Nel Noddings, in her keynote address at the 2004 IERG International Conference (“Imagining the Worst”), made the following point:

“Moral educators have considered the role of imagination in developing character. For the most part, however, they concentrate on the capacity of stories to inspire people to sympathize with victims and imagine the best in themselves. I will argue that we need to imagine ourselves not only as victim but, more powerfully, as perpetrator. Under what circumstances do the ‘good guys’ become violent and commit acts of cruelty and nastiness? How might educating the ‘shadow side’ contribute to more generous human relations and world peace?”

“The best example is seen in the recent events in Iraq [2003]…  The young people who committed the horrible crimes against prisoners in Iraq would probably have been reasonably good citizens if they had not been exposed to the pressures of war and the unexpected role of prison guards. We should teach high school students the lessons we have learned from every war. The least we can do for our kids is to inform them that the loss of moral identity is a possibility every bit as likely as the loss of life or limb.”

Similarly, Mary Warnock in her An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics (Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 2004) reminisces her thought when the news of the Holocaust broke out in England in the early 1940s:

“But the horrors of the Holocaust became generally known at this time, and I reflect for the first time that humans have a great deal in common: I could not be sure that I did not have instincts as detestable as those of the Nazis, nor that I would have had the clarity of vision or the strength of character to resist these instincts, had I been a German at the time.”

So, here is the question: Imagination is a powerful tool for thinking, feeling, and learning, but it is a tool that can be used either for the good or for the bad. I sometimes wonder whether we, as researchers/teachers, think only or primarily of the positive aspects and uses of imagination, without much regard to the negative ones.

Do we need to turn our students’ eyes to negative, or even evil, aspects and uses of imagination? And if so, how?

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4 replies
  1. Michael Datura
    Michael Datura says:

    Great question. Yes, definitely. I think it goes to the heart of redefining or expanding the notion of imagination in a Vygotskyian sense. That is, if paint brushes and profound artistic inspirations, as well as bunsen burners and scientific discoveries, are all crystallizations of imagination—so are gas chambers and asbestos and imperial narratives. Putting imagination front and centre in Imaginative Education is often read, with some justification, as a means of “engaging” students in learning activities that incorporate bodily movement, or a novel change of context, or some other kind of “fun” experience. Which is vital—particularly in the younger years. But it should also, or more accurately, be read as forging a connexion with the emotional reonance of the topic at hand. This leads to some fairly tricky pedagogical and ethical concerns when it comes to educating about, for example, the Shoah, or residential schools (currently a topic in Grade 4 in the BC Curriculum), or the realities of an unchecked climate catastrophe. I do not have any “evidence-based” advice per se with how to deal with such weighty topics, other than it cannot be in the absence of emotional engagement. I have witnessed too many “residential school” lessons conveyed in either emotionally distanced, analytic terms or oversimplified platitudes: “residential schools were bad.” Indeed—but the question is: how do we “honour” the victims of historical atrocities by not simply turning away or glossing over? I suspect the answer has to do with story and the cultivation of a emotionally resonant and safe “space” in the classroom and beyond. I have witnessed the creation of such spaces with “sex education” where special facilitators are brought in to state the facts and read a related story, parents and community members are invited to join (or students are allowed to “opt out”), and counseling and emotional support are offered at the end. Perhaps this is a model that ought to be used to thoughtfully and collectively address some of the other courageous conversations that need to happen?

  2. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks for the comment, Michael.

    That’s a great point; emotionally engaging the students, and yet, at the same time, providing a safe space to explore and emotional support.

    Similar to the residential school, we in Japan have the issues of atrocities committed by the Japanese government and military during the Second World War. We have come to include these topics over the years, but it is, in my view, still in a way that avoids emotionally involving students; general information is imparted, but no real inquiries.

  3. Kim Hudson
    Kim Hudson says:

    This is such a thought provoking article! I suddenly realize it is so important to distinguish between our fear of bad behaviour and all the rules and consequences that shape people’s behaviour. That is one aspect. From a completely different frame of mind we need to be authentic, and explore our feelings with a level of self-compassion, all our feelings, if we want to grow into our best selves. One is about doing and the other is about feeling.

    And beyond self-compassion we need educators that create the environment where compassion for people who think or feel differently is crucial. We all need to use our imaginations to understand how those feelings might make sense to a person. Keep going deeper until even a racist act, for example, can be understood. Only then can the driving force be healed and real transformation take place.

    Imagine if classrooms were places where we learned to relate to ourselves and others on this level. We’d be sending people into the world equipped to grow and be resilient. A great companion to standing on the shoulders of accumulated knowledge.

  4. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks Kim,

    I think that the issue of imagining the evil or even the worst is another instance of going beyond the good/evil and we/them dichotomies. And in order to think of the possibilities that we, or I, or say my grandpa who is so nice and gentle, could be evil, could do something atrocious, or what seems to be evil could be seen otherwise, etc., I think scientific attitude, the desire to know what really is the case, and the willingness and flexibility not to be satisfied with a given information and interpretation, is also important. As you say, keep going deeper so that even the mind of a racist can be understood is so crucial in today’s divisive world.

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