The Death and Life of American Imagination

If imagination is the answer to what ails us, what’s the big problem? We may be at a disadvantage with other countries in math and science, but imagination is practically built into the American character. For the immigrants instrumental in building this nation, from the Pilgrims to the most recent arrivals, leaving the homeland required not just guts, but the ability to envision—to imagine—a better life. So did figuring out how to survive once they arrived here. Combined with a hearty work ethic (another badge of U.S. pride), imagination is what propelled this country into world leadership, what got our man on the moon. The question, it seems, is whether America’s strong suit is inheritable.

“Adult life begins in a child’s imagination,” said Dana Gioia, speaking before the graduating class of Stanford University last June. “And we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.” By that, Gioia, a poet and the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, meant that we’ve pawned off the task of imagination to commercial manufacturers of marketing and entertainment. They feed us an endless stream of stock imagery and flashy distractions—“content” that comes predigested and does little or nothing in the way of encouraging us to form our own mental images, ideas, or stories. With this type of passive consumption, a person’s imagination is no less an overfed and undernourished couch-potato than her body.

Gioia’s speech lamented a “cultural impoverishment” that he said was evident in a widespread lack of interest in the arts and artists—a situation that he blamed on the media’s preoccupation with entertainers and athletes. Indeed, some of Stanford’s graduating class was rather unimpressed with the selection of Gioia as speaker: They didn’t think he was famous enough. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t really show up on TV—or YouTube or MySpace or anywhere that might have given him some credibility or at least name recognition among the graduates. It’s hard for the work of poets—not to mention that of scientists, writers, painters, thinkers—to compete with the continual stream of spectacle produced by the likes of Britney Spears and Michael Vick, in a market where young people spend 44.5 hours each week in front of computer, TV, and video-game screens (and this figure, from 2005 research, is too dated to adequately consider the explosion in cell-phone texting as additional screen time).

Much has been discussed about whether all these hours spent in front of screens are contributing factors in the explosion of ADD, aggression, autism, and obesity in children and teenagers. What I’d like to consider—and there is some compelling research on this—is what kids are not doing during those 44.5 hours of screen time (besides not reading Gioia’s poetry), and how whatever it is they’re not doing might haunt them in adulthood.

“We’re engaged in a huge experiment where we’ve fundamentally changed the experience of childhood,” said Ed Miller. Currently a senior staff member for the Maryland-based Alliance for Childhood, Miller has a long history in education as a professor, policy analyst, and former editor of the Harvard Education Letter. “We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. We’re robbing kids of their birthright: the access to free, unstructured play of their own making.”

Note that Miller didn’t just say “Kids are not playing like they used to.” By “free and unstructured play,” he means activity that is unencumbered by adult direction, and does not depend on manufactured items or rules imposed by someone other than the kids themselves. He is referring to the kind of play that is not dependent on meddling or praise or validation from well-meaning parents on the sidelines. In fact, free and unstructured play is so encompassing for children that the entire adult world evaporates; children lose themselves in their own world completely. Most anyone who’s ever jolted a child out of this state with a call for lunch or bedtime would attest that the child’s reaction is akin to being awakened from a dream.






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