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January 5, 2015

From Imagination to Truth

By Michelle Valois

At a recent event at my community college, students shared projects that were the result of an interdisciplinary study of Henry David Thoreau. One first-year student read an essay that compared “The Ponds” from Walden to E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” Eloquent and insightful, the essay describes Thoreau as having “a healthy mixture of the analytical and creative.”

I looked around the room at colleagues—faculty, staff, and deans—with whom I have sat in long meetings for the past year trying to develop a new set of learning outcomes. What did we hope that students at our college would be able to do and know upon graduation? Seems to me, I thought, that this student was able to convey the heart of the matter—in eight words—everything our long-winded conversations and multiple-page presentations could not.

Still, it would be absurd to bring eight words to our state’s Board of Higher Education, even if we want to keep our outcomes succinct. We finally came up with: Students will, upon graduating, be able to analyze, communicate, research, engage, and create.

Too simple? Not to worry. Many pages have gone into explaining, describing, articulating, defending, decrying, defying, and artifactizing these five outcomes, especially the last—the nearly overlooked, the most controversial of them all: create.

In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes that humans are “meaning-seeking creatures.” That idea is central to any discussion of the importance of creativity, at any level of education. A key component of Armstrong’s philosophy is that humans are capable of both logical thinking and what she calls mythical thinking. Later in her book, Armstrong writes that “Western modernity was the child of logos” and explains that since the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution, Western cultures have placed logical thinking over mythical thinking, relegating the latter to a minor role in meaning-making.

Armstrong argues that this prioritizing of reason over faith, head over heart, has been the cause of much modern malaise, anxiety, and unrest. But why? Surely mythical thinking must be false thinking because a myth, after all, is not true. Didn’t the likes of Newton, Galileo, and Darwin persuade us to stop relying on myths to explain the world?

A work of the imagination is inherently an untruth, yet it is one that reveals a truth. A painting, a poem, or a dance is trying to express something important about the human condition, a truth that is revealed through intuition and feeling. The creator engages in logical and analytical thinking, too, but the act of creation is fueled by our capacity to intuit knowledge and beauty, to imagine what is not and never has been through a faculty different from reason. The receiver of the work can analyze it—a logical endeavor. But art also engages the viewer/reader/listener in the act of making meaning, finding relevance—not only through analysis but by connecting emotionally with the meaning that the work helps us to make.

Hannah Arendt writes in The Life of the Mind: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

Last year, my daughter and I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, a novel that reveals profound truths about human nature. But it’s all a lie. It never happened. How could it? The story is narrated by none other than Death himself. It’s like a myth: untruthful while revealing truth. For me, that truth has to do with ordinary people’s capacity for heroism, cowardice, and naïveté in the face of great evil and injustice. My daughter saw something else. She’s 13. She focused on the relationship between the protagonist Liesel and her best friend, Rudy. The novel allowed us each to make our own meaning.

What makes art different from science is that the scientific method relies on proof and evidence. Scientists and philosophers pursue knowledge to gain truth, to understand the truth of how things work and why they work as they do. While those pursuits do make meaning, they prioritize truth over meaning. A work of the imagination, while revealing truth, prioritizes meaning over truth.

In measuring and quantifying student learning, I fear that an outcome such as “create” will be co-opted by things like “creative problem solving” and “creative thinking,” both pieces of the same puzzle, but only small pieces. And those skills are so similar to analysis that to emphasize them too much is to shift focus away from what creation can do for students that analysis cannot.

Nurses, for example, use creative problem solving every day, and the training of nurses must emphasize that skill. But creativity encompasses much more because the problems that are often solved in creative problem solving—the thinking that is creative in the context of most disciplines outside the humanities—have a “right” or “best” answer. We want our students to be fluent in this skill, but don’t we also want them to engage in making meaning beyond solving problems?

Four years ago, I was on a semester-long medical leave to undergo a brutal treatment for a highly treatable cancer. The fact that I would recover was only small comfort during the worst of my treatment, in which I lost the ability to talk, swallow, drink, and eat. During that time, I received cards and emails, books and flowers, all welcome and precious. But the most profound gift I received came from my college’s nurse.

I had asked her in an email if I would heal, if my body would heal itself. I would heal, right? I was desperate for confirmation, and I thought that I wanted to hear something about cell reproduction and how many weeks or months it would take for the lining of my mouth to repair itself after radiation.

She sent me a poem by the 13th-century mystic Rumi, “The Guest House”: “This being human is a guest house,” the translation by Coleman Barks begins. “Every morning a new arrival.”

A metaphor is, by its very nature, a lie. Sometimes it’s a simple lie; sometimes not. I am not a house. But during my illness, the image of myself as a guest house was a lie that told a truth I needed to hear, a lie that helped me to endure pain and suffering by telling me that along with suffering, the house that I was would also be visited by other guests. The poem instructed me to “welcome and entertain them all! / Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows / who violently sweep [my] house, / empty of its furniture.”

Radiation and chemotherapy did not just sweep me clean; they stole much that spring. The biggest loss was connection with my children. Since I could not speak, and my youngest boys—4-year-old twins—could not yet read, we had a difficult time communicating. The poem, though, insisted that I “treat each guest honorably. / He may be clearing [me] out / for some new delight.”

The nurse had prescribed just the right medicine, but it didn’t come in a bottle or require a prescription. The healing offered was a lie, but it held in its invention a profound wisdom that my radiologist could not administer. Would the poem have shrunk my tumor? No. Did I not want a treatment plan guided by the latest in modern medicine, the result of careful study and years of research? Of course. I’ve heard it said that the arts and humanities are “nice to have” but not “need to have.” Four years ago, I needed a doctor who could treat my cancer with the most effective medical protocol available, but I also needed someone who understood the emotional aspects of healing.

Nurses and secretaries, computer programmers and auto mechanics, clerks and case workers, managers and accountants, dental hygienists and police officers are more than just highly trained practitioners of skills learned at the community colleges that produce our work force. They are human beings who are as befuddled and pained and lost and lovely and generous and confused as the rest of us—those of us who, as students, because of family wealth or an innate doggedness, were shown the gifts that are given through encounters with our own creativity and with the creative spirit of humans throughout time.

In early December, my students and I discussed the Langston Hughes poem “Night Funeral in Harlem,” published nearly 70 years ago, which I had put on the syllabus in August: “Who preached that / Black boy to his grave? … The street light / At his corner / Shined just like a tear— / That boy that they was mournin’ / Was so dear, so dear / To them folks that brought the flowers, / To that girl who paid the preacher man— / It was all their tears that made / That poor boy’s / Funeral grand.”

On that day, in college classrooms across America, my colleagues in criminal justice might have been discussing with their students police-community relations and the line between enforcement and brutality. A class in the paralegal program might be focusing attention on the recent Supreme Court rulings. A sociology class could be studying institutionalized racism; and a U.S. history class might be connecting our country’s history of lynching to the events in Ferguson and Staten Island.

But in my class, we look at poetry and art as ways to understand the world. To imagine another’s grief, to find meaning in the incomprehensible, to ask unanswerable questions, to learn about how people have coped with what Armstrong calls “the problematic human predicament”—these are not only valuable but necessary. The why and how of meaning-making have changed very little over time. No one would choose a treatment for a life-threatening illness that was used in 1949, but a poem published in 1949 might very well be the medicine to, if not heal us, then at least help us cope, nurture in ourselves and others compassion and tolerance, and, finally, offer some hope for our troubled world.

That freshman saw something profoundly relevant about Thoreau, whose observations of the flora and fauna around Concord and records of the water temperatures of Walden Pond have proved invaluable to climate scientists today. Thoreau was a citizen-scientist as well as a poet. His ideas, metaphors, and descriptions of the natural world, his call to live deliberately and simply and to stand up to injustice are hard to measure and quantify—but they continue to inspire us, to help us make meaning and to cope.

A healthy mixture of the analytical and creative. We need both.

Michelle Valois is a professor of English and chair of liberal arts and sciences and general studies at Mount Wachusett Community College.