The Death and Life of American Imagination

“A willingness to explore, a love of adventure, of finding a new path—all that was part of the experience of children’s play for all of history right up ‘til the last fifteen years or so,” said Ed Miller of the Alliance for Childhood. Adults who emerge from modern childhoods lacking those qualities may also lack the skills most essential to flourish in the “imagination economy” of the future. But there are other, even greater risks, Miller says. “I think there will be serious implications for the future of the environment and of democracy,” he said. He points to problem-solving around global climate change as an example. “We need to take strong collective action, but there isn’t enough collective imagination for people to truly picture the consequences in a vivid enough way to do something about it.”

Part of the lack of action around climate change might stem from the difficulties, in a culture largely shielded from most violent effects of weather, in imagining such far-reaching consequences. However, that general sort of inertia around a pressing issue—the inertia that Miller believes stems from an atrophied imagination—plays out in other arenas as well.

“If free play is essential for kids to become free agents with autonomy, who know they deserve a voice in public decision making, then we may be in serious trouble,” he said, pointing to “a new kind of tyranny where people are more and more willing to let authorities make decisions for them.” The public reaction—or lack thereof—to government wire-tapping and surveillance are, he believes, early warning signs of this increasing apathy and compliance. “People are willing to let the government spy on them and monitor their calls and emails because they can’t think of any other way to stay safe. Fundamental issues of privacy and individual rights are really changing. Maybe that’s inevitable. But I hope not.”

Human nature seems almost to require that every generation bemoan the attitudes and prospects of younger generations. Even so, to think that the relentless pace of change in the last century will not have serious effects is naïve.

It’s not news that the United States is losing ground as a leader in the global economy. How is that linked to the imaginative powers of its citizens? One way to look at it is through patents: A decade ago, American companies and engineers were granted ten thousand more U.S. patents than foreign entities, but that lead has now dwindled to four thousand. In 2004, only four American companies ranked among the top ten recipients of patents granted by the patent office. And despite the aforementioned “single-minded focus on science, technology, engineering, and math” in American education, less than a year ago a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine stated that “scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gaining strength.” Intel cofounder Andy Grove quoted in Newsweek, was more blunt, saying that America is going “down the tubes, and the worst part is nobody knows it.”

Civic participation is another barometer of the health of the American imagination. Four years on, the Iraq war has become as unpopular with the public as the Vietnam war was in 1968, yet where are the protestors? Analysts say Americans aren’t marching because the alternative to war is not clear—and because, with no military draft, people are largely unaffected by the conflict they oppose. “The Iraq war, as bad as it is, touches a far smaller percentage of the population than Vietnam did,” said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, quoted in the Agence France-Presse. “That does dramatically reduce the self-interest that people have in opposing the war,” he observed.

Factor in as well an attention-getting new study that reveals a generation of highly narcissistic college students, a trait that does not tend to foster that alchemical mix of vision, will, discipline, and action necessary to solve pressing societal problems. In 2006, two-thirds of students had above-average scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a thirty-percent increase over 1982. One of the researchers pointed to online phenomena like MySpace and YouTube, saying that both encourage attention-seeking and navel-gazing. This kind of self-involvement may also help explain why adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are now the least likely to turn up at the ballot box.

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