Futurism, Futurity, and the Importance of the Existential Imagination

In arts and social change work, we talk about the importance of being able to imagine a future that is better — more just — than the world we live in today. But often the struggle is a more existential one: imagining a future where one’s community or culture exists at all.

Last year I had the great pleasure of hearing a talk by artist and interactive designer Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde (Ayo). “Blackness,” he told the gathered crowd at the URBAN conference in New York City, “is being removed from the future.” This removal, he explained, is partly physical: black bodies are being violently removed from the future through police killings, mass incarceration, and other systems of racial oppression.

This removal is also representational. Black people are either misrepresented or completely unrepresented in popular visions of the future. Mainstream science fiction, on the page and on the screen, is dominated by white authors and their white characters. This lack of representation of People of Color is not only a question of equity. What happens when people spend their lives being fed visions of the future that don’t include them? What does that do to their self-perceptions? To their their ability to plan for the future? What does it do to our collective capacity to imagine — and enact — something different?

In response, Ayo has transformed himself into an Afronaut. He walks the streets of New York as Dr. Tanimowo, a time traveler from a future where African diasporic peoples and cultures are well represented. His outfit — part space suit, part Yoruba masquerade — blends space-age materials with West African-patterned fabrics. As he journeys through our present time, Dr. Tanimowo interacts with passers-by. For a moment, they are presented with an alternative and potentially liberating vision of the future. As Ayo explains, these travels are “a ritualistic rite, or a ritual that’s actually creating the future itself.”1

The Afronaut on expedition

The Afronaut on expedition. Image copyright Ayodamola Okunseinde


Ayo is also encouraging others to imagine Black futures. With fellow artist Salome Osega, Ayo runs workshops where community members can become futuristic archeologists. Participants “uncover” artifacts from the future through design, and many of those designs are then built, here in the present. Ayo and Osega co-founded the Iyapo Repository to hold and display these artifacts: pills that teach African American history, a wetsuit that helps alleviate the cultural trauma of the Atlantic Slave Trade, a necklace that senses “bad vibes” by warning the user when they are in a location where there has been a police shooting.

Ayo’s interactive design work is rooted in, among other things, Afrofuturism. Coined in the early 90’s, the term Afrofuturism was an attempt to delineate a particular tradition of African American futuristic and technological imagination — a tradition embodied in the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, the music of Sun Ra and P-Funk, and the visual art of Basquiat and Rammellzee, among others.2 The concept was further developed by a group of writers and critics on Alondra Nelson’s Afrofuturism listserv, and came to encompass a much larger arena of cultural production. In the words of Nelson, Afrofuturism is

“a critical perspective that opens up inquiry into the many overlaps between technoculture and black diasporic histories. AfroFuturism looks across popular culture…to find models of expression that transform spaces of alienation into novel forms of creative potential. In the process it reclaims theorizing about the future.” 3

Afrofuturist aesthetics seem to have made a resurgence in recent years through the work of popular artists like Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe. Meanwhile, Afrofuturism has helped to inspire other art and scholarship, like the Indigenous Futurism of Wendy Redstar and the Chican@futurism of Marion C. Martinez. These and other artists are directly challenging popular discourses that associate progress, technology, innovation, and the future itself with whiteness.

Unlike other “futurist” movements, Afrofuturism and its cousins are neither a break with the past nor a fetishization of the new. They are deeply rooted in history. They offer what Nelson calls “past-future visions.” Like Ayo’s high tech space suit, with its traditional West African elements, these visions “insist that who we’ve been and where we’ve traveled is always an integral component of who we can become.”4 They forefront continuity rather than rupture, overlaying past, present, and future. As the Afrofuturist Affair writes, this kind of time-bending is not new to Communities of Color.

“Whether you call it mythology, ghost stories, cosmology, parable, folktale, sci-fi, religious tale, or fantasy, people of color have always contemplated their origins in the same breath that they anticipated the fate of humankind.”5

Organizers and activists also seem to be taking an increased interest in the future. In 2015, the Movement for Black Lives and Huffington Post launched an annual celebration of Black Futures Month, a remixing of Black History Month that calls on people to “seize the opportunity to change the course of history by shaping our future.” That same year, AK press put out Octavia’s Brood, an engrossing collection of SF short stories written by activists and organizers. Of course, social justice organizing is often driven by a vision of a future better than the one we live in. But something deeper is going on here: a recognition that the future, despite its intangibility, is directly impacting us today.

Take US politics. The election campaign that lifted 45 to the presidency was premised largely on fear of the future. In his speeches and tweets, 45 conjured an imagined future in which the US is overrun by “terrorists,” “rapists,” and “criminals” from across our borders. In this racist, dystopian future, white people sacrifice power and safety amid hostile aliens. This future is not real in any concrete sense. And yet, it affects the present in multiple ways — increasing support for racist policies, emboldening white supremacist organizations, and igniting hate crimes, just to name a few. In this sense, the future is what Andrew Baldwin calls a “permanent virtuality,” unreal and yet ever-present.6

Scholars have taken to using the term futurity to explore these interactions between past, present, and future. From my reading, futurity refers to three main dynamics:

  • The ways that the future is defined (or “rendered knowable”) through practices such as prediction, projection, imagination, prefiguration, and prophecy;7
  • The ways that the future impacts the present, for example through fear, hope, preparation, and preemption;8and
  • The ways that our thoughts and actions in reference to the future make some futures more likely, and others less likely, to come about.9

In his book Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz proposes that queerness is a kind of futurity. “Queerness,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “is not yet here…Put another way, we are not yet queer.”10 Instead, he explains, queerness is an ideal. It is a utopian vision that can help us to see beyond our everyday restrictions toward new possibilities. We cannot touch queerness with our hands, or claim to fully know what it is. We can, however, get glimpses of it, particularly in the realm of cultural production. Through poems, plays, visual art, dance, and other types of performance, artists can step away from what Munoz calls “straight time” — that sense that the present is natural and enduring — to suggest alternative futurities.

The concept of futurity seems to have been most fully developed by Indigenous scholars and activists. As Native scholars have shown, settler colonialism (the kind of colonialism we have in the US, where the colonizer comes to stay) involves an ongoing project of erasure and replacement.11 After all, settler claims to the land in the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere only make sense if the original inhabitants are gone. And, despite centuries of genocide, they are not.

Part of the modern settler project, then, is to erase Indigenous peoples — if not physically (through policies that deny land, health care, etc.) or culturally (through blood quantum tests or the forced removal of children), then at least from popular consciousness. Movies, television shows, school curricula, political speeches, news reports, and other media relegate “the Indian” to our past — a sad chapter in history, perhaps, but nothing to concern ourselves with as we dream of the future. By erasing Indigenous people from the present and the future, these discourses advance the cause of what scholars like Eve Tuck call settler futurity. In other words, these discourses are premised on, and help to bring about, a future of endless settler dominance over the land and all that is on/of it.12

Indigenous communities, though, are (re)claiming the future — opening up space for indigenous futurities to flourish.13 To advance indigenous futurity is to assert, and takes steps to make possible, futures outside of settler colonialism. We can get glimpses of indigenous futurities in the social movement organizing of Idle No More, among the water protectors at Standing Rock, in the Indigenous media production of Indian and Cowboy, and in everyday assertions of Native culture and sovereignty. Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua writes that, although they are often framed as relics of the past, Indigenous communities are actually at the front lines of the struggle to protect the future. Writing about Native Hawaiian efforts to defend cultural and natural resources, she notes that “When colonial discourses frame blockades at Newcastle or on Mauna a Wākea as obstructions on a march to “the future,” they miss the ways this kind of activism is actually protecting the possibilities of multiple futures.”14

This work is rooted deeply in Indigenous cultural practices and epistemologies, which, according to Hawaiian activist and blogger Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, have always attended to both the past and the future.

“The future is a realm we have inhabited for thousands of years. You cannot do otherwise when you rely on the land and sea to survive. All of our gathering practices and agricultural techniques, the patterned mat of loʻi kalo, the breath passing in and out of the loko iʻa, the Kū and Hina of picking plants are predicated on looking ahead. This ensures that the land is productive into the future, that the sea will still be abundant into the future, and that our people will still thrive into the future.”15

A Final Note

When I was coming up in the world of social justice arts and organizing, much of the focus was on history. We studied how injustices like racism and colonialism were historically constructed. We learned how histories of activism and rebellion had been hidden, rewritten, and co-opted to reinforce the right of those in power to rule. We supported youth as they came to see themselves as part of long social movement traditions. This focus on the past was, and is, terribly important.

At the same time, I am energized by what I see as a growing emphasis on the future as an arena of active struggle. Because that’s certainly how those in power see it. Wall street traders are gambling on our futures. Tech companies are redesigning our futures. Hollywood is whitewashing our futures. And all the while, unfettered capitalism is foreclosing so many healthy futures for this planet. Imagining alternative futures is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

The struggle for futurity is on, and as artists and cultural workers we are right in the middle of it, whether we know it or not. It’s time to accept the invitation of Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada: “We live in the future,” he writes. “Come join us.”16




1. The Mothers Nature, Ayo the Afronaut meets World 

2. Mark Dery, Black to the Future, in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture

3. Alondra Nelson, AfroFuturism: Past-Future Visions, ColorLines Magazine

4. ibid

5. Afrofuturist Affair, About – Afrofuturist Affair,

6. Andrew Baldwin, Whiteness and futurity: Towards a research agenda, Progress in Human Geography

7. ibid

8. ibid

9. Eve Tuck, Marcia McKenzie & Kate McCoy, Land education: Indigenous, post-colonial, and decolonizing perspectives on place and environmental education research, Environmental Education Research.

10. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity

11. Eve Tuck & Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing; Patrick Wolfe, Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native, Journal of Genocide Research; Adam Barker, Already Occupied: Indigenous Peoples, Settler Colonialism and the Occupy Movements in North America, Social Movement Studies

12. Eve Tuck & Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing; Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang, Decolonization is Not a MetaphorDecolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society.

13. ibid

14. Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, Protectors of the Future, Not Protestors of the Past: Indigenous Pacific Activism and Mauna a Wākea,  South Atlantic Quarterly

15. Kamaoli Kuwada, We Live in the Future. Come Join Us

16. ibid

Book Review: The Culture of Possibility & The Wave

The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & the Future
by Arlene Goldbard
Waterlight Press, 2013, $18.99

The Wave
by Arlene Goldbard
Waterlight Press, 2013, $14.99

“Culture is the matrix of any humane society, the power-source of the imagination, empathy, creativity, and resilience needed to activate our innate capacity for moral grandeur and social healing”
The Culture of Possibility, page 11

I’ll bet good money that The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & the Future, and it’s companion volume The Wave, are the two most hopeful books you will read this year. In the midst of global crises on multiple fronts, self-described optimist Arlene Goldbard is here to say that a brighter, more just future is possible. More than that — the seeds of that future are all around us, if we can just learn how to see them.

Goldbard is one of the country’s leading advocates for community arts and cultural development. Her 2006 book, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, is the go-to survey of community arts in the US, establishing the field’s roots, core practices, and ethos. But with her newest books, Goldbard’s goal is a bit different. If New Creative Community was her scholarly treatise, her “Das Kapital,” The Culture of Possibility and The Wave are her “Communist Manifesto.” Based in ideas developed over years of writing and speaking around the world, Goldbard has written an impassioned call to action, aimed not just at progressives or artists but at all of us who are frustrated with the world as it is but are unsure how to create something different.

Author and Cultural Advocate Arlene Goldbard

Author and Cultural Advocate Arlene Goldbard

Across the two books, Goldbard’s overarching argument is that addressing the challenges we face today as a society — racism, climate change, income inequality, etc. — requires a paradigm shift, a new perspective “that can bring the full force of human creativity to bear on these challenges.” Currently, she explains, the dominant worldview in the US privileges that which can be counted and measured. Discussions about education are boiled down to test scores; environmental stewardship is discussed as a matter of setting the right emissions caps; and equality is held hostage to corporate bottom lines. While useful in some situations, this worldview greatly constrains our options when it comes to addressing social ills.

What we need instead, Goldbard says, is a worldview that prioritizes culture. By culture, Goldbard is speaking broadly of all the diverse creations of humanity, the “fabric of signs and symbols, language and image, customs and ceremonies, habitations, institutions and much more that characterize  and enable a specific human community to form and sustain itself.” A worldview that prioritizes culture appreciates the importance of that which cannot be quantified: stories, feelings, identities, meanings. For Goldbard, the arts are of central importance, not only as an aspect of culture but as a path toward this new paradigm. She calls on us to “learn to see like the most committed and skilled artists: eyes wide open, taking it all in, turning away from nothing, cultivating empathy and imagination, venturing forth, taking risks, admitting mistakes, persevering.”

Central to Goldbard’s argument is that this “new” paradigm already exists — in fact, it has existed for a long time (in some senses, for millenia) — but has been pushed into the background. If we look closely, evidence of it is all around us, “hidden in plain sight.” Her favorite parable to explain this has to do with all the people you see walking down the street with earbuds in, listening to music on their phones. It is easy to look at this scene as an example of modern alienation, of our increasing inability or unwillingness to engage in community. But, says Goldbard, what if we look at it instead as an example of how important the arts are to us all. We listen to music as a form of self-medication, a recognition that amid so many dehumanizing experiences at work or at school, the arts are a place to heal and recoup. As with this story, Goldbard’s goal is to help us recognize how central culture already is to our lives, and to extend that understanding into the ways that we engage in society.


Goldbard is currently heading up the US Department of Arts and Culture’s National Cabinet

In The Culture of Possibility and The Wave, Goldbard makes this argument three times in three different ways, hoping that at least one will resonate with each reader. However, the three version are different enough that it’s worth reading all of them. She begins, in the first half of The Culture of Possibility, with Hidden in Plain Sight, a collection of 28 reasons why the US should “pursue the public interest in art.” The 28 sections vary widely, and don’t need to be read in any particular order. They draw equally on empirical research, individual stories, and spiritual teachings, among other sources. Arguments range from the evolutionary (“Art-making is a survival trait”), to the pragmatic (“Art cultivates capacities essential to excellence in many professions”), to the psychological (“How we shape our stories shapes our lives”), to the biological (“Art can heal brain function”), to the sociological (“Art is powerful in the service of social change”). Along the way, she throws out a bunch of great ideas for culturally-oriented policy. One of my favorite is the “cultural impact study,” which, modeled after the environmental impact study, investigates the impact of any new development project on a community’s cultural life. (Note: If you happen to be involved in arts advocacy, forget connecting arts and test scores — here’s the list of arguments you should have in your back pocket!)

The second half of The Culture of Possibility, titled The World is Upside Down, is a more straight-forward essay. In it, Goldbard posits three questions that we, as a society, need to answer for ourselves: Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered? She suggests that, right now, we are choosing between two sets of answers:

“Either we are consumers who stand for the multiplication of market choices and will be remembered for exhausting civilization and the planet that houses it in an orgy of acquisition and exploitation. Or we are multidimensional human beings aware of our own capacity for help and harm and who stand for pluralism, participation and equity, for justice tempered by love; and we want to be remembered for our vast creativity in service of The Golden Rule.”

In The World is Upside Down, Goldbard argues that there has not really been a national conversation about the place of culture and the arts in our society. Instead, the national discourse has primarily focused on highly-politicized fights over federal funding. Conservatives, she says, have been adept at using cuts in federal arts funding as a way to score political points, despite the minuscule percentage of the federal budget this represents. She is equally critical, however, of her fellow arts advocates. Over the last couple of decades, she says, arts advocates have adopted the assumptions and language of “Corporation Nation” in a failed attempt to protect arts funding, and have sometimes relied on elitist and racist conceptualizations of “The Arts” to make their argument (See Americans for the Arts’ Raisin Brahms). In fact, Goldbard is not very optimistic about large-scale policy interventions. Instead, she is putting her energy into fostering a groundswell of grassroots interest in culture. That is the goal of these books, written for a broad audience in relatively accessible language. It is also her goal as a leader with the US Department of Arts and Culture, a grassroots organization that bypassed the government to create its own “people-powered department.”

The Wave, represents Goldbard’s third attempt at making her argument. If the “new paradigm” is about forefronting stories, then The Wave is where Goldbard puts her money where her mouth is. The Wave is written as a work of speculative fiction. The book takes place in the years 2023 and 2033, when the paradigm shift Goldbard is arguing for has already taken place. While it’s not likely to win a Hugo, The Wave is effective in imbuing Goldbard’s argument with new vigor and hope.

The Wave takes the form of a compilation of articles written by a young journalist named Rebecca Price. In the articles, Price uses a series of interviews to investigate the roots of a major paradigm shift that she has dubbed “the wave.” Each article gives us a glimpse into one facet of this change — hospital “storytelling corps,” schools with arts infused into every class, a company that offers personal guides through multi-sensory experiences, and much more. Each of Price’s interviewees has a different opinion about where and when this change started, but all agree the change has been a welcome one. As a reader, I found this version of the argument to be the most effective. Reading about these ideas — some brand new, some existing but marginalized — as already having taken place made them seem so much more possible.

The idea that a major cultural shift is necessary if we are going to address climate change, colonialism, racism, and other “wicked problems” has been gaining in strength in recent years. This is the argument, for example, of Naomi Klein’s widely read book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. I found myself wanting to put both authors in conversation with each other, because while Klein makes clear the need for a cultural shift, Goldbard offers us a path to get there — a path that doesn’t have to start with major environmental or social policy, but rather with each of us looking at the world in a new way, using the artistic and cultural resources we already have at hand.




#DareToImagine: A Call to (Creative) Action

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
— Arundhati Roy

This October, the people-powered US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC)*, in partnership with Cultural Organizing, is launching a nationwide action called #DareToImagine. We are looking for your help.

Real democracy runs on social imagination, our capacity to envision alternatives to what is. Imagination is a muscle—and right now, it needs exercise! Are you ready to step it up? The USDAC is inviting you to sign up as an “Emissary from the Future.”

ImaginationStationFrom October 10-18, 2015, Emissaries from the Future will create Imagination Stations nationwide, popping up in parks, classrooms, galleries, conferences, farmer’s markets and beyond for this large-scale act of collective imagination. Using creative tactics, Emissaries will engage people in envisioning the world they hope to inhabit and—looking back from the future—celebrating the work they did to get there. The resulting texts, images, videos, and more will be uploaded to an online platform, yielding a crowd-sourced vision of the future, inspiring art, policy, and community action.

In these times, exercising social imagination is a radical and necessary act, shifting dominant narratives and affirming that all of us make the future. Too often, we’ve been persuaded to believe our voices don’t count or that the future is determined by a powerful few. But when we have the audacity to dream in public, when we begin to unleash imagination and turn it into action, we can move the world.

As an Emissary, you’ll invite people to imagine the world they wish to live in, then help them connect imagination to action. It’s creative, fun, and effective.

Emissaries receive a free step-by-step toolkit full of creative activities and tips, access to online training and 1-1 assistance, and the opportunity to put their Imagination Station (and all that it yields) on the map, connecting local visions to a national dialogue. You can sign up** to host an Imagination Station as an individual or as a group/organization.

The future belongs to those who #DareToImagine.


*The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture is not an official government agency. It is a people-powered movement dedicated to cultivating empathy, equity, and social imagination.
** The deadline to sign up for this action is September 10, but we encourage you to sign up now so that you have ample time to plan for awesomeness and impact.


What does an act of collective imagination look like?

This past summer, the people-powered non-governmental US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) launched an array of creative “imaginings” across the country. Run by the USDAC’s newly-minted cultural agents, these events brought together artists, organizers, and community members to build shared, creative visions for the future of their neighborhoods. Below is a new video sharing some of the fun!

Remembering Maxine Greene

Today I want to take a moment to toast arts educator, activist, and philosopher Maxine Greene, who passed away last week at the age of 96. For decades, Maxine has been tireless in helping us to understand the transformative potential of arts experiences, whether as a professor at Columbia University; as Philosopher-in-Residence at the Lincoln Center Institute; or as founder of the Maxine Greene Center for Social Imagination, the Arts, and Education. She has left behind numerous books and essays showcasing her inspiring vision of humanization and justice.

Maxine Greene Comic

Cartoon by Jarod Rossello,

Maxine argued that in order to create a more just, humane world we first must develop our poetic and social imaginations. The poetic imagination, according to Greene, is the capacity to see the world through the eyes of another. When we use our poetic imagination we are able not only to appreciate another’s worldview, but also to “enter into that world, to discover how it looks and feels from the vantage point of the person whose world it is.” This empathic practice does not necessarily entail agreeing with another’s perspective. However, it does enable us to “grasp it as a human possibility.”

The social imagination allows us to envision a life different from the one we live, to “look at the world as if it could be otherwise.” It is the human capacity, both creative and moral, to “invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools.” While not inherently geared toward justice, the social imagination makes positive social change possible because a vision of what might be gives us a perspective from which to critique things as they are. As Greene states, “We acknowledge the harshness of situations only when we have in mind another state of affairs in which things would be better…and it may be only then that we are moved to choose to repair or renew.”

This, I think, is the central job of cultural organizing: to enhance our collective poetic and social imaginations. As Jeff Chang tells us, any successful social change effort requires a “collective leap of imagination.” Our charge is to facilitate this leap. And Maxine — through her writing and teaching, through her Foundation and her example — has blazed quite the trail for us. Thank you.

For a great tribute to Maxine, check out this comic by Nick Sousanis
Quotes from:
Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



USDAC Announces its Founding Cultural Agents

Recently, the US Department of Arts and Culture — everybody’s favorite people-powered non-government department — announced its first set of founding cultural agents. As I wrote in a recent post, the USDAC is a grassroots effort to support “universal access to empowering creative experiences that build empathy and social imagination” across the country. Launched at the 2013 Imagining America conference, the USDAC seeks to build a network of artists and cultural workers dedicated to community development and the right of all people to take part in the cultural life of their communities.

static.squarespace.comOn April 26th, the USDAC set up a temporary office at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City to announce its first initiative. After a two month application process, seventeen artists and cultural workers have been named as founding “cultural agents,” including guest blogger Jess Solomon from Art in Praxis! These agents will receive  training and opportunities to network, and then each will develop a local “imagining” — a “vibrant, arts-infused gathering in which a community envisions its ideal future and identifies creative tactics to get there.”

Deputy Secretary Norman Beckett made the announcement, and offered some inspiring words:

The USDAC is meant to live in the world not just as a button or an idea but as a community of practice taking action together to create a more vibrant and equitable society. Today, we are marking a truly historical moment for the fledgling department. A moment of landing, and of take off. A moment in which this act of collective imagination extends from language and ideas to real on-the-ground action.

See the full list of cultural agents, and link to a video of the event, by clicking HERE. This is just the start. If you’d like to get involved, you can sign up as a “citizen artist” and maybe get connected to an imagining in your area.

The Purpose of Schooling: Imagination and Creativity

We need a radical rethinking of the purpose of schooling.

It’s the longest-running debate in US education: What should be the purpose of school? To train a skilled workforce? To sort people and reward the “smartest”? To help individuals reach their goals? To socialize people into “American culture”? To build a foundation for democracy? The answer has long been “all of the above” — although at different times in our history one or another has taken prominence.

It doesn’t take more than a glance at the current presidential race to recognize that these days the economic purpose of school is front and center. Proponents of this perspective argue that improving education will boost the US economy. While this may in fact be an appealing outcome, it is a partial and limited vision of what schooling can and should be. With our rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected society, and so many dire social, political, and environmental issues calling for solutions, we need a more robust and holistic understanding of what schools are for.

I propose the following framework: The purpose of schools should be to develop imagination and creativity.

When I say imagination, I am not talking simply about fantasy or play, though these are important pieces of the puzzle. As Merriam-Webster puts it, imagination is “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” It’s about empathy: imagining how it might feel to be someone else in another body, another situation, another culture. It’s about personal achievement: imagining futures for yourself and how you might reach them. It’s about resilience: imagining what obstacles you might face, and how you might leap them. And it’s about creating change: imagining how your life, your community, or your world might be better.

Importantly, imagination must be built on a foundation of understanding. One cannot imagine how the world might be if one does not understand how the world is. And nothing fuels imagination like learning about parts of the world beyond our everyday experience. This might mean learning about a culture on the other side of the world that works differently than the one we know; or it might mean learning about atoms and quarks, things that we all experience but are too small to see. So developing imagination encompasses traditional learning areas such as history, anthropology, physics, etc. But these topics are taught in the service of developing an historical, social, scientific imagination rather than as separate pieces of information devoid of context.

The related but distinct notion of creativity has long been connected with specific fields such as art, and with individual geniuses. But creativity can take place in any arena, and on many different scales. When I say a school’s purpose is to develop “creativity,” I mean very simply the ability to create. To create a piece of technology from its component parts. To create a theory about the world from pieces of existing theories and your own experiences. To create community. To create new ways of being with one another. And yes — to create art.

Understood in this way, creativity relies on many “basic skills” that we expect our schools to teach. If we want to develop creativity across multiple fields (and we do) students need to be literate in written languages, mathematics, visual languages, computers, health, and more. To focus on creativity is not to put aside these skills for unbounded play time, but to situate these skills in real, creative applications. And it definitely means focusing on the kind of “higher-order thinking” that we say we want from schools, but that are rarely prioritized in public education.

Creativity is often understood as a set of individual skills and dispositions that lead someone to think “out of the box.” As such, it has been increasingly recognized as a “21st century skill” that can help drive innovation (and thus the economy). But I am taking a broader view of creativity not only as an individual characteristic, but as a system. As some theorists have shown, creativity takes place not just within a person but in a larger system that includes colleagues, audiences, the history of the field, and more. So developing creativity is also about developing the ability to understand what has come before you, to connect and collaborate with others, and to see yourself within a larger context.

What this would mean for schools
As I hope I’ve made clear, this framework does not throw out everything that we have been doing in schools. Students still need to learn about science and reading and math. It doesn’t even involve inventing new pedagogies — the tools we need are out there, even if not in the mainstream. But it does call on us to shift our thinking in some fundamental ways.

Perhaps most obviously (particularly for this blog), this framework would mean a much more integral role for the arts in schools. While some outcomes of arts education are hotly contested, most people recognize that they are powerful tools for encouraging imagination and creativity. Art should not be only a separate elective class but a set of practices integrated across disciplines.

This framework also pushes us away from the common view that schools are filling students up with something they are lacking (a deficit view). Instead we see our goal as supporting the growth of something that is already there. After all, we know that all children have the capacity for amazing displays of imagination and creativity. What they need is to have this ability nurtured, supported, and broadened.

This framework also suggests the need for an education that involves making and doing real things. Instead of only learning facts and writing papers, students should be guided through the process of understanding, imagining, and creating. Project-based learning is an excellent example of a pedagogy that takes this seriously, engaging students in projects that draw on multiple skills and disciplines, require collaboration, and address real-world issues.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this kind of focus has the potential to make schools much more fun and engaging for students — no small feat.

Transformative teaching that encourages imagination and creativity is happening right now, though not always in schools. It must necessarily look different across schools based on the context — the particular students, families, communities, and teachers involved. But I argue that this overarching framework could help to realign our thinking towards what is truly important — and perhaps help us, collectively, improve our ability to imagine a better world and begin to work towards it.



This post was inspired by Kay Merseth, who has the students in her school reform course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education all write papers on what the purpose of schooling is — an important and overlooked exercise. Here is my humble attempt. Thanks Professor Merseth.

Placebos: An Argument for Imagination

Emotional Healing by Beth Budesheim:

 “Ultimately we think the placebo is about the power of the imagination, trust, and hope, in the medical encounter.”

– Ted Kaptuchuk, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

It is not often that “imagination” comes up in discussions about medical research, but it may be at the heart of one of the longest-running mysteries in western medicine: the placebo effect.

Placebos have long intrigued me; the idea that pain or illness can be alleviated through “fake” medicines like sugar pills — presumably because the patient believes she has received a real treatment — has fascinating implications for the power of “mind over body.” But at the same time, “placebo” has become a bad word for many in medicine — a symbol of deception that raises images of snake-oil salesman, or an annoying variable in medical research.

But according to Professor Ted Kaptchuk, the placebo effect is much more complex and profound that we have assumed. Kaptchuk, Director of the recently founded Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, was featured this past week on NPR’s Science Friday. He shared the results of a study in which placebos were effective even when the patient knew he was receiving a placebo!

So if a placebo is not about tricking patients, how does it work? Kaptchuk and his colleagues have some answers, and they are surprisingly relevant for cultural organizers. “The placebo,” Kaptchuk argues, “is a way of measuring the effect of…the act of caring for a person.” The placebo effect is about everything besides the medication or formal “treatment” offered.

First of all, Kaptchuk explains, the effect is about the relational interaction between doctor and patient. It is about “the words, the gestures, eye contact, warmth, empathy, compassion.” Healers have long known that relationships are important, and this offers important support for that understanding.

More than that, Kaptchuk says that the placebo effect is about the healing power of symbols: “white coats, diplomas, prescription pads.” And it is about rituals as well, “the ritual procedures of medicine: waiting, talking, disrobing, being examined, then being treated.” I have written a lot about the power of symbol and ritual to unite people, to change the way we think about ourselves, and to reshape our society. This research suggests that they also have the power to directly affect our physical health and well being as well. In a way this is a rediscovery of very old knowledge — healing has long been tied up with ritual, symbol, and religion across many cultures. And it is in line with some new thought about the role of hope in healing and resilience.

There are limits to the placebo effect, and it works better for some kinds of illnesses than others. Sometimes there is no physical healing, but patients experience’s improve, which is often the goal. But if we look at the placebo effect not as a deception or as an annoyance, but as a window into the importance of symbol, ritual, and relationship, we may be surprised at the paths our inquiries take us down. Those of us who wield symbols and rituals as the tools of our trade should take note.