; and Demand the Impossible!

C&R: Kids are at home, classes are on zoom (at least in some cases) and parents and relatives are on full-time. There are of course a host of problems that arise from this, from issues of internet access or lack thereof, to hunger for those who get primary meals at schools, to dire economic hardship and abusive home environments. And from a schoolwork perspective, there is a lot of anxiety and pressure to keep schedules, hit ‘benchmarks’ etc. What is your immediate advice for parents of school aged kids right now, as well as to teachers and students themselves, as shelter in place looks poised to continue through the end of this school year?

BA: Breathe deeply. Stay calm. Pause. Rest. Think. Relax.

Trying to recreate the school experience—with its relentless competition, its standardization, its never-ending testing and grading and ranking, its continual sorting of winners from losers, its assumption that learning is linear and transactional, its separation of life into disciplines and subject matters—at home would be a terrible mistake. Much better to rethink the school (when we finally return) along lines of what makes up a re-invented, functioning family. After all a dramatically extended family, at its evolving best, can be a small-scale model of a mini-society driven by norms of equality and reciprocity, a sense of shared community in which people care about one another and grow and develop together, mutual respect, recognition of differences including distinct capacities and interests and needs, shared wealth, attempts to account for and correct all chance/accidental disadvantages, and so on—from each according to their capacity and ability, and to each according to their need. That’s it: a wild but in some sense universal “family,” imperfect to be sure, a little off-kilter and slightly dysfunctional by definition, and yet at its best a model of everyday anarchy and common-sense socialism.

And we would all do well to remember that in our hurry-up, go-fast, get-ahead and oh-so-frantic world, the growth of a child is slow. Young children need encouragement and support and vast opportunities as they deploy all five senses in their journey through the kitchen, the apartment, the street, the world; older children need sustenance and understanding as they branch out, stretch, ask the big questions, interrogate the universe, and create an identity of their own—their rule is to reach. The universal theme of adolescence, captured perfectly by the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks, is this: I shall create./If not a note, a hole./If not an overture, a desecration.

So let’s shelter-in-place, yes, and let’s bake bread and make dinners together, invent games and songs, write a daily journal and illustrate every page. Compose music. Sing. Dance together. Exercise for an hour a day. Let’s write a group poem, every person adding a line that must contain a color, a food, and an animal; or write other poems in which each line begins with the same phrase, like “I wish…” or “This is the year that…” Let’s create an Oral History archive for our family, and our friends. What are we? Where do we come from? What’s your story? Where are we going? What might we be inspired to create?

Finally, don’t trust Zoom.

Yes, OK, I’m teaching my classes on Zoom (frown emoji).

It’s weird for me, but I’ve got it (I think) and, against my will and better judgment, I feel a little thrill and a burst of relief each time class ends without the internet exploding. I  push all the right buttons, issue all the appropriate commands. Oh, joy! (smile emoji).

So here we are, suddenly, all of us: distance learning, e-learning, online teaching, virtual classrooms—the whole bewildering turmoil. I soldier on, necessarily but not happily, all the while with an irritating chorus of cheerleaders in the background pushing me forward: “online learning is an excellent way to increase student engagement and differentiate instruction;” “digital tools save time and do the heavy lifting by providing ready-to-use lesson plans, instructional materials, and assessments;” “distance learning can continue delivering instruction without disruption even in events like snow days or the COVID-19 pandemic.” Every line offends what I know to be true about teaching, and my sense of what it can achieve, but, wow! snow days or COVID-19—that pretty much covers the waterfront; wait! better add floods and fires and extreme weather.

I was particularly annoyed when I saw my neighbor Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, on TV finding, as always, a silver lining in the catastrophe (after Katrina, you may remember, he famously declared that New Orleans was now liberated to create a whole new school system from  scratch!), this time ushering in the pandemic as dress rehearsal for the “classrooms of the future.”

Come on, Arne— Zoom is not the future of classroom life or teaching. In fact, that response betrays a staggering ignorance about the nature of each. When I saw Arne jogging while on my walk the other day, I suppressed the desire to strangle him, and, fortunately, remembered that  I couldn’t get closer than six-feet.

A colleague with experience in distance learning told me that on-line classes are to actual classrooms what frozen pizza is to home-made pizza: similar ingredients but a vastly different experience. Staying with the metaphor, pizza delivered is straight-forward and concrete, as well as often delicious; real classrooms can be delicious as well, but not because the teacher/pizza person “delivered instruction.” Teachers might write books and record lectures—I’ve done both—and those can be more-or-less delivered into the waiting hands (pizza-style) and upturned heads of hungry consumers. 

Classroom teaching at its best is quite different—it’s a relationship (again, like a family), a transformative journey for everyone involved. That’s why good teachers come to class ready to teach, but also primed to see, to hear, and to know their students as three-dimensional creatures, much like themselves, each the one-of-one, each a member of the group—an intimate encounter that cannot adequately take place at a distance. The teacher comes as a student-of-the-students, prepared to change lives, and simultaneously prepared to be changed by the propulsive, life-altering energy that’s released whenever a human being’s mind expands or rearranges itself. 

C&R: This moment is clearly one in which the inequities and, frankly, the brutalities, of the system we live in (in the U.S. but in much of the world too) have come into sharp relief. In an ideal world this feels like such a good moment to re-think and revolutionize the way we do everything, from healthcare to the environment, to war, peace and education. Starting with the education system, how  could we be using this moment to re-think and re-start our approach to teaching and learning and schooling for the long haul. 

BA: When we feel ourselves shackled, bound, and gagged or when we are badly beaten down, struggling just to survive, or when we’re frightened and unsure, living with dust in our mouths, the horizons of our hope can become lowered, sometimes fatally, and asking foundational questions can seem idle and silly. When no alternatives are apparent or available, action seems pointless. We all live in our time and place, immersed in what is; imagining a scene different from what’s immediately before us requires a combination of somethings: seeds, surely, desire, yes, necessity and desperation at times, and at other times a willingness to dance out on a limb without a safety net—no guarantees.

So let’s dust off our imaginations and dance out on that limb: What kind of world do we want to inhabit? We’ll get through this year in school without the SATs, so why not abolish those tests? And let’s abolish numerical grades. And detention halls and expulsions and suspensions and police in the schools. What else?

Let’s double the number of classrooms in the country within five years. Class size should be capped at 15 students—what privileged private school kids already have—and teacher pay should be pegged to the pay of members of Congress. With smaller classes and adequate pay, teachers will do a better job; students will get more attention; and everyone will move forward in a positive way with more space. 

The coronavirus is a most illuminating bug, and here are some of the shabby policies that had become part of our taken-for-granted world, and, therefore, we didn’t even notice until now:

~~Chicago Public Schools announced in February that they would provide soap in every school bathroom! There was no soap?

~~The New York MTA said that subway cars will be thoroughly cleaned every 3 days!

~~Detroit officials decided to restore water to homes of poor people whose water had been cut off because of unpaid bills!

~~Amazon told sick workers that they will not be docked for staying home and missing a shift!

~~Uber and Lyft will pay sick-leave for workers out with coronavirus!

~~The US Treasury Department said it will lift some sanctions on humanitarian supplies sent to Iran, the country with the third largest outbreak of coronavirus!

~~Big insurance companies announced (with fanfare) that they will waive co-pays for people with coronavirus!

~~The national shame and horror of mass incarceration meets the pandemic, and every minor crime/punishment becomes a potential death sentence!

~~The federal government is considering proposals that amount to Medicare for All With Coronavirus! Socialist medicine, but for only that one illness.

If you’re not pissed off about all of this, you’re not paying attention.

This is a time to get clear, really clear, and rise up.

Jack Halberstam’s brilliant book, The Queer Art of Failure, offers an essential insight for these terrible times: when things are “normal”—predictable, common-place, habitual—he argues, whether in one’s personal relationships, one’s work life, or one’s politics, life putt-putts along at an expected pace with little fanfare, and without much need for thought or reflection. The dogma of common sense is firmly set to “normal.” But if an unanticipated fracture occurs—one’s partner has an affair, one gets laid off or furloughed, Donald Trump becomes president—the rupture is palpable, and it’s suddenly time to question everything, challenge the taken-for-granted, rethink basic assumptions, reimagine and rebuild.

This is just such a time.

Of course I know as much about the novel coronavirus as any other dazed participant-observer—more than Donald Trump and Mike Pence combined, but that’s next to nothing.

I do know that the airlines are on life support, that SXSW was cancelled, that the NBA suspended the basketball season, that unemployment levels are staggering, that hunger worldwide is spiking, and that I can’t meet my classes in person. I know the illness is spreading exponentially, that official inaction wasted precious time at the start, and that a patch-work health care system (“the best in the world!” according to official messaging) and a hollowed out public medical administration has left the US flat-footed.

The ruling class—the powerful, the wealthy, the 1% and their enablers in the political class—has an agenda that’s aggressively promoted in good times and in bad, an agenda pulled quickly from the bottom drawer in any crisis and rushed relentlessly toward center stage. So here we are: the privatization of public goods and services, massive transfers of wealth from the public to the private, the destruction of participatory democracy and the erasure of the public, the suppression of voting, the reduction of education and health care and public safety to products, the intensification of white-supremacy, and more.

The perennial contradiction between “we” and “me”—a basic human tension with vast social, cultural, and political differences and dimensions—lurched violently toward an exclusive “ME” in our country in 1980 with the “Reagan Revolution” and its racist dog-whistles, its opposition to any concept of collectivity or the “public,” its weaponized individualism, and its anemic, libertarian definition of “freedom.” “Public safety” became “own a gun;” “public education” became a product to be bought at the market place; “public health” was reduced to “take care of yourself.” The word itself—“public”—in some contexts was racially coded: public welfare, public housing, public aid, public transportation. Saint Ronald Reagan, godhead of the Right and the icon to whom every Republican leader bends a knee and genuflects piously to this day, famously said this at his inauguration: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” That’s the dogma we’re now suffering together now, and that’s the orthodoxy under examination in seminar.

When at last we emerge from this particular catastrophe, what are we willing to fight for? What do we want?

As the ruling class weighs in on coronavirus it comes fully stoked with a predatory agenda—to take one example out of zillions: they are proposing a “payroll tax reduction,” which sounds nice, except that the plan amounts to stealing from and starving Social Security. In 5 years these same criminal bastards will say, “Social Security is broke! We must privatize the system (and let’s stay on message and call it reform!).”

To take another, the question of cost is constantly raised as people come to terms with the vast scope of the problem. Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, had a great response when she was challenged to explain how the US could afford to make a coronavirus vaccine free for everyone once it’s developed: “How insane and cruel is it to suggest that we have to figure out how to pay for it when we can actually go to war and not ask one question, but to prevent this kind of a disease, we have to say, ‘How can we pay for it?’”

We have (in the US) a mixed bag of private, for-profit health care provisions for individuals who can afford it, and rather shaky, wholly inadequate health coverage for people fortunate enough to have full-time jobs. Calling it a “system” is a stretch—a “system” implies at least a minimal structure if not some intelligible coherence. We have as well some limited and insufficient socialized medicine for veterans (the VA system), for the elderly (Medicare), and for the poor (Medicaid)—all under steady attack and relentless chipping away by Right-wing ideologues. Nowhere is there a sense of the common good—just individual needs and personal solutions.

But health equals wholeness. Without collective health, we have humanity shattered. Let’s use this time to mobilize and develop our own agenda. After all coronavirus is potentially instructive and educational, revealing more than concealing, but let’s draw the lessons explicitly. In a country characterized by mass incarceration, vast inequality, militarism, white supremacy, a crisis of homelessness and hunger, a political class refusing to face the imminent environmental collapse, and millions without health insurance, we need to get busy—and fast.

Let’s stop searching mindlessly for the much-discussed sweet spot that lies somewhere between fundamental structural change and the world as it is—a “revolution” versus the status quo ante, that long-ago time before Trump. Let’s see, is it here? No… Here? No… Maybe over there? Not over there either. Oh, wait, there it is: that mythological middle ground turns out to be the status quo itself!

Hyper-individualism and weaponized self-reliance is killing the planet, and it’s killing us. Yes, we are each sacred, each the one of one, but we are also each a tiny member of the larger group, a bit of the community, a part of the collective. We must rethink, and rebalance, the “me” and the “we” dialectic. When, 65 years ago, Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, was asked who owned the patent for his discovery, Salk said, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Health care, education, housing, food security are human rights—they are all about the “we.”

C&R: What about war? For a country essentially on permanent war footing, and as an imperial power with 800 bases worldwide, there must be direct and indirect lines between the business of war and the business of learning. But we rarely hear about it. Can you talk about those connections?

BA: Actually, the US has been at war for 234 of its 244 year existence. We are steeped in a culture of war, difficult to see, hard to resist.

Like every culture or subculture, the war culture hangs together with a complex set of shared meanings, webs of significance and common assumptions woven in such a way that members of the culture can communicate with and recognize one another. The war culture promotes a pervasive and growing common sense of American violence unleashed. 

The US spends more than a trillion dollars a year on war and preparation for war, more than the rest of the world combined. The war culture accepts that as a desire for peace. The US has military bases stretching across the globe, including a base in the Italian Alps, and yet there are no Italian air bases in the Catskills, for example. The war culture sees that as sensible and necessary. The war culture is everywhere, simply taken for granted, always lurking in the shadows and occasionally bursting forth and on full display. 

I remember a trailer for a film I saw in a theater several years ago—it looked dreadful, so I never saw the film, but it could well have been Mars Attack or The Day the Earth Stood Still—in which the repeating trope was an alien confronting a group of startled earthlings, saying in an eerily mechanical voice, “We come in peace”—just before blasting them into small pieces. It takes a minute for reality to catch up to these hapless earthlings, but eventually they get it. Like the challenge of the wandering spouse caught in the arms of a lover, the aliens hold to the classic defense, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?”

“We come in peace,” but wherever the United States puts down the boot, it brings more war, wider war, and a deeper commitment to war as the way. Marine Corps Major General Butler, two-time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, said in 1935 that, “War is a racket.” That was the title of a popular pamphlet he wrote, and a theme he elaborated in speeches through- out the country over many years: “It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. . . . It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” Butler consistently urged citizens to demand the impossible and support three radical proposals: strictly limit all military forces to a defensive posture; hold a referendum of those who would be on the front lines before any military action is undertaken; and take the profit out of war by, among other measures, conscripting the captains of industry and finance as the foot soldiers in any impending fight.

A pervasive and frantically promoted proposition that runs loose in the land is that being a military powerhouse makes the United States (and people everywhere) safe, protects freedoms, and is a force for peace and democracy in a threatening, dangerous, and hostile world. It’s not true—not even close—but it has a huge and sticky hold on our imaginations. 

When random US politicians tell antiwar protestors picketing a town hall meeting, “It’s because of the sacrifices our troops are making in [fill in the blank: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, the “Middle East,” Korea, Panama, or wherever turns out to be next] that you have the freedom to stand here and speak out,” they’re tapping into that stuttering cliché. When a retired general speaks confidently at a televised congressional hearing, explaining to the credulous audience that the “enemy can be defeated” if only the Pentagon would be granted more funds to purchase more weapons, and then given greater leeway in their deployment and use, he’s issuing the same unexamined and banal truism. When the talking heads tell us it’s unfortunate that US economic strength rides on oil, a resource that “happens to come from a nasty neighborhood,” but it’s “a blessing” we have the power to police that part of the world, they’re doing the same thing. And when folks across the political spectrum express public gratitude and support for “our fighting men and women overseas,” while refusing to send their own children into those same wars or harboring serious private doubts about the wisdom, purpose, and execution of whatever US adventure is currently in play, they too are situated in that wide open field of received wisdom and diminishing options. 

What if we challenged these instances of hypocrisy and defensive dogma, and insisted that there are more honest and straightforward ways to support US military men and women? What if we demanded their immediate decommission and return home, and insisted that they be provided excellent medical and psychological care, good jobs, affordable housing, and the best available educational opportunities—the things every human being deserves? What if we spoke up in the face of that idiot politician and asked him to draw a straight line between free speech and the specific invasion he’s now supporting and explicitly (or at least implicitly) defending? What if we locked arms as we built a growing wave of peace advocates, anticipating and opposing the next aggression, and the next? What if the Department of Defense became the Department of Peace, and peace education became a core component of school learning?

The history of US military actions is a history of conquest and genocide from the start and chaos and catastrophe ever since: invading and occupying Vietnam and then intentionally expanding that war into neighboring Laos and Cambodia as retribution for the US de- feat, a disaster that cost the lives of six thousand people every week for ten years; unleashing a massive shock-and-awe attack on Iraq in 2003 that led to the breakup of that nation and the rise of several reactionary fundamentalist and terrorist formations including ISIS; orchestrating a fifty-year campaign to destabilize and topple the Cuban government; propping up nasty regimes from medieval Saudi Arabia to apartheid South Africa; overthrowing elected presidents in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973; instigating constant civil unrest in Venezuela for fourteen years including a successful if short-lived coup in 2002; supporting the communist purge and the genocide that followed in Indonesia in the mid-1960s; participating in the murders of the African freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba in Congo in 1961, the Moroccan anti-imperialist Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965, the internationalist Che Guevara in Bolivia 1967, and the anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau in 1973; exporting billions of dollars in arms to Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and reactionary regimes and right-wing subversives the world around. As busy and ambitious as this looks, it’s only the tip of a menacing mega-iceberg, an emblematic list as opposed to an exhaustive survey. 

Justice and democracy do not belong to war; on the contrary, each is easily injured and quickly exterminated in its furnaces. John Dewey, the great philosopher of education, observed that in war all governments turn authoritarian and totalitarian. We can see the wreckage all around us: omnivorous national security and surveillance; the abrogation of privacy and civil liberties; the wide use of mass incarceration; the banality of torture, domestically and internationally; and the undermining of tolerance everywhere. Historically, law and rights yield in the face of war: Abraham Lincoln’s famous suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War; the Palmer Raids following World War I; the mass arrests and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II; illegal imprisonment as policy today. These moves are all defended by the war-makers as necessary during wartime. 

The US entered new territory after 9/11, for we are in our twentieth year of a government-proclaimed state of permanent war, an absolute war against “terrorism” or “evil.” While there are indeed dreadful and desperate tactics being deployed everywhere—suicide bombings, hijackings, beheadings, random killings—the enemy remains vague and the target elusive: terrorists and “evildoers,” insurgents and radicals, the “worst of the worst” or the “bad actors.” Practically every politician in Washington notes casually that we are at war; it’s completely normalized. George W. Bush proudly called himself a “war president;” Barack Obama, too, chose to claim the mantle of the warrior; now Trump calls himself a “war president” fighting an “invisible enemy.” Whoever sits on the throne of American Empire wears the garments of the warmonger—unless and until we bring the power of a popular movement to bear down and end imperialism altogether. 

Imagine if every “known terrorist” were dead or in prison— now try to imagine the state announcing an end to airport searches and phone taps. It’s inconceivable. 

Ask one of our careless politicians how we will know if any given war is won, or what the benchmarks of success or failure might be, and they become speechless. For these are perpetual wars, wars without borders, without obvious or easily defined enemies, and without concrete objectives; we can only know they are over when our Dear Leaders tell us they’re over. Until then—and don’t hold your breath—your rights to free speech and association are suspended because the rulers want to keep you safe, and these measures, they assure us, are an unfortunate necessity of war. 

To hope for a world at peace and in balance, powered by love, joy, and justice, to insist that the citizens and residents of the US become a people among people (not a superior nor a chosen people) and that the country becomes a nation among nations (not some kind of crypto-fascist übernation) is to resist the logic and the reality of war, and to see, as well, the war culture itself as a site of resistance and transformation. It’s to break with the frame that acts as if war is natural and inevitable. It’s to do the hard work of making a vibrant and robust peace movement— connecting with the environmental activists, the immigrant rights forces, the Black Lives Matter upsurge, feminists, and the queer movement—organizing to close all US military bases abroad and to bring all troops home now, leaving no US military or paid mercenaries behind; compelling our government to sign all pending international treaties on nuclear disarmament; mobilizing to cut military spending by 10 percent a year for the next ten years, dedicating the savings to education and health; rallying to suspend and then abrogate all contracts between the US government and Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

C&R: What role do the arts play in U.S. schools today? And what role could/should they ideally play in a young person’s education?

BA: The great Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the early 1950’s and later Poet Laureate of Illinois, asked in her “Dedication to Picasso, an homage to the great man and the huge sculpture that he gave the city, “Does man love art?” Her answer: “Man visits art but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.”

The voyages art demands lie at the very heart of our humanness: journeys in search of new solutions to old problems, explorations of spirit spaces and emotional landscapes, trips into the hidden meanings and elaborate schemes we construct to make our lives understandable and endurable, flights hooked on metaphor and analogy, wobbly rambles away from the cold reality of the world we inhabit—the world as such—into worlds that could be or should be standing just beyond the next horizon. These are the voyages that foreground the capacities and features that mark us as creatures of the imaginary, uniquely human beings. Invention, aspiration, self-consciousness, projection, desire, ingenuity, moral reflection and ethical action, courage and compassion and commitment—all of these and more are harvests of our imaginations. And our imaginations are encouraged, nourished, and fired with art. 

Every human being is endowed with the powerful and unique capacity to imagine—each an artist of their own life—and art unleashes our deep humanity. A robust engagement with the various arts is central and not peripheral to an education for a free people. Albert Einstein famously noted that, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Liberation and enlightenment are each a product of the arts.

But it’s also true that art hurts. The capacity to see the world as if it could be otherwise creates yearning and liberates desire—we are freed (or condemned) to run riot. Art—necessarily subversive, unruly, and disruptive—challenges the status quo simply by opening us up to consider the alternatives; suddenly the taken-for-granted and the given world become choices and no longer warrants or life (death?) sentences.

“Art is not chaste,” Picasso said. “Those ill-prepared should be allowed no contact with art. Art is dangerous. If it is chaste it is not art.” He was distinguishing pretty decorations and castles-in-the-clouds from the grit and grind, rough and tumble of art. He simultaneously reminds us that the aesthetic in education is the opposite of the anesthetic: anesthesia is a drug that puts us to sleep, while aesthetics is a treatment with the potential to awaken us again and again. 

The arts are too often small and marginalized in schools, and this is a gathering catastrophe, not only for students and teachers, but for our common future as well. 

The arts ought to be at the center and in every corner of an education for participation and democracy. We are, in spite of the existential feel of things and our own natural narcissism, finite beings plunging through an infinite space and gazing toward an expanding heaven. We are in the middle of things, and at the end of nothing—the unseen, the hidden, the mysterious, the invisible, the indefinite, the unfamiliar and the unknown, the unheard of and the forgotten are vast, while our various maps of the known world are limited, paltry, and, if history can act as a guide here, mostly castles-in-the-sky. Learning to question, to interrogate, to experiment, to wonder and to wander, to construct and create—this is the sturdiest foundation upon which to build an education of purpose for a free people.

Life begins in wonder, and so does art; and education too.

Watch a newborn—five minutes old and at her mother’s breast for the first time and already there are questions and explorations, a dialogue of discovery and surprise only just underway. Look at a toddler negotiating her apartment or a nearby park or the beach—all five senses are fully engaged, every discovery considered and touched and smelled and—oops!—into the mouth for a taste! And soon they are sorting and building, drawing on paper or walls if the materials are at hand, imagining stories and inventing words, and putting their hand prints on everything. Every kid comes to school a question mark and an exclamation point—her work after all is the construction not only of a life, but of an entire world.

Every school, every classroom, and every teacher must choose whether to support and aid in the construction of a life, whether to help unbolt the vitality of the world or to hide and represses it. Every teacher must decide whether to keep the questions and the passion alive—creating environments for exploration, for doing and making, for experimenting and hypothesizing and failing and succeeding—or to hammer the children into shape so that they leave her classroom, no longer as vital question marks or exclamation points, but as dull periods.

One of Paul Gauguin’s most bizarre and oddly engaging works is a vast canvas filled with quasi-religious symbolism and wild wanderings, its title scrawled across it in a fevered hand: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? 

Art asks those kinds of questions. Education does too.

Kids are born and then come to school with questions: Who am I in the world? How did I get here? What are my chances and my choices?  

The arts allow youth to assemble tentative answers to these and other questions, and over time to develop more sophisticated and dynamic ones. The arts offer an invitation to become the agent of your own story, the author of your own life, or the actor in your own film as opposed to some anonymous walk-on in someone else’s worn out and clichéd script.

Author, actor, agent, composer—these roles allow youth to wield essential tools against propaganda, political agendas, dogma, and all manner of impositions and stereotypes. Art seeks honesty and authenticity, and that means it dives into contradiction, disagreements, silences, negation, denials, inconsistencies, confusion, challenges, turmoil, puzzlement, commotion, ambiguities, paradoxes, disputes, uncertainty, and every kind of muddle. That makes art an ally of critical and engaged and vibrant minds. Art enhances a sense of being fully human, a work-in-progress born into a going world.

Emily Dickinson asserted that “Art lights the slow fuse of possibility.” Yes! Art lights a fuse.

How did we get here, and where do we want to go?

What is our map of the known world, and how might things be otherwise?

What is our responsibility as world citizens to one another and to future generations? 

What kind of society do we want to inhabit? 

Who do we want to be as people?

What can we become? 

What positive and humanizing aspects of work and labor do we embrace?

What gives meaning to our lives?

What time is it on the clock of the world?

Diving into the wreckage and swimming as hard as we’re able toward a distant and indistinct shore, overcoming difficulties and re-imagining life’s possibilities along the way—this is the spirit youth, students, and teachers might bring to these questions.

Reflection, fantasy, theory, nightmares and dreams—all of this has animated human beings throughout the ages, demobilizing and challenging the given world, inviting us to leap into the unknown, to jump off the edge, to change our lives, to escape at times, and to move forward positively at other times. Imagination invites us to reanimate our minds once again, and to get busy in a project of creative repair.

Imagination, then, is more a “stance” than a “thing,” and engaging the imagination involves the dynamic work of mapping the world as such, and leaning toward a world that might be but is not yet. Most of us most of the time accept our lot-in-life as inevitable—for decades, generations, even centuries; when a revolution is in reach, when a lovelier life heaves into view, or when a possible world becomes somehow visible, the status quo becomes, suddenly, unendurable. We then reject the fixed and the stable, and begin to look at the world as if it could be otherwise.

There lies the critical work of reweaving our shared world.

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